In finally losing a brave battle with cancer Steve Jobs has been the subject of an outpouring of grief not unlike that seen when Princess Diana passed away. He has been eulogised exhaustively and the Apple faithful have lit candles and laid flowers at the foot of many a retail store. Most of the copy written about Steve Jobs since his death has been extremely positive with many hailing him as one of the world's great communicators but much of this commentary is hubris and more an acknowledgement of his undoubted success than a realistic appraisal of his legacy as a communicator.
He certainly left behind a dominant Apple, fulfilling his original promise to save the company from the brink when he returned in 1997. It has enormous strength in both music sales and mobile devices, and more power than at any time in its history. It has come a long way since its early days as a maverick company with pirate boxes and open schematics
But that success was built on almost machiavellian communication techniques. Apple may have been created on principals like freedom and openness but Steve Jobs didn't practice them. He was intensely private, defensive and litigious. If you are an Apple user then your experience under the reign of Jobs became less free, more locked down and more tightly regulated as the years went by. All of Apple’s iDevices — the iPod, iPhone and iPad — are shrouded in secrecy and are designed to stop users having access to their workings. Faced with criticism such as that over the effectiveness or otherwise of their iPhone 4 antennae, the standard Apple response was to deny, obsfucate and obstruct. Much of Apples growth is attributable to its brilliant design but it is also attributable to its ruthlessness in driving down costs by outsourcing manufacturing to China with factory conditions that see its workers commit suicide on a regular basis. Jobs was often hailed for his ability to reinvest profits back into the company but this also ignored that one reason this happened was that Steve made a point of banning any form of philanthropy. You look at what Apple has become and how it got there and you have to ask: Is there any tech company today that looks more like the Big Brother from Apple’s legendary 1984 commercial than Apple itself? In my opinion, Apple and Jobs are more evolutionary than revolutionary.
There is an oft repeated anecdote about Jobs that kind of sums it up - the CEO, in search of a space in the company's crowded parking lot, regularly left his Mercedes in a handicapped space, sometimes taking up two spaces. The pattern became so noticeable that employees put notes on his windshield that read, Park Different. The message was obvious - standard rules didn't apply to Steve. The rhetoric just didn't match the reality.
We can admire the design perfection and business acumen Steve Jobs possessed but I'm not so sure that, ultimately, there is all that great a legacy here. With all of Apple’s immense resources at his command if Steve Jobs had been truly committed to "thinking differently" who knows what he could have achieved. As it was, beyond some cool products he, and his company, ended up looking pretty much like everyone else in the corporate world. Perhaps he didn't have time. Perhaps he was taken too soon. I hope so, otherwise a great man who demonstrated enormous genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world fell desperately short of his true potential.