The announcement of the death of Steve Jobs was simple, effective and profound. It was typical of Apple. It was typical of Steve Jobs.
“Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Steve have lost a dear friend and an inspiring mentor. Steve leaves behind a company that only he could have built, and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple,” the company’s CEO Tim Cook told staff on October 5.
Few could argue with Cook’s assessment of his friend, mentor and predecessor at the helm of Apple. The company Jobs co-founded, rescued from near bankruptcy and ran for the past 14 years is one of the biggest and most successful technology companies in the world – annual revenues top $100 billion. More importantly, it has been at the forefront of the information revolution that swept the globe in the past three decades and helped define the personal computing, communications and entertainment industries. Iconic products such as the Apple Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, App Store and iPad not only forged new markets, but also set the benchmark for performance, functionality and design.
|A short and stellar life|
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Its sleek smartphones, trendy music devices and elegant computers may be a common sight in the high streets and office complexes of the world’s wealthy nations, but they are a rarity in most developing countries. Apple operates no subsidiaries in Africa, its products are sold by distributors, and it has not, as yet, opened any of its landmark Apple Stores on the continent. Neither Apple nor its southern African distributor, the Core Group, would disclose sales volumes or revenue for Africa.
One of the legacies of Steve Jobs is his company’s neglect of Africa, says World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck. “Apple, like many multinational technology companies, has not recognised the significance of Africa. It is a legacy that may come back to haunt the company,” claims Goldstuck. The high price of many of Apple’s products, together with its closed proprietary operating systems, has tended to hinder sales in Africa. However, recent improvements in the pricing of Apple products in Africa may indicate a shift in the US corporation’s attitude.
Apple’s distance from Africa for much of the company’s history has enabled international rivals to steal a march on the firm in some of its markets and also fuelled the growth of local technology suppliers. Nigerian daily newspaper The Sun responded to the announcement of Jobs’ death by recounting how local businessman Leo Stan Ekeh was inspired to create his own computing empire after meeting the American in the UK in the early 1980s. Ekeh was apparently so infuriated that Africa did not feature in Jobs’ plans for Apple that he returned home and many years later founded Zinox Computers – Nigeria’s largest manufacturer of IT products.
Supreme entrepreneurIt is the image of Jobs as the supreme entrepreneur – smart, unconventional and highly successful in the world arena of business – that is one of his greatest legacies in Africa. In a continent crammed full of quick-thinking and fast-moving entrepreneurs and millions of young people longing to take advantage of the vast consumer revolution reshaping Africa, the story of Jobs’ rise from humble origins to wealth, fame and global influence is highly emotive.
Jobs’ famed exhortation ‘Find what you love’ captured the imagination of many young Africans. In Kenya, for example, the volume of comments about Jobs’ death posted on Facebook and Twitter matched those concerned with Wangari Maathai – the country’s Nobel laureate who died the previous week.
“Steve Jobs is an inspiration to young African entrepreneurs,” says Henk Kleynhans, CEO at Cape Town telecommunications firm Skyrove. Kleynhans, an executive at Silicon Cape – a consortium formed to encourage technology entrepreneurs in the Western Cape – adds that Jobs has shown the power of technology to create new markets and business opportunities.
Jobs’ trademark energy, passion, curiosity, single-mindedness and attention to detail were legend. So too was his capacity to overcome disappointment and failure. After he was jettisoned by Apple in 1985, Jobs formed innovative technology firm Next Computer and bought film animation company Pixar from George Lucas for $10 million. In 1996, Jobs convinced an ailing Apple to buy Next for $430 million, and a year later, he was back at the helm of the company. Pixar he sold to Disney in 2006 in return for a seven percent stake in the entertainment giant worth $4,6 billion.
Jobs took charge of Apple when the company was teetering on bankruptcy (it lost $816 million in 1996) and performed one of the greatest comebacks in US corporate history. In 2009, Fortune magazine named him CEO of the decade.
