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A brief history of transformation in business: Steve Jobs & the Macintosh

A brief history of transformation in business: Steve Jobs & the Macintosh

If you look at Steve Jobs' presentations as CEO of Apple – the launch of the iPhone or the iPad for example – you'll see a bookish, cheery computer geek languidly shuffling up and down the stage, chatting about his new product. He's the mystic in dad jeans coolly offering us a glimpse of the future like there was nothing to it.

But since his untimely death, the hundreds of obituaries, the books, the biographies and even two feature-length films, we now know the truth.

Steve Jobs wasn't a kooky, laid back soothsayer. He was a meticulous, aggressive, tantrum-throwing obsessive whose bloody-minded determination to change the world dragged his company (from which he had been already fired from) into the 21st century. Steve Jobs made as many enemies as he did admirers. Steve Jobs transformed not just the computing industry, but the way we go about our day-to-day lives. 

But how did he do it?

We've already covered how a disruptive attitude was the thing that set Apple on course to become the enduring force that it is today. But a key moment in the history of the company could be traced backed to 1984.

In 1984, Apple was about to launch a brand new product: the Macintosh. Apple had enjoyed decent success since their inception eight years previously, producing the Apple I, II, III and Apple IPO – businesses computers, basically. 

But the Macintosh was different.

The Macintosh wasn't going to be just another computer – the Macintosh featured a computer mouse, it featured a variety of fonts (inspired by Jobs' fondness for calligraphy), it featured windows, icons, menus, a graphical interface and even expandable memory (128K or 0.000128GB, if you're wondering). The Macintosh came with all the features you'd recognise in a computer today.

Apple Macintosh PC

Essentially, Jobs wanted to create a computer that was for anyone – it wasn't going to be something that just techies could appreciate, it was going to be a mass-market product. Computers were going to become everyday, for everyone. 

Unfortunately, it didn't exactly go to plan. 

Despite a huge marketing campaign (featuring 39 pages of ads in Newsweek and a Super Bowl half-time TV ad directed by Ridley Scott), the Macintosh didn't sell as well as hoped. Critics dismissed it as not much more than a toy, while board members were already angry about Jobs' decision to try and make Apple computers for the mass-market.

Jobs resigned the next year.

He then founded NeXT, another computer firm, and even bought budding animation studio Pixar (yes, that Pixar). Jobs had moved on. But by 1997, the success of NeXT, coupled with the fading fortunes of Apple, resulted in his old company buying out his new venture. Jobs was back – and this time he was the hero.

As interim CEO, Jobs set about transforming Apple, balancing innovative tech with sleek design. The result? The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad – products you either own, have probably owned at some point, or can probably see somewhere in the office right now.

So what exactly set Jobs apart as a visionary? Was it his tech skills? His world-class research methods? Was it the famous designs he created?

No – in fact, he didn't do any of those things. He couldn't code, he usually only trusted his own instincts, and his designs were "inspired" by a variety of sources that weren't his own – he famously said: "We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." 

So what did he do? What exactly was his skill or his core competency? What exactly could the guy list on his CV?

Jobs wasn’t all about skillset. What was key to his success was his mindset. 

Firstly, he could lead a company by producing a clear vision. In 2011, he said: “Technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing." That was Jobs' vision in a nutshell. And he was able to ensure it was reflected in everything the company did.

Secondly, he could collaborate. Yes he distrusted focus groups and was known to re-write marketing materials all by himself. But let's not forget, he was a co-founder. He was a master of bringing together different ideas and mindsets. He couldn't build motherboards, be he knew enough people who did that were willing to work with him.

Lastly, he could overcome challenges. The Macintosh, Jobs' masterpiece, despite its now obvious innovations, was in his own company's eyes, a failure. What did he do about it? He started again. He began a new project. In 1997, Apple brought Steve Jobs back. And ten years later, he stood on stage introducing the world to the iPhone – a product that now boasts a 20 percent global market share. A product that accounts for around half of Apple's revenue. A product based on the exact same principles as the Macintosh back in 1984 – tech and design together, "making the heart sing", as he put it.

Steve Jobs’ mindset, and his instinct to disrupt, to transform, to blow his competition out of the water over and over again, were the keys to his success. Even today, in the new world of work, that’s still a lesson leaders could all learn from. 

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