Where Steve Jobs Ranks Among the Greats

He was a genius, but fans in mourning may overstate his ultimate contribution to society.

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He was indisputably a titan of the digital era. But how does Steve Jobs stack up against the greatest business leaders in American history?

We won’t really know for years, of course, since nobody’s sure where technology will lead or what his company, Apple, may still achieve. But Steve Jobs was clearly a visionary who changed much about the way people use technology. His death from pancreatic cancer at just 56 feels like a national loss. And he’s one of the few people in any field who can plausibly be compared with America’s greatest innovators. So it doesn’t seem too early to try.

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Here’s my methodology: Instead of measuring the amount of wealth created, I’m more interested in the impact that innovators have had on life in America, on how they improved living standards, advanced the nation’s competitiveness and created opportunity for others. By that measure, Steve Jobs, for all his accomplishments, is up against a pantheon of epic overachievers.

Back in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, helped form the ethos of the middle class--which he called “the middling people, the farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen”—while serving as the conscience of the upstart nation through his publications, crafty diplomacy and deft political touch. Alexander Hamilton—who like Jobs, died young, at the age of 49—helped create the financial system that turned the United States from a banana republic into a stable nation global investors would be comfortable doing business with.

During the Industrial Revolution, pioneers like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie helped the United States become one of the world’s mightiest economies—one that overtook Europe in the production of vital new materials like oil and steel. By the late 1800s, Thomas Edison developed an electric-lighting system that literally turned darkness to light and ushered in sweeping second- and third-order changes, from the improvement of working conditions in factories everywhere to safer homes no longer lit by candles. Edison also found time to invent the phonograph, the movie projector, and many other things, including a key modification to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone that remained part of the basic design until the 1980s.

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In the 20th century, Henry Ford brought the gilded luxury of personal transportation to virtually everybody with his mass-produced cars, an innovation that shifted whole population centers from city to suburb. The Wright Brothers invented airplanes that would eventually move people from city to city—then from continent to continent--in hours, an order-of-magnitude change in the timeliness with which business could be conducted. Walt Disney invented new forms of entertainment for increasingly prosperous people with the newfound luxury of leisure time. Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart, brought everyday low prices to millions of shoppers. Ted Turner, who started CNN, broadcast his splashy cable news all day long, breaking the networks’ monopoly on news and spawning an on-air information revolution.

When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple in 1976, they set to work building a line of computers--culminating in the Macintosh--that would be the most intuitive machines of their kind. In a way, they introduced the middling people to the magic of digital processors the way Henry Ford introduced them to cars. The brash young Jobs left Apple in 1985, after a spat with the board over the company’s direction. By his own later admission, he needed a strong dose of perspective.

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Jobs did other things for 12 years, until returning to Apple as CEO in 1997. The company was floundering, after a string of misfires. Jobs straightened things out, then brought Apple to new heights with wonders like the iPod, iPhone and iPad, along with services like iTunes and Apple TV meant to complement the elegant devices. By the time Jobs retired as CEO earlier this year, Apple was more valuable than virtually any other technology company in the world, including Google, IBM and Microsoft.

Jobs’s death has touched Apple customers, and many others, in a heartfelt way that’s unusual for a business leader—especially today. Encomiums have flowed from practically everybody with a blog or Twitter account. “He was our Thomas Edison and our Henry Ford, all in one brief life,” wrote political commentator David Frum in his Twitter feed, summarizing the thoughts of many.

But was he? Edison and Ford devised innovations so profound they transformed whole societies and materially improved the lives of people who never even purchased a Ford or Edison product. Edison lit public places, while also providing electricity that helped heat them and power other machines. The automobiles that rolled off Ford’s assembly lines swept putrid piles of horse manure off of urban streets and made cities more liveable. Edison and Ford, like other historical giants, created progress that could be measured every day in the humblest of homes, while also laying the foundation for entirely new industries.

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If you’re an Apple customer, chances are you feel that Steve Jobs has done something similar for you. Apple products are famous for their user-friendliness and their ability to enhance productivity, whether through third-party apps or ingenious features like the iMovie software that lets amateurs create videos with a professional look and feel. Perhaps more than anything, Apple customers simply enjoy using their products, which takes the drudgery out of scanning spreadsheets or speed-reading emails. Nobody really says that about a Blackberry or a Hewlett-Packard PC.

But many Apple products remain high-end indulgences for people with the money to spend on an enhanced digital experience. Yes, Steve Jobs has done the masses a service by showing his utilitarian competitors how to devise an artful user interface, which usually trickles down to cheaper generic devices once Apple has moved on to version 4 or 5. But Macs and iPhones and iPads remain too pricey for many mainstream consumers, who might read about the wonders of Apple gizmos the way they read about luxury cars or fancy dinners: Sounds nice, and I hope I can afford one some day. Meanwhile, you’d have to stretch to define a way in which Steve Jobs has materially improved society, enhanced public life or broadly shared his gifts with people who can’t afford to be his customers. (Cue the outrage of Apple Nation.)

Jobs was truly a brilliant designer, marketer and technologist—all in one. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the digital revolution would have carried on without him. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, the founders of Intel, invented much of the circuitry that powered Jobs’s devices over the years, along with many other computing machines. Bill Gates developed software that has powered far more computers than Apple ever built. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, have provided an Internet search service that’s arguably more useful to more people—for free—than anything Apple has rolled out. Jobs helped make the first 30 years of the mass-computing era colorful and even fun. But it didn’t take him to make it possible.

He did accomplish something, however, that’s rare in the annals of business history: He made consumers fall in love with his ideas and his products, and even with him. Jobs wasn’t a particularly likeable guy, by most accounts. He had a prickly demeanor and an I-know-better arrogance that would have been the downfall of a lesser visionary. Yet he leaves behind a vast army of Apple acolytes who may propel his ideas to heights beyond Jobs’s own reach. In the firmament of business giants, Steve Jobs shines medium-hot, like the sun. But like a few other geniuses who die too young, his star may get brighter the longer he is gone.

Twitter: @rickjnewman