The power of taking the big chance

STEVE JOBS, technologist and tastemaker of modern digital culture, described himself as a captain of product design, inspiring his teams of workers, as he once said, to go “beyond what anyone thought possible” and to do “some great work, really great work that will go down in history.”

And he did, time and again. Mr. Jobs did not make the technology himself; he led the teams that did, prodding, cajoling and inspiring. His track record as a business team leader is unique – as Apple’s Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad testify. In two stints at Apple, he made computers into coveted consumer goods and transformed not only product categories, like music players and cellphones, but also entire industries, like music and mobile communications.

Mr. Jobs even failed well. NeXT, a computer company he founded during his years in exile from Apple, was never a commercial success. But it was a technology pioneer. The World Wide Web was created on a NeXT computer, and NeXT software is the core of Apple’s operating systems today.

Part of Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be the lessons learned by those who worked closely with him over the years. Here are just a few:

DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO DELIGHT CUSTOMERS Six weeks before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Mr. Jobs ordered a crucial design change. Until then, the planning for supplies, manufacturing and engineering had been based on the assumption that the smartphone’s face would be plastic, recalls Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who led iPod and iPhone development from 2001 to 2009. Plastic is less fragile than glass, and easier to make.

But the plastic touch screen had a drawback. It was prone to developing scratches. Those scratches, Mr. Jobs insisted, would irritate users and be seen as a design flaw. “All the logical facts told us to go with plastic, and Steve’s instinct went the other way,” Mr. Fadell says. “It

was Steve’s call – his gut.”

The glass choice was a challenge that seemed “nearly impossible” at the time, he says – a last-minute scramble to get supplies of specialized glass and tweak the design of the phone’s casing to reduce the chances the glass would crack when an iPhone was dropped. But with extra investment and a frenetic work regimen, the switch proved doable, despite the tight deadline.

The episode, Mr. Fadell says, points to a principle he took away from his years working with Mr. Jobs. “You do not cut corners and you make sure the customer gets an experience that is an absolute delight,” observes Mr. Fadell, who heads a Silicon Valley start-up company whose product has not yet been disclosed and will not compete with Apple.

GOOD IDEAS TAKE TIME After he was ousted from Apple, Mr. Jobs founded NeXT in 1985. It produced a powerful desktop computer, a stylish black cube, and its initial market was going to be in education. The idea was that the machine would be more than hardware and software; it would also offer content, “a universe of wisdom,” recalls Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked closely with Mr. Jobs at NeXT and lived part time in Mr. Jobs’s house, as Mr. Hawley shuttled between California and his post at the M. I. T. Media Lab.

NeXT computers, in Mr. Jobs’s vision, would marry technology and the liberal arts by including digital books, music and art. Mr. Jobs began pursuing the rights to works that could be converted to digital form.

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The power of taking the big chance