Considering I’m closer to an anti-Apple guy than an Apple booster, Steve Jobs death yesterday hit me harder than I expected.
I’m most definitely a PC guy. My phone runs Android. I was pulling for the HP Touchpad for more reasons than because I work for HP. I have bought (and still own) exactly one Apple product: a 10 year old 32 GB, 3rd gen, hard-drive based iPod (one of the early video editions). I’ve never bought anything from iTunes. I don’t like Apple’s closed architecture model. The fact that they’ve never released an “i” product with a flash slot really gets under my skin (BTW, one of the HUGE, HUGE, HUGE mistakes of the Touchpad: they followed Apple’s lead in this regard).
I bring this up not to spit on the grave of Steve Jobs, but to make it clear I’ve got no special love for his company nor the products his company has made. But here’s what I do know…
Steve Jobs was a visionary who believed in some core principles that have propelled the electronics industry to greatness. He believed that regular people deserve access to the same great technology that techies used. He believed that research and development were cornerstones of a great technology company, not just slapping together components from other companies. He believed that the key to success was making great products that people wanted to buy.
Whether or not you liked his particular products is not really relevant. How he pushed the industry forward affected the products I bought as well. The PC and Windows wouldn’t be what it is today without Steve Jobs. There wouldn’t be Android as it exists today without Steve Jobs. Even when he wasn’t the innovator, he embraced the great innovations and built upon them. He wasn’t the first on the frontier of the Internet, but his more recent products embraced it and took it to a new level. Frankly, the world owes him a debt of gratitude. There will be a big hole in Apple now that will be nearly impossible to fill.
I know all too well the hole a founding father of a company can leave. I joined HP during its last few years before it abandoned its founding principles. What occurred to me was that when I joined the company, Bill and Dave hadn’t bee actively involved in at least a decade. So what was it that changed a few years after I joined? At which point I came to this fact: On January 12th, 2001 William Hewlett died, the last of the two founders. Carly had already been CEO for over a year but she couldn’t shake the presence of the founders. Even though it was never stated, it’s plainly obvious to me that the moves she made after his death (she initiated the Compaq merger about a year later) reflected a CEO freed from the restraint and wisdom of the founder.
So while most people point to the moment a founding CEO steps down as the key moment, it was in a moment of clarity today that it occurred to me that a founder’s impact and influence will stay with the company long after that. It’s not really until their death that the ship loses its anchor.
To use another example, Microsoft will be responsible to Bill Gates as long as he’s alive, even though he hasn’t been CEO for a long time. Similarly HP was still the company that embodied The HP Way when I joined in the late 90’s. It wasn’t until William Hewlett died that HP lost its compass.
For a technology company that is embodied by its founder’s greatness, it’s a bit like the impact one’s parents have. We worry about what our parents will think as long as they’re alive, and that affects our decisions in ways we couldn’t possibly detangle from what we truly want. They have a presence that can’t be ignored. We will be judged by them and our decisions reflect that reality down to our subconscious. But when our parents finally die, that awareness, that concern, leaves us. We now are unleashed from that concern and we operate more freely in ways we couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
In the case of one’s parents, sometimes that freedom is exactly what we need and can lead to much better things. Some people even manage to escape from this impact before a parent’s physical death, often trying to get away from some destructive influence.
But with a great founder, as with a great parent, it will not be escaped until they die. Similarly, what is “escaped” is really something lost, something that in rare instances can be substituted, but can never be matched.
So today I mourn for Steve Jobs. I mourn for the HP that was lost when William Hewlett died. I mourn for the loss of Dave Packard, a man who’s philosophy for business was unparalleled. I mourn for myself, for what I’ve lost now working for a company that has lost the soul of its founders. It’s a company I consciously decided to work for, turning down more lucrative offers, offers for jobs closer to the technologies I wanted to develop. I mourn for all those who work for Apple, from it’s CEO down to the janitor who have lost the compass that Steve Jobs gave them, that for some mystical reason, can not survive death. I feel I have an insight to what was lost for them, even more so than they can now yet realize, but which will be more clear in the years to come. Finally, I mourn for the entire technology industry that has lost that challenging influence that made it strive to compete with the innovations with Apple.
Rest in peace, Steve Jobs.