Steve Jobs – A Life In Failure

This week Apple co-founder Steve Jobs passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. As a household name, people naturally mourned the man most had never met. Like his historical comparison, Thomas Edison, Jobs was a brash provocateur, did little of the hands-on inventing in his shop, enjoyed a non-conventional libation, and he oversaw monumental failures. Jobs’s sometimes nemesis, Bill Gates, has many of the same type-A traits, but Microsoft was essentially forbidden to fail, and that is the reason Apple is worth 25% more than Microsoft today.

Failure is the common thread among all great innovators. Edison’s monumental failure was his DC power grid. Westinghouse won the battle to electrify the nation with AC power – a vastly superior technology, yet Edison remains the greatest inventor of his time. Jobs’s failures were epic – the Lisa, Next Computer, the first portable Mac. Under different leadership, Apple also produced the Newton and other disasters. Unlike anything else, failure focuses the mind, redirects resources, and redoubles creative efforts. Most triumphs rise from the rubble of colossal failure. In Apple’s case, it teetered on the brink of insolvency at the end of 2000, only to become the most valuable publicly traded company today.

Microsoft also had its share of failures – Windows Me, Clippy, a host of failed applications. Microsoft’s early history was that of producing a poor first effort, but constantly improving until it dominated the market. The paths of Jobs and Gates diverged when the Government decided Microsoft was too successful. In 1998, a group of AGs and the DOJ responded by shackling Microsoft’s creativity; Microsoft essentially had to clear each new idea or product with government bureaucrats. Anything that might leverage Microsoft’s strengths in the market was forbidden. Microsoft had become akin to a public utility – profitable, but low growth and no innovation. Without the prospect of success, the risks of failure seem too great, and innovation at Microsoft tailed off.

To be sure, Microsoft employees continued to invent new technologies. Microsoft pioneered the tablet PC, touch screen smart phones, speech recognition built into Windows, and a wealth of patents. But Microsoft never bet the farm on any of these innovations, and they never dominated their markets. Most notably, Apple now dominates the tablet market that Microsoft launched a decade ago. Without the incentive and freedom to risk failure, Microsoft lost its way. Now that government oversight has been lifted, Microsoft is aggressively pursuing the markets it pioneered – smart phones and tablet PCs. The freedom to fail is the power to innovate and make the world better.

Shout Bits has argued against government interference in the creative process before, but the story of Steve Jobs is the promise of US exceptionalism, while the story of Microsoft is the decline of innovation when the government disallows failure. Jobs lead the true American life. He failed over and over; his life took as many turns as his short years allowed. He founded a Fortune 500 company, lost it, and eventually rebuilt it. Along the way, he revolutionized computers, movies, music, and telephony. Whenever Jobs took on an industry, those working for the established norm packed their bags.

On the other hand, while Microsoft started out disrupting industries with aggressive risk taking, later it was ensnared by government dictates on what was ‘fair.’ The careers of Jobs and Gates are a cautionary tale to anyone who might believe the government should allocate investments or somehow decide which ideas are to succeed. Even if Pres. Obama had picked a winner in Solyndra, the heavy hand of government would have foreclosed on someone else with an even better idea. Steve Jobs’s career was a celebration of the US’s unique capacity to tolerate the failures that eventually lead to the innovations that build the modern world.

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