The burden of Steve Jobs

Matthew JC. Powell
13 February, 2008
View more articles fromthe author

Former Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio once famously remarked that "I thought I was leading a company; I didn’t realise I was leading a cult". If he thought that job was difficult, imagine what it must be like for Steve Jobs. Where Amelio was leader of the cult, Jobs is the object of its worship. Think of it as the difference between being the Pope and being the Messiah — I know which I’d take.

Name another CEO, company founder or Chairman who is expected — indeed, required — to change the world on at minimum an annual basis. Michael Dell? Bill Gates? Steve Ballmer? Rupert Murdoch? Robert Iger? Samuel Palmisano? Does anyone even know who he is?

All of these people have great responsibilities and a duty to shareholders to drive their companies. Jobs’s burden is different. He is expected somehow to be a few steps ahead of the world, living in the no-too-distant future, bringing tomorrow to us today.

Which is not to suggest he is the only person in the computer industry expected to innovate. Google, Amazon, eBay … any number of companies innovate and do so successfully, What’s different for Apple and its CEO is the expectation that it can happen on demand. If anyone but Apple had released a product as successful and groundbreaking as the iPhone last year they’d still be dining out on it. Apple is already copping criticism for not having a 3G version out yet.

Compare it to, for instance, Paul McCartney. Some decades ago McCartney wrote some pretty darned good music. Now he’s in his 60s and puts out the occasional listenable bit of work. It’s not amazing, but it’s pretty good and leaves most contemporary "music" for dead. But because it isn’t as good as the Beatles it may as well be rubbish. No-one else has to be compared with the Beatles.

Likewise, no-one else has to compete with Steve Jobs’s past — only Jobs.

Every Expo we want Jobs to revolutionise the industry, to change something dramatically and to show us something we’ve never seen before. We scrutinise the rumour sites and forums to find out in advance what the announcements will be, yet we’re disappointed if it isn’t a surprise.

The MacBook Air is the perfect example. Aside from people who are not interested in the activities of Apple, who didn’t know a light notebook was in the offing? And then it’s announced, and the response is largely a shrug. It’s really a very clever bit of kit, but every critic seems to have been looking for the "deal breaker" — the one thing it lacks that makes it impossible for them to purchase one. It costs a big blob of extra money to put a solid-state drive in any computer, but somehow Apple seems to be copping the blame for the exorbitant price of the SSD option on the Air. It also got credit for "inventing" USB by including it on the iMac a decade ago, so maybe that evens out.

A friend of mine was contemplating a job at Apple a few years back, and I said to her "it’s a great thing because the whole industry is watching what you do, but it’s a terrible thing because everyone is looking for you to fail". It was true for her in a middle-management position at the local subsidiary, and it’s true many times over for Jobs.

Of course, we must’t feel too sorry for him — he is, after all, well-compensated for his troubles. And he does bring some of it upon himself. This very morning I received a press release informing me that "Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh". And today it released Aperture 2. Nice enough application of course, but doesn’t ignite or reinvent anything, does it? It’s like every Apple press release is designed to be an anti-climax.

In a lot of ways Jobs faces the same problem Amelio did: he’s human. A clever and driven human, to be sure, but human. The revolution cannot happen every year. If it did, we’d get bored.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us