Steve Jobs’ Midas touch

Steve Jobs announced this week that he won’t be resuming his duties as Apple’s chief executive, ending a remarkable run that transformed Apple from an also-ran computer maker into one of the most valuable publicly traded companies in the United States. He’ll remain chairman of Apple’s board, so it’s too early to declare the Jobs era over. Yet it’s a good time to reflect on Jobs’ seemingly magic touch.

It’s not Apple’s ability to invent technologies as much as Jobs’ uncanny sense of how to design and package them into products and services that consumers didn’t realize they needed. It’s not the power that Apple put at people’s fingertips as much as the easy utility. And it’s not the novelty as much as the quality of the experience — the insistence that the first version of an Apple product work better than the competitors’ second or third.

Although he’s well known for being a micromanager (his name can be found on more than 300 Apple patents, including several for the boxes its products came in) and a control freak, Jobs doesn’t get all the credit for these successes. The company has attracted extremely talented engineers and designers, most notably Jonathan Ive, the longtime chief of design who helped put the dazzle into Apple’s sleek devices. Nevertheless, one of Jobs’ unique contributions to Apple appears to be a phenomenal sense of timing — in particular, an ability to recognize when the public may finally be ready to adopt a disruptive technology.

That’s why Apple’s products over the past decade have not only been wildly popular, they have accelerated the industrial transformations made possible by digital technology. The iPod and the iTunes Store hastened the move from plastic CDs to downloadable singles. The iPhone turned the cellphone into an uninterrupted online pipeline of content and connections. The iPad opened a convenient, portable window into the growing trove of media online. None of these devices or services was the first of its kind — in fact, they all arrived years after their pioneering competitors — but they were the first to be embraced by the masses.

Granted, Apple’s success has hindered the companies whose ideas for digital media didn’t jibe with Jobs’ notion of what the public wanted. For example, subscription music services struggled for years because Jobs disliked them and Apple’s iPods didn’t support them. On the other hand, Apple wouldn’t be where it is today without Jobs’ singular vision — as well as the company’s ability to translate it into products that it marketed brilliantly. Wednesday’s announcement wasn’t surprising, considering Jobs’ long struggle with pancreatic cancer and its aftershocks. It was, however, a reminder that the Steve Jobs era won’t last forever. Here’s hoping that it’s not over yet.