Remembering Steve Jobs: What Made the Apple Co-Founder a Visionary

Thursday, October 06, 2011

For the past almost 28 years, I have been calling "1984" the best commercial ever made. Not that this is a controversial position; Ridley Scott's Super Bowl tour de force is often so cited, because it so dramatically defined the new Macintosh computer and the entire Apple brand.

The IBM  PC was hardware for the masses of conformists and brainwashed drones; the new Mac was a tool of liberation for the heroically independent thinker.

The message, in essence: Pick a side --  you can be under the thrall of some hectoring, bellicose Big Brother, or you can join the partisan struggle with that chick in the track shorts and t-shirt.

Perfect marketing that was. Sure, the commercial was breathtaking, but more important was the extraordinarily enduring us-against-them message. The result was the culting of the brand. People didn't buy Apple products; they bought into the Apple ethos.  Even as the enemy morphed from IBM to Microsoft and now, increasingly, Google, Apple wasn't just a company. It was a movement.

So, for all of the above reasons, I placed Apple on the shortlist of the greatest advertising campaigns ever, (along with Marlboro cigarettes, Absolut vodka, Nike, diamonds, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen). I have written endlessly on the subject and explained it to countless audiences for decades.

But here's the strange thing: Until recently, I had failed to notice the central genius behind the Apple ethic. It was true.

Not just shrewd, not just potent, but literally true. Yeah, so admirable was the advertising for understanding the iconoclastic psychology of the audience and for flattering random graphic designers as heroic subversives, I never noticed that the positioning was rooted in reality.

Steve Jobs was a bona fide liberator. A revolutionary. A visionary leader. First, he liberated his customers from DOS. Then from Windows. Later he would use digital technology not to speed up and quicken cell animation, but to Pixar it into near irrelevance.

Then, with the iPod, he consigned the recording industry and much of terrestrial radio into similar near oblivion. His iPhone revolutionized the handheld world and his iPad is only just beginning to alter publishing on a grand scale. And with each such effort, he pried the thumb of some Big Brother-like monopolist off our slavish selves. He wasn't merely a canny psychologist with an eye for design. He was Moses in a turtleneck.

Back in 1985, when John Sculley and the Apple board basically fired Jobs from his own company, they were disgusted that he had lefts billions of dollars on the table. First, unlike IBM and Microsoft, Jobs had decided against licensing the Apple operating system to other manufacturers, thus discouraging outsiders from developing software apps, which in turn limited  the brand's appeal beyond the aforementioned cultists.

And he seemed uninterested in foreign markets, or any market that required him to cleave to market tastes. His was interested only in developing better stuff, and willing to cede 90 percent of the market to Big brother along the way.

"It's not the consumer's job to know what they want," he famously asserted.

But then, lo and behold, the market caught up with his vision. In succession, the Mac and Pixar, iPod and iPhone were so disruptive to the status quo that they attracted consumer desire far beyond the core Apple diehard. The consumer didn't know what she wanted, but she knew it when she saw it. And she used it, like the babe with the track-and-field hammer in the "1984" spot, to send Big Brother up in smoke.

I take no joy in Steve Jobs's passing, but in a way it saves us from a certain kind of worry. With the ascendency of the iPhone and the iPad, and the expanding app universe that bit by bit is displacing the Worldwide Web itself, and the runaway growth of Apple, there was the very real chance that Jobs himself would have morphed into Big Brother. And, then...  

Well, it's hard to imagine what then.

Bob Garfield is a host for On the Media.


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Comments [6]


His vision was a web that is accessed by Apple products, where Apple controls the content through its proprietary app store, and Apple gets a cut of all media distributed on it. The company's marketing campaign was so effective that Bill Gates can become one of the world's most generous philanthropists and save untold lives through his effort to eradicate malaria, yet in the popular imagination he and his company are reviled as the antithesis of cool.

Using the Dali Lama to sell your products doesn't make you the Dali Lama. I've used many wonderful Apple products daily for the last 15 years, but I refuse to define myself by those devices. If a company's consistent message to its customers is that they are iconoclasts and not drones, it's pretty easy to guess who the drones are. Apple is a triumph of American consumerism and the use of brand loyalty for self-identification.

Oct. 06 2011 10:45 PM
Joel Natividad from Secaucus, NJ

Here's to a Crazy One…
Someone who thought he can change the world… and did.

Oct. 06 2011 03:18 PM
Edward Saugstad

So here we stand - and where do we go from here . . .

Oct. 06 2011 12:15 PM
terry from westchester

Another of the many thank you's to Steve Jobs. My daughter is severely autistic and is addicted to kids movies. We were constantly changing DVD's for her on her portable DVD player. Interestingly enough, when we bought our iPad and put a movie on it she actually learned to use the device. It opened up a world of choices for her. She is 18 and though mentally she is about 1 1/2 years old, she sure figured out that iPad and uses it everyday.

Oct. 06 2011 11:33 AM
Linda from Brielle NJ

every program I use, my macbook pro,my iMAC, my ipad, my ipod, my nano, my shuffle,itunes etc etc.. everything I use is apple. Steve Jobs is a part of my working and personal life. My waking life.

Oct. 06 2011 11:17 AM

I've been an Apple user since 1988 when I bought my first Mac SE.

I just wish I bought Apple stock for $16 a share in the late 90s when everyone had written off Apple for dead and Michael Dell was suggesting that Apple liquidate and return the money to its shareholders.

AAPL is currently trading at $383/share and has split a few times since then.

Oct. 06 2011 11:17 AM

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