Reality distortion: ‘Steve Jobs would never…’

The 'Steve would never' trope is little more than projection.

Apple, Steve Jobs

There is a tendency in humans that when faced with events they did not predict or do not understand, they have a tendency to denial, and the “Steve Jobs would never do it like that” argument is a great illustration of this.

Fear, uncertainty, denial

I’ve been monitoring the Apple web for decades, and it was interesting watching the company story line after the sad death of the company co-founder, Steve Jobs.

You see, up until then Jobs was seen as some form of maverick god, a tech industry titan for whom ideas formed the lightning that illuminated his actions.

Audiences swooned to Jobs’ uncanny ability to pitch products in such a way that they fitted elegantly into unwritten preconceptions for what people expected those iThings to do.

While he lived, I read vast numbers of essays estimating how much value Jobs bought to the company, and his name was so deeply connected to Apple’s that even longtime Mac users who first picked up a computer when they got hold of an Apple 1 stayed true to the business. Analysts of every stripe claimed Jobs’ very existence contributed billions to company value.

After his utterly untimely death we saw different kinds of grief.

Close friend Larry Ellison predicted that in the absence of Jobs, the company would collapse. After a short but respectable silence, Apple’s enemies intensified their attacks across Apple’s business, Android went large, and the Samsung/Apple case rumbled along.

The whispers changed.

They transmuted from saying that Apple led by Steve Jobs was capable of anything to another trope that claimed the company would never make good decisions again, because “Steve Jobs wouldn’t do it like that…”

Except, this isn’t what happened

Jobs passed away in October 2011. It's almost eight years later. If the critics were right, we’d be watching a company in its death throes falling almost as fast as it climbed.

Instead, Apple’s revenues, profits and sales have grown astonishingly, turning it into the world's biggest or second biggest company, depending on the month. Apple in 2007 raised $24.6 billion in revenue, while in 2018 it generated over ten times that: $265.6 billion – hardly the mark of a rudderless company.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks.

The now 12-year-old smartphone industry has matured, so growth is unlikely to match what we saw over the last decade. But there is little doubt that the smartphone has become something that everybody needs.

Apple has secured a leadership space in the industry, and it is more reasonable to expect it to maintain that position than to believe some act of god or cosmic violence will lay the company low.

Growth looks like this

The company also continues to develop additional products and services to help maintain growth as sales of its biggest selling product slow. Services revenue rose to $10.9 billion in the first three months of 2019. While it isn’t especially clear, that’s around a 500% increase since Q4 FY11, according to historical statement.

The company has returned hundreds of billions of dollars to investors and has even seen huge success in the enterprise markets. Sales, net income, revenue have all increased.

There have been some missteps, principally around the Mac.

Apple lost some hearts and minds when it ceased to focus on the Mac, and it will be working to regain those believers for a while – a lot will depend on the company keeping its promise to ship a modular Mac Pro, I think.

The problems so many customers experienced with Apple’s butterfly keyboard have also damaged its reputation. Despite which, people still love their Macs. You can tell they do because thousands keep reading articles like these.

Meanwhile, the company explores new industries. Apple Watch and iPad are expanding. We know Apple’s AR glasses will be tightly integrated with Apple Arcade (or we can reasonably guess as much).

We know that reports of the demise of the Apple Car are almost certainly exaggerated – frequently by the same people who mutter “Steve wouldn’t have done it like that.”

Steve Jobs would never

What we do know is that following almost every single Apple announcement, you’ll see critics claiming Apple under Jobs would never have done this, that, or the other.

The thing is, this is nothing better than a literally atavistic external projection of personal opinion on a canvas of a memory that cannot speak for itself. It's an externalised expression of prejudiced opinion, masked as fact through the invocation of a name that has passed into legend.

  • Would Jobs have worked to define a new deal for credit card users with Apple Card?
  • Would he have invested billions in pivoting from hardware to services?
  • Would Jobs have predicted the global transition from ownership to rental we stand at the beginning of?

We do know he made his own mistakes along the way. G4 Cube? Puck mouse? HP iPod? Ping?

We never can know

What we do know is that being able to invoke him in this way is an attack that enables critics to distort the reality that Apple becoming more successful, rather than less. It empowers them to offer as fact half-baked criticisms that exist only in their own preconception. There’s no way to rationally argue with such projection.

You can blame anything on Jobs using this mechanism.

It often strikes me as telling that so many of those who exercise this criticism seem to be middle-aged men that appear in some way uncomfortable with CEO Tim Cook. It’s an attack line he can never respond to. And does not.

Jobs didn’t even want us to try.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told the Washington Post:  “Among his last advice he had for me, and for all of you, was to never ask what he would do. ‘Just do what’s right,’ he said.”

Steve Jobs will forever be an example of what talent and focus and a huge dose of imagination can do, given the tools with which to do it and the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time to bring it all together, but we will never know how he would handle today’s evolving circumstances.

How could we?

No one really does.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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