Jobs’ ability to overcome setbacks stretched beyond his personal life and career. Apple unveiled several products that were duds (remember the Newton, Apple TV and iPod Hi-Fi?), but the business momentum generated by its successes more than compensated.
While the business career of Jobs and the story of the rise of Apple are sure to appear on the curricula of business schools throughout Africa, the management style of the great entrepreneur is unlikely to be presented as a model for aspiring executives. Prodigiously intelligent, often impatient and supremely confident, Jobs could be scathing in his criticism of Apple employees and relentless in the demands he placed on them.
Personal charismaJobs’ personal charisma and obvious brilliance fostered a loyalty among friends and Apple staff that few could emulate. He cultivated his public persona through careful use of the media, tight control of information flowing out of Apple and an almost complete clamp-down on details of his personal life. Jobs came to be recognised throughout the world not just as a highly successful entrepreneur and businessman, but also a technology visionary and an arbiter of good design and taste. At public events he was often greeted with awe and reverence. A natural showman, Jobs used public presentations, well-crafted advertising campaigns and occasional celebrity endorsements to project an image of Apple and its products as innovative, glamorous and highly desirable. Apple marketing slogans – ‘The Computer for the Rest of Us’, ‘The Power to be Your Best’ and ‘Think Different’ – quickly took root in the psyche of its customers.
“Steve Jobs made technology personal. No one had done that before,” says Goldstuck. Owners of Apple products such as the iMac, iPhone and iPad see such devices as an integral part of their lives and in many ways a reflection of their own taste, values and lifestyle, he adds. Jobs not only made owning and using technology products glamorous, he also helped change perceptions about the industry that created them. It became ‘cool’ to work in the technology business.
Kenyan academic Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says one of the great legacies of Jobs was the way he took technology that already existed and applied it to new purposes. The effect of this innovation often went beyond the imagination of Jobs and his colleagues at Apple. Jobs avoided publicly championing political or philanthropic causes. However, Juma, speaking in Public Radio International in the US, says the advent of desktop publishing (DTP) in the 1980s, a market developed and pioneered by Apple with the introduction of the Mac and Laser Writer printer, enabled African dissidents to promote democracy in their countries. In South Africa, newspapers such as The Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad, which were highly critical of the apartheid government, could not have functioned without Apple DTP technology.
It was Jobs’ belief that he, and the products he and Apple created, could change the world. That ranks him alongside the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and paperback book pioneer Allen Lane as one of the great entrepreneurs of history. Jobs recognised the vast potential of technology, especially when delivered into the hands of ordinary people.
Change the world
The full impact of Jobs’ legacy in Africa may yet be realised. In the past four years, Apple has revolutionised the mobile phone industry with the introduction of the iPhone and the creation of the smartphone market. Apple sees the smartphone as the ideal delivery mechanism for a host of associated communications, productivity and entertainment services that together form a vast digital ecosystem intended to shape how much of the world’s population live, work and engage with one another. Africa has lagged the rest of the world in the global rollout of the television and personal computing technology, but it has been quick to embrace the mobile phone. There are an estimated 500 million mobile phones in Africa – one for every two people. Smartphones are still scarce but as prices continue to fall, and the market for used products grows, they will become increasingly popular.
“Steve Jobs opened the eyes of the developed world to the potential of the mobile phone. But Africa has known this for more than ten years because the mobile phone is the only (digital) screen available to most Africans,” says Alan Knott-Craig Jr, CEO at African social media giant MXit.
The rapid adoption of smartphones in Africa has the potential to bridge the digital divide that has impaired the development of the continent. If such changes occur, Apple is well placed to capitalise.
“The durability and performance of Apple products makes them highly attractive to the African market if the price is right,” says internet entrepreneur Eran Eyal. He points out that the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit endemic in Africa has the potential to create enormous and, as yet, unforeseen opportunities for the use of technology.
Discussing his battle with cancer in an address to students at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs remarked that death is probably the single best invention of life. “It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
The ‘new’ that emerges in Africa as a result of the legacy of Jobs and his beloved Apple may well match the triumphs of one of the greatest pioneers of technology the world has yet to see.