In the February 11 issue of The New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern assesses the Steve Jobs phenomenon by way of reviewing the two movies and one biography about him that came out last year. Halpern is more overtly critical than I was when I wrote about Jobs in December, but she also goes farther than I did in trying to understand public perceptions of Jobs.
Halpern begins by stressing the oddity of the case. Having quoted a boy in Alex Gibney’s recent documentary who attributed to Jobs all sorts of admired products—“He made the iMac. He made the Macbook. He made the Macbook Pro. He made the Macbook Air. He made the iPhone. He made the iPod”—she then sensibly asks,
Yet if the making of popular consumer goods was driving this outpouring of grief, then why hadn’t it happened before? Why didn’t people sob in the streets when George Eastman or Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell died—especially since these men, unlike Steve Jobs, actually invented the cameras, electric lights, and telephones that became the ubiquitous and essential artifacts of modern life?
Though it somewhat spoils her piece to boil it down in this way, Halpern suggests that the special favor with which Jobs is regarded has something to do with product design, showmanship, an obsessive sense of secrecy, and a couple of good hunches. Whatever business acumen Jobs had plays a pretty small part; though she says last year’s biography, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, “credibly make[s] him out to be” a “business genius,” she also reminds us that Jobs nearly drove Apple into the ground and then did worse with NeXT.
At the risk of belaboring a detail, I differ with Halpern’s emphasis on one point. In her account, one of Jobs’s hunches was “that individuals would want a computer on their desk,” which she says was “on the money.” That it would pay off was far from clear at the time, and yet Jobs was hardly the only person who thought there might be something to be gained, and some profit to be made, by putting a computer in the hands of ordinary people. Even IBM came to think so, and one might argue that the whole personal-computer revolution was in doubt until Big Blue got into it.
Despite elucidating the contributing factors, Halpern is at a loss when it comes to the big questions: why was Jobs revered, and why the apparently enduring fascination? She declares these to be unanswerable. But she has some salient thoughts about how Jobs’s legacy will affect the future of Apple. “The challenge, now, as the phone and computer markets become saturated, is to come up with must-have products that create demand without the enchantments of Steve Jobs.” Halpern proposes that the company’s habitual secrecy may soon prove to be an impediment.
A recent Economist article suggests that the way forward may require a change of focus:
As an investment, Apple is surprisingly inexpensive. Its shares trade at about 10.4 times forecast earnings, excluding cash, compared with Alphabet and Facebook, which trade at 21.4 and 33 times respectively. That is because many perceive it as a hardware company—vulnerable, like Hollywood studios, to product hits and flops. Apple is trying to change that image and become perceived more as a services company, with stable recurring revenue.
There’s a good deal of sense in this, and yet the company can’t abandon the product side. Apple’s old nemesis, Microsoft, began expanding into services years ago, with such initiatives as the Microsoft Network and Hotmail, but it too remains chained to its product lines. (Bonus football note for Super Bowl day: Microsoft’s Surface line of tablet computers, which are used on the sidelines throughout the NFL, created some bad optics two weeks ago when CBS reported, during the AFC championship game, that the New England Patriots’ tablets had stopped working. Microsoft later explained that the stadium network, not its devices, had failed.)
Meanwhile, I wonder whether Halpern’s essay signals the start of a new phase, a rebalancing, in the public assessment of Steve Jobs. Time will tell, but I doubt it.