Saturday, August 27, 2011

The End of an Era

I brainstormed several titles for this post and nothing I come up with seems to be substantial enough. I have to admit that when I heard the news a couple of days ago that Steve Jobs was stepping down from being CEO, I got a little emotional. Part of it was the way he worded it:

"I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

Given his medical complications in recent years, there's something really haunting about those words. What really got to me though was the sudden thought that two of my childhood idols were no longer sitting in the seats of power they once held: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are now both down for the count. Even typing those words scares me a bit - aside from the fact that it makes me feel old, it's really the end of an era.

I think my posts make it pretty clear that I'm not a fan of Apple products - I believe that they're high quality, I just don't agree with their some of their key philosophies and I think most Apple products are overpriced. As a person, I don't care much for Steve Jobs either. There are plenty of good stories about him but I'm more familiar with the ones where he manages his employees with praise and fear (moreso than sounds healthy). However, as Elle Driver would say, that shouldn't suggest that I don't respect him. His impact on technology is incontrovertible - he really made making technology beautiful stick. When you look at the history of gadgetry, Apple was the first major player to successfully focus on external design just as much as internal design. Even Mac OS was known for being one of the first pieces of a software with a usable GUI. I even first learned how to type in grade school on Apple Macintosh IIs (and fondly remember playing the Oregon Trail - if I was lucky I got to play on the one computer with a CD-ROM drive). A world without the innovations and risks taken by Apple with Steve Jobs at its helm would be a scary place (much like the one depicted in their 1984 ad). A lot of moves that Jobs has made over the years have been really ballsy, and while I know a lot of people make that possible past just the CEO, I would not underestimate the importance of a CEO with strong vision.

With someone like Steve Jobs, you take the good with the bad. His biggest flaw, in my opinion, is his hubris. You don't have to watch Pirates of the Silicon Valley to observe this (fair warning: that movie is very much a caricature of all its characters). His 2005 Stanford commencement address is pretty famous and definitely an incredible speech, and yet it still reflects that he can really be a jerk sometimes. He lets loose a bit at a few points in his speech and leaves out pivotal details in his speech that paint him out to be a hero in situations that weren't so black and white. He's green lit ads that have held no punches in obviously attacking competitors, a practice that I remember not being so common once upon a time. He runs press events that extol the virtues of perfectly mundane evolutions to existing products. However, it's for all these things that people love Steve Jobs. All these things have made him a fascinating CEO and a generational icon.

The era I'm referring to as ending is not that of Apple - the Board is leaving the company in good hands with Tim Cook, now former COO, at the helm. Plus, Steve Jobs has set things in motion for at least a year or two, so we won't see Cook's direct impact for a while yet. The era I'm referring to also involves Bill Gates. I find it tremendously ironic that Gates is often marred for the antitrust issues with Microsoft and forgotten for his philanthropic efforts whereas Jobs is lauded for his sometimes questionable tactics with Apple and forgotten for his lack of philanthropy. At the end of the day, both men have done some incredible things and basically built personal computing. Gates had just as much vision as Jobs, but he handled it totally differently. He's not the pretty face of a company, he's the understated nerd that turns wheels in the background. Maybe the things he's led at Microsoft aren't as sexy as what Apple has done, but definitely equally important. I mean come on, the man invented bold text! Let's face it, the world would be a very strange place without Office and Windows. Apple would have you believe that Windows is a complete knock off of what they've produced over the years, but the truth is that Windows has made significant innovations, as well. If you need a more recent, obvious example: how about the Kinect?

I feel like with Gates and Jobs out of the picture, the model of technology that's worked for decades really is dead. Shrink wrap software has been gradually losing ground to digital distribution and web applications. The most talked about tech companies these days are now Google and Facebook. The world is a very different place. People don't care about the next Windows or the next OS X - they care about the next smartphone they can get. The era that Gates and Jobs eschewed is over, and I feel like we're now fully underway in a whole new phase in the history of technology. Needless to say, I'm excited to be at a company that's a big part of that timeline, as well, but we can never forget our roots. For all the above reasons and more, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Gates, I salute you. We'll do our best to take good care of what you started.

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