Steve Jobs's Place in History

Steve-jobsThere have been a fair number of articles and blog posts over the years suggesting that Steve Jobs is our modern-day equivalent of Henry Ford.

Like Ford, Steve Jobs seems to have an aversion to consultants and market research.  Ford is famous for his line, “If I asked my customers what they want, they simply would have said a faster horse.” And Jobs has been quoted as claiming that the wellspring for Apple’s best product innovations are the creative industrialists within the company.  “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Jobs says.  “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Having become entranced by the iPhone (and with a 1st generation iPad on order!), I have no quibbles with Mr. Jobs’s product design strategy.  Nor do I complain, as some smart folks like Cory Doctorow do (and convincingly), that Apple’s walled garden stifles innovation and sharing.  No doubt it does.  But as Jobs understands (like Henry Ford before him), the consumer is happy to trade a utopian vision for an elegant solution that they can get their mitts on right now

The Ford/Jobs analogy also extends to more arcane topics like manufacturing.  Both Ford and Jobs are proponents of vertical integration:  “vertically integrated companies in a supply chain are united through a common owner.” Just as Ford Motor Company “built a gigantic factory that shipped in raw materials and shipped out finished automobiles,” and innovated a franchise system, we now see Steve Jobs exerting even tighter supply chain controls — purchasing chip companies and opening new, wholly-owned retail outlets while strong-arming the few partners it does need in order to saturate the market.

Pretty compelling points of comparison!

One vital piece of the Jobs/Ford analogy is missing, however.

The popularity of the automobile led to the invention of the Interstate Highway System.  As a country, for both military and economic reasons, we needed to be able to get from one coast to another much more quickly.  Likewise, we now need to move data from one point to another much more quickly — yet the U.S. still lags badly in broadband penetration, speed and wireless capability, with only lackluster plans for advancing the cause. 

(Our stretch of the so-called Information Superhighway is more like a goat path compared to other countries.  At our current rates of improvement, “it will take the U.S. 15 years to catch up with current Internet speeds in South Korea.”)

Arguably Steve Jobs has already vaulted into the pantheon of Business Gods.  And yet — maybe cuz he’s (thankfully) still among us, he seems very au courant.  Will future generations remember Mr. Jobs with the awe we now afford him? 

Imagine how much more respect he’d gain among future business leaders if he not only transformed our concepts of computing and media, but also led the charge in super-charging America’s broadband and wireless infrastructure initiatives? 

Posted on: April 6, 2010 at 10:31 am By Todd Defren
12 Responses to “Steve Jobs's Place in History”


  • Alan says:

    Usually agree with you, Todd. But not this time. Apple’s secrecy and closely guarded secrets are (in part) what propels its success. I’m a collaborative, social-community-benefits-all junkie… But no single strategy fits every situation. To everything there’s a season and Steve understands that.

  • Adam Gray says:

    Fantastic article.

    Steve Jobs – how can you not love the man. Put apple back on its feet. iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone now the iPad. All icons, all revolutionising their respective media and fields – home computing, mobile music, music, mobile devices… and now the printed word too.

    SJ must be the closest person to Nostradamus in his ability to see the future!

  • Steve Jobs is a unique business leader, but he has proven himself to be incapable of learning from past experiences. Don’t you all remember when he was on his knees before Bill Gates to save Apple? This happened because he was very proprietary about his hardware and software. Now you see the same iMac fiasco happening again with iPhone and iPad. Give device makers some time to create even more compelling hardware and Google (Android) and Microsoft (Windows) will be eager to join the mass market party!
    Because he did not learn from his past experiences, Steve Jobs should not be in the pantheon of great biz leaders.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I understand where you are coming from, but Jobs may have the last laugh. He’s built up the critical mass of adoption (and brand goodwill) to allow him to call the shots. And having looked at the best of everyone else’s offerings, you can’t argue with his product quality and cool-factor.

      In other words, he may have learned from those mistakes, which WOULD allow him to enter that pantheon of great biz leaders?!

  • Trace Cohen says:

    As a product of Gen-Y, I would consider Steve Jobs a living legend in the tech industry, which extends into many other categories. Having done countless case studies on both of them in business school, it is their tenacity and vision that separates them from the rest of the pack and why they will both be remember for being movers and shakers of the world.

    Jobs’ quote sums up why he is truly the epitome of modern day entrepreneurs. If you asked me back in 2007 what my dream phone would have been, it would be no where near what the Iphone is and more closely related to the Razr I was using. It was a monumental risk to move into the phone industry but he met it head on with great success. And now with the Ipad, he is changing the world once again.

  • Curtis Edenfield says:

    This is snipped from one of two posts in Google Buzz.
    This link will take you to both posts

    I have a real problem with Jobs compared in the same light as Ford. You can draw similarities. Ford made the beginning of a millennium with the promise to change how the world travels. Jobs was just the first to market a idea that had been designed by many others!! Ford changed how industries work. Jobs is just trying to keep up with or ahead of industry.

    No Jobs does not belong in the same light as Ford, nor will he ever come close to the world changes that Ford has.
    My 2 cents!!

  • Cooper says:

    I think Google is a more likely company to successfully push for the much needed upgrade to our data infrastructure. Apple focuses on making that data more accessible to humans.

  • I had the good fortune of working for Jobs before “Apple”, at “Apple Computer”. I was there for the Mac intro and could tell you some backstories about the “1984″ commercial that would get me sued. Anyway, while he wasn’t always the most pleasant dude to be around, his knack for seeing products through the eyes of the people he was selling to, rather than seeing buyers through the lens of his products, was uncanny, and spoke to what made the company successful then and now. And why it went into the ditch in his absence. Henry Ford once said that when he asked people what they wanted as a form of transportation, before the advent of cars, they said “Faster horses”. So much for focus groups.

  • Jack Hadley says:

    Usually agree with you, Todd. But not this time. Apple’s secrecy and closely guarded secrets are (in part) what propels its success. I’m a collaborative, social-community-benefits-all junkie… But no single strategy fits every situation. To everything there’s a season and Steve understands that.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I hear ya Jack, but “openness” is not a prerequisite for greatness. If what Apple does is embraced by 99% of the population, the disgruntled utopians that make up the other 1% will have to face up to it. ;)

  • Scott Monty says:

    Interesting comparison, Todd. And especially so, since Ford is being held up as a new kind of consumer electronics company (see Fast Company’s cover story:

    I think the last point you make is one where Henry Ford and Steve Jobs differ: Henry Ford freely shared the lessons and technology with other business leaders, in order to help other industries succeed. And even today, we continue to implement Henry Ford’s vision of affordable transportation for all as Ford prepares to launch our electric vehicles. We know that just producing the vehicle isn’t the answer (we can do that today). We have collaborations under way with utility companies, battery manufacturers, the grid, and other innovators like Microsoft Hohm so that we can help develop the infrastructure for vehicle charging (for all manufacturers, I might add) and help Americans change their habits.

    With Apple’s secrecy and closely guarded secrets, we have yet to see that kind of innovation and collaboration.

    Scott Monty
    Global Digital Communications
    Ford Motor Company

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