If you want to know the secret of Steve Jobs, recall his advice to inventor Dean Kamen upon seeing the original version of the Segway scooter: "I think it sucks," he said. "Its shape is not innovative, it's not elegant, it doesn't feel anthropomorphic . . . There are design firms out there that could come up with things we've never thought of, things that would make you s*** in your pants."
At the end of the day, hardware is just a bunch of cold transistors and software code is just a bunch of bits to control them. But clever code can change the world and make us productive in ways we never imagined. Yet even that's not enough. As Hewlett-Packard and Nokia painfully know, everyone eventually has access to the same transistors, the same memory and displays and processors. All you can hope for is maybe a 12-18 month lead. Steve Jobs's magic was to marry clever code with a fanatical devotion to aesthetics, rare in the tech world. It worked, in spades. Now we pay huge premiums for Apple products made up of commonly available components.
That's right, we shell out $600 for $200 worth of sand. And here's the neat parlor trick. We actually feel good about it! In techland, there's no rest for the weary, better processors and storage and networks are daily creations. Mr. Jobs looked over the horizon and figured out not only what's next, but how to shape it into devices that all at once stirred a cognitive soup of psychology, behavior science, philosophy and for many, a spiritual awakening—an iPhone as a cortexial extension of ourselves. Weird, but true.
How did he pull this off? By figuring out whathe wanted and controlling the whole process until he got it. Very few buttons, like Mr. Jobs's clothing. But more importantly, don't just touch your computer, feel it. Let the graphics and icons simplify life's complexities. Let your fingers flow over the glass instead of peck at it. Speak to it. Use your body and motion to sway your computer until it moves you. Until you are one. OK, I got a little carried away, but admit it, it's hard to unplug.
But of course, Mr. Jobs isn't selling just fashion. He's selling form and function, a platform for us to conduct our business and personal lives on, removing an expensive layer of magazine designers (Mac), disk jockeys (iPod), secretaries and postal workers (iPhone) and cable guys (iPad). Mr. Jobs and his legion of 50,000 coders and designers became the most valuable company in the world.
And his control drove Apple's business model. No screws to open up his devices. Those (patent protected) high margins from aesthetics allow Apple to break a lot of rules. Both the personal-computer industry and the Internet evolved as horizontal industries, layers of companies, each with a sliver of expertise (operating systems, processors, computers), that upended slow moving and formerly ridiculously profitable giants IBM and AT&T. Steve Jobs went horizontal just owning the online delivery layer to transform the music industry. He's trying to do it again to book publishing and TVs and games, and movies.
About my only criticism of Steve Jobs is that Apple itself is quite vertical. You want to run an app on his iPhone, you play by his rules and pay him 30% of the action. And then there's those Apple stores, with their goofy T-shirt clad "geniuses," each resonating a Jobsian smugness. But darn it, they do know what they are doing and always end up helping. Also, by being tightly controlled and vertical, Apple has solved a major problem in the computer industry: customer support. Another brilliant move. So far, being vertical has been a virtue. Mr. Jobs leaves Apple hugely profitable and shareholders thrilled.
Is Steve Jobs irreplaceable? No. Apple fans will eventually move on to something else. It would have happened if he stayed. Twenty-somethings come along and invent entire new platforms like Facebook that change the world in different ways, learning the lessons from Steve Jobs and adding their own twists. The world catches up.
Aesthetics only gets you so far. At some point, maybe even the vertical control structure starts to unwind. It always does, as high margins are a super-conducting magnet for well-funded competition. Heck, Google just shelled out $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility to go a little vertical themselves to compete.
New Apple CEO Tim Cook has his work cut out continuing the Jobs legacy, refreshing Apple products at the same torrid pace, creating new category-creating devices, fighting off copycats, and keeping the stock price going up while at the same time figuring out which parts of the Jobs model to dismantle. Meanwhile, we all are a little better off because of Steve Jobs. I hope he applies his energy to other world- (and pants-) changing things.