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What Does Future Hold for Tech World, Apple Without Jobs?

October 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was remembered Thursday as being one the of world's greatest innovators. Jeffrey Brown discusses his life and work with Google's Vint Cerf, Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin and AOL co-founder Steve Case.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And more now from three prominent voices in the world of technology. Vint Cerf is recognized as one of the founders of the Internet, based on his work as an engineer in the 1970s and later. He now promotes the adoption and use of the Internet around the world as the so-called chief evangelist for Google.

Steve Case is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of AOL. He’s now an entrepreneur and backs startups in a range of industries and chairman of the Case Foundation. And Xeni Jardin is editor of the popular technology and culture website BoingBoing.net.

Vint Cerf, I will start with you. As an engineer, how would you describe the impact of Steve Jobs on the world of technology?

VINT CERF, Google: Pretty much incalculable.

Steve was the guy who thought about science fiction and made the engineers turn science fiction into reality, a wonderful challenge, tough guy to work with, but he always got it right.

JEFFREY BROWN: He made the engineers do what they…

VINT CERF: What they didn’t think they could do.

JEFFREY BROWN: What they didn’t think they could do.

VINT CERF: They didn’t think they could. And Steve said, yes, you can. Go figure it out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Case, as a manager, tech businessman, what did you see?

STEVE CASE, AOL: Well, everybody was very impressed with Steve as not just a product visionary, as Vint said, but also a great business leader.

He pushed the engineers to create great products. He also pushed the business partners to do the right thing in terms of creating the best possible consumer experience, and that was true across the whole line of products, and whether it be the iPod or the iPhone or more recently the iPad. So it wasn’t just the ability to see around corners and, as Wayne Gretzky used to do, go where the puck is going and take consumers with him, but also get the whole ecosystem working together in support of that product and support of the consumer needs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was he a tough competitor?

STEVE CASE: Sure, he was a tough competitor. Thankfully, we were more partners than competitors. We partnered. AOL and Apple partnered early on in AOL’s early days in the ’80s on something called AppleLink Personal Edition, and then in the late ’90s worked together on messaging, created something called iChat that merged AOL instant messenger with the Apple operating systems.

And then later in the early part of the decade, after AOL merged with Time Warner, we brainstormed together about digital music. And that obviously led to the iPods. So, thankfully, I was more on the side of working together with him, didn’t have to compete with him, because he would be a pretty tough competitor.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Xeni Jardin, you look at the interaction of thing and culture. How did Jobs manage to imprint his mark on the public to make people not only customers, but believers?

XENI JARDIN, BoingBoing.net: That’s — that’s really a great mystery. And I think it will remain so for many years.

It’s hard to unravel exactly what made Steve Jobs so charismatic and so convincing. It was clear that he was a man who had no patience for distractions, for things that were outside of that — that vision that he believed so very, very much in. And that kind of charisma that he emanated caused so many of us in technology to kind of come along for that ride, very willingly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Xeni, he used this word taste a lot in designing products, a matter of personal taste, often his own taste, I guess. What did he mean — what did he mean by that?

XENI JARDIN: You know, one of the most beautiful things that I will always remember that he said is this idea that design isn’t just how something looks or feels. Design is the very product itself. It’s like the soul of these products, the idea that elegance, that simplicity, that beauty are fundamental qualities that technology should possess.

This was something that people were not thinking about in the ’70s, in the ’80s, when Apple was first emerging. This was something that was seen as heresy. There was a NewsHour piece in the late ’80s about Apple, about Steve Jobs. And in the beginning of the piece, he talks about receiving a letter from a 6-year-old boy.

IBM, the other big mainframe computer makers of the time, they weren’t worried about what a 6-year-old boy was thinking. But that 6-year-old boy and all of the other regular people, they grew up, and those were the people, it always seemed, that Jobs was designing for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Vint Cerf, the qualities we keep hearing about, driven, passionate, secretive, tough, you were talking about pushing the engineers beyond where they wanted to go. How does one do that?

VINT CERF: Well, first of all, you have to have a vision that other people can understand.

Steve’s design taste was sleek, simple, intuitive. When the original mouse was developed in 1968, it had three buttons. When Steve approached this, it had one button. And the idea was, you only have to worry about one button, not a whole bunch of them.

His whole point was to make things so intuitive, it just works. And that pushed the engineers pretty hard, but it gave them a target that they might not have shot at themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how about pushing the industry and keeping control over a lot of what he did?

VINT CERF: Well, plainly, he had a vertically integrated system. He really believed that you should make the box, put all the complicated stuff inside and don’t open it up; it just works. And I think he succeeded better than almost anyone else at achieving that objective.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Steve Case, of course, it didn’t always work. Not every product worked out. And as we said in our setup, he famously was pushed out of the company at a certain point.

He came back and turned it around big time. Now, how does one do that? You know the experience of being at the top and having to maintain that position. How hard is that and how does one do it?

STEVE CASE: Well, I think it’s really hard. For a decade, he was out of Apple and focused on NeXT and Pixar, and had obviously great success with Pixar.

