Like most photographers I’m one of the reasons for Apple’s ability to buy the entire US and still have enough money left over for a sandwich and three other countries. So it’s only natural to have a thought or two about the man who brought us all the shiny appliances some of them seemingly more central to my job now than my camera.
As probably everybody outside of Underrock City knows by now, Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple recently. There were a lot of articles written afterwards (most of them having a bit of an obituary feel) describing him usually as an innovator, risk taker, taste maker, tyrant, paranoid, micro manager, and most of all genius. I’m sure that’s all more or less true.
The one thing about Jobs though that was never really mentioned (at least to my knowledge) was the sheer fact, that he (and Apple) actually kept trying to make great products. That is that even though Apple became a massive, publicly traded company, Steve Jobs kept Apple a product-centric organization.
Most companies obviously start out product-centric. Somebody starts a business because they have something they care about, they want to built it, impress with it, and sell it. They try to create the best product they can, and find a market for it, but as a company reaches a certain size this approach becomes more and more unusual. Just about all huge companies and many medium and small sized ones are strictly finance-centric. A Detroit car company for instance is not about making cars, it about making money and cars just happen to be their products. The development of a new car means usually creating a sales item with a minimum of effort and risk that will achieve an acceptable financial return. In other words they try to figure out with how shitty they can get away with. Sometime despite a company’s best efforts a good product might come out of that approach, but for the most part you will feel the half-assedness of the product quite clearly. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, enjoy your next car rental.
Apple went through a phase like that, too. When Steve Jobs was in corporate Siberia and a finance-centric CEO was in charge (and when I bought my first Mac desktop) their company motto was: “Just as beige, but more expensive”.
What Steve Jobs did when he returned, was change the fundamental way of doing business at Apple: Don’t service the market with the least amount of effort, but try to make great products and then find the market for them. Part of making a good product is seeing the importance of good design. I still remember the many times I stared at the ugly beige boxes in my living room in non-technical frustration. I mean really, if you have to look at something all day long shouldn’t it look good?
Another thing I really appreciate about Apple these days is their customer service. Again it’s not cheap, but on the (rare) occasion that there is something wrong with a product, I can talk to knowledgable people on the phone or the genius bar (bad name, very bad name) instead of entering the idiot’s zoo that is the standard customer service at most companies. Again, they tried to make it good, which for some reason is unusual.
The different corporate approaches are also starting to become apparent at Pixar . Pixar was a Steve Jobs company that made movies and was bought by Disney a company that makes money. Pixar had a good long run of churning out creative masterpieces, because they actually wanted to make great movies. But it seems under Disney this will slowly change. There will be more sequels (less effort, less risk) and judging from the last Cars movie (a sequel), the creative decisions are made to build business synergy (that’s a fancy word for saying “Does it look good with a Happy Meal?!”).
Obviously I’m not trying to say here that Jobs didn’t care about business, because that wouldn’t be true. And also I’m not trying to glorify him and Apple because there is still plenty left that stinks with them, but the simple fact that they actually struck it insanely rich with good, well designed products, in which you can see the work of designers and engineers much more than the work of accountants, just gives me (some) hope, that more companies will become about their products again. We all know that you can mess up a company if you’re not good at doing business, but you can also mess it up if all you care about is money.