print logo
RSS FEED

The Henry Ford of Our Time

Friday, August 26, 2011

Like Ford, Steve Jobs took something that had largely been invented by others and transformed it—and the world—by making the technology accessible to the common man.

Steve Jobs stepped down last Wednesday, saying that he “could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s C.E.O.” He had already been on a medical leave of absence since January, his third such absence since 2004. While one can only wish this uniquely talented man well, this would appear to be the end of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of American business and technology.

If you want to know just how remarkable, I would suggest a thought experiment. Keep in mind Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Imagine there was some latter-day Rip Van Winkle who nodded off to sleep in 1970 and has just now woken up, asking what’s new. You show him a device that measures only 4½ X 2½ X ½ inches. It weighs just a few ounces and fits easily into the breast pocket of a dress shirt.

“What’s it do?” he asks.

“It’s a phone.”

“No wires?”

“Nope. And it works nearly anywhere in the world.”

“Cool!” he says, obviously impressed.

This would appear to be the end of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of American business and technology.

But then you tell him what else it can do: It’s an address book, a date book, a camera (both still and moving), a notebook, a clock that tells the time in any city in the world, a compass, a metric converter, and a calculator. It takes dictation. You can send and receive written messages with it. It will tell you where you are and help you get where you need to go. It will keep track of your investments and tell you your net worth as of that second. You can deposit a check in your bank account with it while lying in bed. It will give you the latest news, via every major news organization. It’s a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a field guide to birds. It gives you the weather, both where you are and in any city in the world. It will tell you the phase of the moon, send you a bulletin when a new exoplanet has been discovered, tell you the sun rise and sunset times for any place on earth, show you the cloud cover around the globe, and tell you what that bright star in the sky is named.

You can play solitaire on it, or battleship, or chess (it will beat you), or any of thousands of other games. It’s a metronome. It can hold thousands of songs, get new ones on demand, and play them back with breathtaking fidelity.

There are, quite literally, more than 350,000 other things that it can do. In short, it’s not a phone, it’s an iPhone.

And our Rip Van Winkle would surely regard it as magic.

He put the pieces invented by others together to produce something both very new and commercially successful.

Many of us who use one every day regard it as magic. The iPhone and its larger brother, the iPad, are remaking the world before our astonished eyes. Already, communications, journalism, publishing, the music business, and the movies will never be the same. Even the revolutions of the Arab Spring were significantly impacted by iPhones.

But Steve Jobs is not a magician. He’s the Henry Ford of our time. Henry Ford didn’t invent anything. Instead, he took something that had largely been invented by others and made it into a world-transforming technology by making it accessible to the common man.

The iPhone and iPad are but the latest in a long series of innovations by Steve Jobs that have fundamentally shaped the technical revolution made possible by the microprocessor. The microprocessor—a cheaply manufactured computer on a chip—is the most consequential invention since the steam engine about 250 years ago and probably since agriculture, the invention that started humankind down the road to civilization itself some 10,000 years ago.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the microprocessor any more than Henry Ford invented the automobile. Indeed, he and his companies did not invent much of the technology that makes the iPhone and such so extraordinary. What he and his partners did do was put the pieces invented elsewhere together to produce something profoundly new that the public loved and could also afford.

His legacy, like Henry Ford’s, is very much a new, wider, richer, more opportunity-filled world for the common man.

Jobs, along with his partner Stephen Wozniak, began with the Apple I, which was introduced in 1976. It was an advance over previous computer kits in that it featured a fully wired motherboard, but it lacked a keyboard, monitor, and even a case. It retailed for $666.66 (about $2500 in today’s money). They sold 200 of them.

The Apple II that soon followed, however, was a real personal computer; fully assembled, with keyboard, monitor, and floppy drives. Introduced at the West Coast Computer Faire in 1978, it created a sensation and kick-started the personal computer industry.

But personal computers were still very limited. After booting up you found yourself at the “C Prompt,” and had to enter code to get it to do anything. All commands were given through the keyboard. Screw up the exacting syntax of a command and the machine would just sit there.

Then, in 1984, Jobs introduced the Macintosh, the first personal computer to use a graphical user interface and a mouse to enter commands. This technology, too, was not invented by Jobs or even the Apple Corporation. Instead, most of it had been developed by Xerox over a decade earlier. But Xerox had never managed to develop a commercial product incorporating it. Jobs did. Again, he put the pieces invented by others together to produce something both very new and commercially successful.

The iPhone and its larger brother, the iPad, are remaking the world before our astonished eyes.

Although IBM, using the Microsoft operating system, soon captured the dominant share of the personal computer market thanks to its marketing clout and computing reputation, the Mac retained a wide and fiercely loyal following. That’s hardly surprising seeing as the Mac’s operating system remains far superior in terms of stability and ease of use. The Microsoft world is still playing technological catch-up with the always-one-jump-ahead Apple.

Unlike many geeks and inventors—who have long had a bad habit of dying broke—Steve Jobs has shown remarkable marketing and business acumen. The ad introducing the Macintosh at the 1984 Super Bowl is regarded as one of the most classic TV ads of all time. In recent years, his press conferences have become legendary for their iconic “and one more thing” announcements of often dazzling new technology. The brilliant ad campaign featuring the cool guy representing the Mac and the nebbishy stand-in for Windows-based computing has raised the Mac from a niche product to a major player in the personal computing market.

And, of course, Steve Jobs is anything but broke. Apple recently, if briefly, surpassed Exxon Mobil as the company with the world’s highest market cap and Jobs owns 5.4 million shares.

His investment in Pixar paid off big time when the company was sold to Disney, giving Jobs 138 million shares of that company and making him by far the largest single shareholder in Disney.

There are, quite literally, more than 350,000 other things that the iPhone can do.

In Aldous Huxley’s immortal science-fiction novel Brave New World, published in 1932, the calendar of the future civilization he depicts counts its years not from the birth of Christ but from the birth of the Model T in the year we call 1908. The calendar designates its years by the initials A.F., for After Ford.

Steve Jobs’s legacy won’t be a new calendar. But his legacy, like Henry Ford’s, is very much a new, wider, richer, more opportunity-filled world for the common man.

The future will be in his debt for a long, long time.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

Gordon also writes “English: The Inescapable Language” and “The End of the Book?” Scott Shane writes on entrepreneurship in “Small Businesses and Big Unintended Consequences.

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

Most Viewed Articles

The Truth, Probably By Robert McHenry 08/31/2014
We will never attain certainty about our concerns, but with care and luck we approach it by ...
‘The American Banking System Might Not Last Until Monday’ By Alex J. Pollock 08/23/2014
Learning from the crises you’ve forgotten.
Peanut Butter’s Many Inventors By Edward Tenner 08/15/2014
The popular product illustrates both the opportunities and the risks of intellectual property.
The Long-Hours Luxury By Tino Sanandaji 08/04/2014
One factor that is often overlooked in the debate over causes of income inequality is a shift in ...
A Flawed E-Cigarette Regulation By Sally Satel and Alan D. Viard 08/16/2014
The FDA's proposed regulation should not go forward in its current form, or it will undermine ...
 
AEI