But I think his true love was always Apple. So when he reemerged — I this it was 1997 — he went back, and I remember he called me that week and was pushing us to do more things together at AOL. And, at that point in time, most people in the industry had given up on Apple. They had kind of written it off. But he really believed. And that passion kind of came through the phone line.

And, sure enough, suddenly, the — Apple started making some moves and a few years later a few more moves. And now is the most valuable, most respected, most loved technology company. And I think that is a key part of the product focus. Most people in the technology industry focused on creating useful products. Steve focused on products that people could really fall in love with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about — staying with you, Steve Case, what about the — keeping the products — keeping the control of the products, so that once was — once a person was part of the Apple family or group, you were there, right; you were hooked?

STEVE CASE: Well, it’s partly he was hooking people wanted them to fall in love with Apple products and stay with Apple products, but also there was a real passionate belief that that was the better way for consumers, that simplicity was critical.

He wasn’t the first to come out with a music player with the iPod. Dozens had come out in the years before with MP3 players. He obviously wasn’t the first to come out with a smartphone. There are many that came out before the iPhone. But he was the first to really make it a mass market, mainstream product that the whole world could fall in love with.

And a lot of that was simple design and making the decisions for consumers. And he always believed that you didn’t want to do focus groups or research and ask people what they wanted. You wanted to create products that they didn’t know they wanted yet and they would fall in love with. And I think that was part of the magic of his design philosophy.

But he also had perseverance. When he left Apple and then when he came back, he was stuck with these things over the long run. I think what people love about the Steve Jobs story is not just the track record at Apple, but that comeback story, that he was thrown out of Apple, came back and built the company even greater.

And that perseverance is so important in terms of entrepreneurship. It is not just passion and people. It is also perseverance. And nobody is a better role model for that, for all entrepreneurs all over the world than Steve Jobs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Xeni, also part of that personal story, of course, that we have — a lot of us have been seeing — you see that speech he gave at Stanford, for example, where he talks about his life.

I didn’t know a lot of that count — countercultural, I guess we will call it, background. Dropped out of college. He talked about studying calligraphy, of all things. Interesting background.

XENI JARDIN: There are stories you can read about him dropping LSD and venturing off to India to explore what life was like in an ashram. He was an adventurer through and through. And I — all of us with you tonight have been caring about technology for a long time.

He was a towering figure. I don’t think — there’s been no loss that was felt so deeply and so unanimously that I can remember in this industry. And it will be felt for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Xeni, what about Apple now? What happens?

XENI JARDIN: It will be interesting to see.

Tim Cook, the new Apple CEO, has one of the hardest Jobs in the world, you might say. No matter what the company does, their next steps will be measured against what the company might have done under Steve Jobs’ leadership. It will be a very interesting story to unfold.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Vint Cerf, one of the questions is how important is any one man to his own company and to this larger era?

VINT CERF: Well, I think that you can’t underestimate how important Steve has been and many others. But you know what? There are a lot of very smart people in the world. There are new startups that come along unexpectedly. Look at Yahoo! and Google and Amazon and so on.

That is not going to stop. We have a lot of very bright people in the world. All we have to do is make sure they have an opportunity to get started. So even while Steve departs, he leaves behind this magnificent legacy, there will be people who fill that hole at Apple and elsewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the challenge for Apple and these other companies now?

VINT CERF: First of all, all the products that come out of Apple didn’t come out of just one man. A lot of other people had to work very hard to make them work. So there are — those people still there. So I think that you will see some interesting opportunities for creative people emerging out of that wonderful collection of engineers and marketing and businesspeople at Apple.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Case, what do you see as the challenges for Apple now?

STEVE CASE: Well, I think they’re on a great trajectory. And Steve, to his credit, built a great team, a great culture and a product road map for the next few years that I think will suit Apple well. But in the long run, I think it’s important for Apple not to obsess about Steve.

He is the leader, he is the visionary, he set them on this terrific course, this almost magical course, but I remember one of Steve’s great early entrepreneurial heroes was Walt Disney. And when Walt Disney passed away, for a decade, people at the Disney company would always be saying, what would Walt do?

And that led them astray because the markets changed. I think what Steve would want Apple’s team to do is build on the legacy, build on the momentum, take Apple forward, but figure out what the next generation would need, and don’t just focus on the rearview mirror and don’t try to second-guess what Steve would do.

I think he has put them on the right path. That path will continue. But part of that path is bringing in an innovative team and then letting them make the decisions in the next wave, and really make sure Apple is just as successful 10 or 20 years from now. That would be his true legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the legacy of one man, how much difference one man makes, Steve Case?

STEVE CASE: Oh, it’s extraordinary.

I don’t want for a minute to underestimate that. Apple wouldn’t be what it is today without Steve. And that — proof of that was Apple struggled when he was gone and had a tremendous run when he came back. And that’s a huge loss, and it will be felt for many years to come.

My only comment was making sure Apple recognizes, as Steve recognized looking back at the history of Disney, that it is incredibly important for the whole team there to build on that legacy, build on that vision, and take it to new places, and not just focus on Steve as one individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steve Case, Xeni Jardin and Vint Cerf on the life and work of Steve Jobs, thank you all very much.

VINT CERF: Pleasure to be here.

XENI JARDIN: Thank you