Many years have passed, but I can still vividly recall the excitement I felt when my father bought us our first computer, it was an Apple Macintosh; cream in colour, size of a small microwave, with a built-in monitor, and a mouse. There was nothing seemingly complicated about it, you could learn to use it just by following your intuition.
Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011), who died on October 5 at the age of 56, was the co-founder of Apple Inc. He played a pivotal role in shaping how we interact with computers and electronic gadgets, and redefined entertainment; in doing so, he changed the course of our imagination and our human experience.
From the beginning, the design of every product developed by Apple was like artwork, they could easily be a decoration piece in one’s living room; but they were more than just visual beauty, each device pushed the boundaries of what we thought was humanly possible. Jobs had the vision to see things not in the way things ought to be but what it should be; he brought the future to the present, and made science fiction our reality. In the world of technological innovation, where products become obsolete as fast as its arrival, what has endured for Apple are its core philosophy of intuitive design meshed with cutting edge functionality.
As Jobs put it, “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works…To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”
In 2001, when Apple launched the sleek iPod, with its click wheel design, it would foreshadow the transformation of the music and entertainment industry. At a time when Napster created havoc by offering free music downloads, Apple offered iTunes and music stores where people were willing to pay for music. He presented the ingenious idea of selling music like a slice of pizza, instead of the convention of forcing the buyer to purchase the entire album. This innovative pricing strategy broadened a market that was on its way to becoming obsolete.
Jobs was the rare businessman, who was an artist and designer at heart. His drive and passion was not only to create successful products, but an enduring company where the mission was beyond mere financial profitability, it was about driving change in how consumers experienced the world and everything around them.
He created an environment (or perhaps nudged) those who worked at his company to “think different” (it would be Apple’s marketing campaign to “Think Different” as opposed to “think differently”). Jobs took all of us on his journey to see and feel things that perhaps exists in the recesses of all our minds, somewhere hidden deep between the conscious and subconscious.
Jobs journey to the pinnacle of an industry that he helped transform began with humble beginnings, with twists, obstacles and uncertainty right from the start. As an infant, he was adopted by Armenian couple Clara and Paul Jobs. His biological parents, Joanne Schieble and Syrian Muslim father Abdulfattah Jandali were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the time of Jobs’ birth, they were unmarried, and due to pressure from Schieble’s father against marrying an Arab, they gave Jobs up for adoption. (Shortly after Jobs’ adoption, his biological parents married; after the death of Schieble’s father.)
Schieble and Jandali’s only requirement for the adoption was that the adopting parents be college educated. It turned out both Clara and Paul lied on their application about their education level. The adoption almost fell through due to this, but Clara and Paul promised that they would send Jobs to college.
Jobs attended the prestigious Reed College for six months only to drop out. He thought the cost of attending college put too high of a financial burden on his parents. He however dropped in on creative classes and developed a fascination for calligraphy. His love of calligraphy would later influence his focus on typography.
“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” Jobs said. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”
In 2007, Apple released the iPhone. With its release, the phone industry was reshaped. Dominant players such as Nokia and Research in Motion (makers of Blackberry) would soon lose their historical hold in the US market. Carriers such as AT&T, Version and Sprint’s business would suffer or blossom depending on the relationship they had with Apple.
The phone was no longer a device to make calls, it was now a portable computer, camera and entertainment centre wrapped in one. As expected, the trend set by Apple was copied by the competition. The marketplace for smart-phones, which was the domain of business users, would segway to retail customers. The entire market for phones would exponentially grow in size, due to Apple’s innovations.
The innovation unleashed by Apple was more than having ample funds and resources, as Jobs put it, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
The last decade was clearly Apple’s decade; the iPod was a game changer, and then came iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Some of us are so accustomed to these products that it is easy to forget what the world was like without them. Just less than a week prior to Jobs’ death, I bought Apple’s Airport Extreme, it is a wireless networking solution; I marvelled at its design – simple, elegant, and yet extremely functional; it sits in my living room undistinguishable from actual showpieces.
Jobs was a creative genius, and surely he had natural talent. But there are insights, he revealed that we can all imitate that would perhaps make us at least one step closer to his liking.
In 2005, Jobs gave the commencement speech at Stanford, he said, “much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on”.
He advised everyone not to be “trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”.
He spoke about a photograph and caption he found in the mid-70s on the back of a magazine, which he remembered the rest of his life. The caption was “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Jobs described the photograph as “an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous”.
Simple advice from a man who transformed the boundaries of innovation, the boundaries of our mind, and changed our lives’ journey — forever. Think Different! Think Different!
I believe there is a tremendous lesson developing countries such as Bangladesh can learn from Steve Jobs and Apple (and should be used as a case study). When Apple entered the personal computers space in the 1970’s, companies such as IBM and Xerox dominated, only to be overtaken by Apple. Sony was a leader in consumer electronics in the 1980’s only to be outdone by Apple. Over the past ten years the share price of Microsoft has decreased, IBM has approximately doubled (i.e. less than 100 percent growth), Xerox is flat, whereas Apple shares have increased by over 4500 percent.
The typical story in Bangladesh is that business deals are won through connections instead of the content of one’s ideas; which means the Apples of Bangladesh will lose to the IBMs. The net loser will be the Bangladeshi people.
Bangladesh may think it is unable to compete with neighbours who have a larger work-force and are rich in resources. But as demonstrated by Apple, with creative thinking, passion, vision for the long horizon and impeccable execution of strategy, these obstacles can be overcome. It has been done; Bangladesh needs to learn from those who have achieved this success.
There are several countries in the region, such as South Korea, who have developed a successful strategy framework for competing with historically stronger neighbour such as Japan. Korean firms such Samsung and Hyundai, no longer fear Sony and Toyota; and consumers are no longer shying away from Korean products in favour of Japanese. Certainly, Bangladesh has had historical challenges, such as natural disasters, but with right leadership and a framework for growth, change can occur.
Price of electronics and technology is dropping inversely to the power it offers, and in the near future, the vast number of poor who have been left out of the digital revolution will have access. Just think how fast cellular phones have spread; now you can find farmers speaking on phones that were once luxury, even for the wealthy. In a similar fashion, we will find iPads and other electronic devices connecting students in the most outskirt regions, where physical roads are even missing. The poor will be most impacted by this technology transfer.
The government’s role in many regards will be to facilitate the process; provide a legal and structural framework. If there are legal and structural distractions, it will only impede innovation and growth. Just ask, how much energy is lost driving from one place to another, how much frustration one faces trying to get simple tasks done such as registering a vehicle; or performing more “complicated” deals such as buying and selling real-estate. The daily non-sense has substituted the innovative zeal that is in all of us. In spite of this, the poor have been extremely resilient even with great obstacles; imagine if things were marginally more efficient.
Bangladesh has been the ancestral home to many great scientists and thinkers (more on this on a future article). There are Steve Jobs’ walking around Bangladesh right now, if the right system existed, the net would capture them; and Bangladesh would be an exporter of innovation instead of an importer. However, when there are holes in the system, the outcome will be the demonstrated track-record.
Jobs dropped out of school and still become one of the greatest innovators of our time. Bill Gates (Microsoft), Michael Dell (Dell), Larry Ellison (Oracle), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are all billionaire dropouts, who have shaped the technology space and beyond. In Bangladesh, people are too busy brandishing their BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) degree and admissions test scores (even 20 years after graduation); public devours and worships this, instead of focusing on the impact one has made. Let this be an open (and friendly) challenge to BUET graduates to produce the next Jobs (a BUET dropout will count)!
Ikhtiar Kazi is an economist and capital markets professional.