Steve Jobs and the Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory is a view that was popularized in the 19th century.  It says that history is the result of a limited number of spectacular individuals who, by reason of charisma, wisdom, inteligence, or zeal, remade the world.   One of its key proponents, Thomas Charlyle, wrote:

The history of the world is but the biography of great men

By comparison sociologist-historians like Herbert Spencer said:

 The genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

Or to put it another way, was the seed of the Second World War planted in the Treaty of Versaille or would it have never happened if a particular soldier at the time had not risen to ultimate power in Germany?

Much of the news writing on the passing of Steve Jobs has been heavily steeped in the Great Man Theory of the history of  man.  Some of the coverage seems to imply that had it not been for Steve Jobs, computing today might resemble this scene from the 1985 movie Brazil.

Of course, Steve Jobs (and Apple itself) never hesitated to contribute to the mythos regarding its founder, often speaking of how he and his company were changing the world.  In an early passage in his often quoted 2005 Stanford commencement address. Steve Jobs said:

Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.  None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts, and since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

It’s an inspirational story, definitly steeped in the view of Steve as key player in the Great Man Theory view of the history of computers.   Unfortunately the conclusion is bunk.  I am not disputing that Steve Jobs took the caligraphy class, loved typography, and made it a must-include feature on the Lisa and Mac computers.  But that computers in 2005 would not have attractive proportional fonts were it not for him?  Bogus.

Xerox Star Screen

Xerox Star, with GUI, Fonts, and Graphics

In 1979 Apple traded one million dollars in pre-IPO stock for the chance to visit Xerox PARC and be able to use some of their inventions.  Some time earlier Xerox had figured out how to marry a laser beam to their photocopiers to create the laser printer and had the Impress page description language to command the laser printer to create images, including multiple proportionally spaced fonts.  They had also created a computer called the Alto that could create documents for the laser printer that included the ability to see and work with documents on the screen the way they would be produced by the laser printer, including embedded graphics and proportionately spaced fonts.  PARC had also developed a means of working  on those documents on the Alto using a device that they had invented called the mouse and a screen presentation that worked with icons, windows, and drop down menus.  In other words all the core components of the Graphical User Interface.

Apple did not invent the Graphical User Interface (“GUI”).  Neither did they ‘steal’ it as others have said.  They bought it fair and square from Xerox.  As did Microsoft and several other companies.  The Alto was the launching point for quite a number of computers, not simply the Mac and Microsoft Windows, but also Sun Microsystems and Apollo Computer among others.  So in the absence of Apple there were many other routes through which the GUI, along with those proportionally spaced fonts, would be a staple of computers in 2005.

But what about the whole existence of personal computers which some of the tributes would seem to credit to Steve Jobs?  Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak decided to create Apple Computer while members of the Homebrew Computer Club.  The club was founded upon the arrival in Silicon Valley of the first Altair 8800 computer kit and its principal purpose was to help people build their own Altair 8800.  In addition to Jobs and Wozniak, the members included Adam Osborne, George Morrow, and Lee Felenstien.  If those other names are not familiar to you, they share this in common:  They all started their own, briefly successful, personal computer companies that fell to competition from others including Apple.  Without Apple, the personal computer landscape would be different, perhaps lacking a certain panache, but there were many other runners at the start of that race, some of them even in the same room.  There absolutely would be personal computers in the home today without Apple.

So where does one sort out between the Great Man and the Megatrend?  There are some cases where people bring a combination of factors so unique that they could not have been done by anybody else.  And there are examples of that with Steve Jobs.

After being forced out from Apple, Steve Jobs bought the animation computer business of Lucasfilm and renamed it Pixar (note that in another piece of Great Man Theory building, Jobs’ Stanford speech implies that he started Pixar from scratch).  Steve Jobs’ initial plan was for Pixar to sell the specialized computers to other animation studios.  It was never profitable but they had a great demonstration reel of the kind of animation they could produce.  They could give personality to a desk lamp.  Pixar decided not to sell the computers, but to use them to make films for others, initially Disney, to distribute.  In a bit of irony, Disney made the deal because their own animation unit was struggling to live up to the Great Man Theory history of their own charismatic founder.

With the success of Toy Story, Pixar became the hottest property in Hollywood.  And with each subsequent hit their reputation as a can’t miss filmmaker expanded.  When Disney bought Pixar at a premium in order to prevent the possibility of their ever making films for anybody else, it made Jobs the single largest shareholder of Disney stock and a member of the board of directors.  It made him an entertainment industry power player of the first magnitude.

The combination of the head of a major technology company and the largest shareholder of a global entertainment company is truly unique.  There really could be only one person with that combination.  And from there came developments that fairly can be said wouldn’t have happened without him.

How does that connect?  There were plenty of other digital music players when the iPod was first released, but none of them could be easily filled with legal music.  At the time the music publishers regarded digital downloads to be an enemy to be battled and not their next big business model.  It took a technology manufacturer who could negotiate with the record companies as one of their own to get the license deals that made iTunes possible and made the iPod a hit.  Later when the iPod line added video and it was necessary to add movies and television shows to iTunes, ABC and Disney were hardly in a position to say no to the deal.  The tremendous success of the iPod was then leveraged to be the standout feature of the original iPhone, which in turn launched the iPad.  This is perhaps the better example that Steve Jobs should have used of trusting that the dots will eventually connect.

Even in the last few months, Amazon and Google wanted to negotiate a streaming license as part of their cloud services, but were turned down by the music companies.  Yet those same music companies agreed to just that sort of deal to make iCloud Music Match a reality.  Steve Jobs knew what had to be done to make that deal because he was an industry insider.  That is going to be the hardest thing for Apple to replace now that Steve Jobs is gone.

Steve Jobs deserves to be regarded as one of the great figures in the history of technology, however those very same larger-than-life qualities is exactly why it is easy to both overestimate and underestimate his role.

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