The Future Foretold by Steve Jobs, 22 Years Ago
I met Steve Jobs only once, in early 1989—midway though his exile from Apple Computer. The editors of Inc., of which I was one, had decided to name him the Entrepreneur of Decade for the tenth anniversary issue of the magazine. Today no one would bat an eye at the choice, but back then it was somewhat controversial. Jobs himself seemed a little surprised by it. “Why did you choose me?” he asked George Gendron, Inc.’s editor-in-chief, and me when we arrived at NeXT, his post-Apple startup, to interview him.
In the wake of the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Jobs was not the toast of Silicon Valley and his legacy was very much in doubt. After a series of costly product failures and much internal politicking, Apple’s board had relieved him of his managerial responsibilities, whereupon he’d quit and founded NeXT, leaving behind a trail of stories about his tantrums, tirades, and generally erratic behavior. His successor, former Pepsi President John Sculley, was widely viewed as Apple’s savior, proving that a business could be “insanely great” and professionally managed at the same time. Under Sculley, the company’s profits had doubled, and the stock price had risen more than 500 percent. Meanwhile, many tech observers thought the best days of Steve Jobs were behind him.
We didn’t know, and we didn’t care. We’d spent the previous ten years chronicling the birth of the entrepreneurial economy, and Jobs exemplified everything we found wonderful about it. Indeed, our paths had been linked. The very first issue of Inc., in April 1979, had contained an early profile of Apple, then still a private company. In October 1981, Inc. had run the first magazine cover story on Jobs, with the line “This Man Has Changed Business Forever.” What captivated us was partly his uncanny knack for coming up with products that not only expanded our horizons but opened our eyes to a more brilliant, inspiring, and exciting future than we had ever imagined. But even more we identified with his vision, a version of which he elaborated on in the interview.
There’s no need for me to repeat here what he said. You can read the interview for yourself: http://www.inc.com/magazine/19890401/5602.html I confess that I hadn’t looked at it again until Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple last August. Given all that he accomplished in the intervening 22 years, I find it even more compelling now than it was when we first published it. Among other things, I can’t help wondering what products he had in mind when he said it was “staggering to contemplate the tools we’re going to be able to put in people’s hands in the next few years.”
But most of all I’m reminded of the extraordinary intensity with which he spoke about “the big insight,” as he called it, that he and others had had in the 1970s regarding the importance of putting computers (and, presumably, other digital devices) into the hands of ordinary people. His point had to do with the enormous creative capacity of individuals—all kinds of individuals—if given the right tools. A thousand people with microcomputers, he suggested, will always outperform one person with a supercomputer. “Because people are inherently creative. They will use tools in ways the toolmakers never thought possible.” And then they will share what they’ve learned.
It was, when you think about it, a profoundly democratic paradigm, and it encompassed the hope and promise of the digital age. Jobs said it had driven him since 1975. It obviously continued to drive him right up to the end. “I believe this is one of the most important things that’s going to happen in our generation,” he told us. We couldn’t disagree.
Jobs did more than any other single person start this revolution. Where it leads will be up to the next generation, and the ones after that. The world they create will be his memorial.