HONG KONG – Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. deserves praise as a remarkable radical thinker and businessman who made path-breaking innovations to transform modern life, from the Mac computer to the smart — both in looks and in performance — iPhone, iPod and iPad. But I would like to raise some deliberately jarring questions: Is the answer to the American jobs crisis to clone Steve Jobs? More pointedly, how many Steve Jobs could it take to break America’s gloomy economic predicament?
The proof of Jobs’ life and contribution to business, technology and the economy is the work he left behind, as well as in the millions from Cupertino headquarters in California to China who mourned him with praise, candles, apples and demands that he be canonized as patron saint of the Internet. He was in many ways the epitome of the American dream. He was given up for adoption at birth: his biological father was a Syrian, Abdulfattah Jandali, making Jobs half-Arab.
Jobs showed an early interest in computers and dropped out of college before co-founding Apple. It might be a worrying thought for the United States that Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates dropped out of university, as did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg more recently. Yet part of mainstream America’s unemployment problem is that too many people drop out of high school and college, and do not have sufficient qualifications to compete in a modern economy. Does America comprehend the difference between a genius who drops out because he or she cannot tolerate the stresses and stupidity of the system and those who quit because they cannot read or write?
At Apple, Jobs showed an inventive thrust. Ousted from the company because he did not fit in, his genius was lent to NeXT and Pixar, and productions such as “Toy Story.” When he returned to Apple, it seemed destined for oblivion. But at a salary of $1 a year plus stock options, he turned Apple round. His comments in 1996 when Apple obituary notices were widely being prepared are worth remembering by MBA bean-counters or Republicans in congress: “The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting; the cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.” He did; it did.
The whole world rushed to praise him, including rival Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, U.S. President Barack Obama and the new kid on the block, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement observed silence in Job’s memory, even though he is among the 1 percent of Americans who own 40 percent of its wealth.
The Onion satirical newspaper eulogized him pointedly: “Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the f*** he was doing, died …” The Onion claimed that Obama had paid tribute to Jobs that: “This is a dark time for our country, because the reality is that none of the 300 million or so Americans who remain can actually get anything done or make things happen.”
The best and most succinct tribute was from Barry Ritholtz in his Big Picture blog, which read, in entirety: “AAPL is its own asset class but it’s more than that. It is its own economy, its own ecosystem, its own government. Apple’s success is not due to the whims of central planning politicians and bankers everywhere but because it did something very simple, it made amazing products that people wanted at a price they can afford. So, when we hear that government officials need to do something to jump-start the economy, things that usually inhibit, discourage and misallocate resources, think of Steve Jobs and realize they need to do nothing because it’s the private sector’s job to run the economy and we have a great history that it works extraordinarily and insanely well.”
One of the biggest tributes was the market value of the Apple that Jobs left behind, $350 billion, just short of Exxon-Mobil’s $358 billion, a reminder that however widely Apple products are enjoyed, they do not come cheaply; Jobs was in business, not philanthropy. Apple’s iPhone accounts for about 16 percent of global smartphone production, second to Google’s Android device, but makes a whopping 66 percent of the profits of all smartphones.
Yet Jobs was controversial. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, is critical of both Apple and, more pointedly, of Facebook for creating what he called “walled gardens,” systems that are bricked off and prevent the “openness that is fundamental to the Internet.” Berners-Lee’s complaint is that by encouraging the use of apps rather than websites, Apple has damaged the open web; by enclosing materials in iTunes central, Apple creates a monopoly.
Steve Jobs did not fit the modern business mold in another critical way: He was not merely unique, but somewhere between difficult and impossible to deal with. At any modern corporation worth its reputation he would have lasted mere days before falling foul of some aspect of political incorrectness.
Jobs had a well-earned reputation as a temperamental and erratic manager. John Naughton put it politely in The Guardian, writing that Jobs was “an obsessive, authoritarian, visionary genius.” Philip Delves Broughton, who spent time inside the core of Apple headquarters in 2009, noted that Jobs was an aggressive outsourcer of jobs to China — something that helped 64 percent profit margins on the iPhone. His legal department was fierce in fighting patent battles and his rages were legendary: “Behaviors which in another man might have been called delusional, obsessive or tyrannical were in Jobs seen as evidence of high standards and great leadership.”
Who else would tolerate Jobs’ behavior? But he delivered, on $1 a year and without demanding a multimillion dollar package as the price of failure as so many financial executives have done. Perhaps, at the very least, it is time for the U.S. and the West to consider the price of political correctness.
Kevin Rafferty was managing editor at the World Bank from 1997-1979.
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