August 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

4 Reasons There Won’t Be Another Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs pictured here with Walt Mossberg, courtesy of Flickr/Joi Ito (link below).

In the wake of Steve Jobs resignation, which was going to come as a shock regardless of how, when, or why it happened, the tech world is looking for new visionaries. San Jose Mercury News’ Chris O’Brien took things a step further, asking, “Who Will Be Silicon Valley’s Next Steve Jobs?

That’s an easy one, as O’Brien himself mentions before wondering whether Jobs’ mantle will be assumed by Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Larry Page (Google) – or “dark horses” Elon Musk (Tesla), Reed Hastings (Netflix) or Marc Benioff (Salesforce).

The answer: Nobody will be the next Steve Jobs. Here’s why:

1.  You can’t reinvent the personal computer and the internet is already there.

Many people alive today have lived through two unique moments in the history of humankind: the invention of the personal computer and the rollout of the internet. These things are not going to happen again, barring an apocalyptic nightmare scenario.

Can’t you be Steve Jobs without having had a hand in the advent of the personal computer, perfectly timed as it was to precede the availability of a public, high-speed internet? Nope. It simply isn’t possible to establish a company that close to the center of computing anymore — one that can branch out into software, media, software retailing (i.e. the iTunes app store), design, accessories, “works with iPod”-style licensing, and the rest of it. The world is too big for another Steve Jobs to emerge.

Facebook is a social network that runs on other people’s devices, although it’s trying to be a portable identity for internet-wide authentication (so is Google+). And not even Google, which seems to be everywhere, but which still makes the vast majority of its money from search advertising, can match Apple’s practice of controlling its own hardware, smartphones, portable media players, operating systems, licensees, media partners, and so on. As for electric cars, movie rental services, and cloud-based sales team tools, none of those are general enough to have a chance at Apple-style cross-platform ubiquity.

The personal computing explosion is like the big bang: It only happens once.

2. It’s really difficult to be Steve Jobs.

A friend who will remain nameless told me firsthand what it was like to work at Apple. First, one of the worst things that could happen to an Apple employee was to get onto the elevator with Steve Jobs, because he would quiz them about what they were doing. If he didn’t like it, they could arrive at their destination without a job.

Jobs was involved with Apple at every level of the company, down to which contractors’ contracts would be renewed. Yes, even stuff like “which of these drones should last another week” passed across his desk.

Then, there’s the now-infamous “icon ambulance” story about Jobs’ call to Google’s Vic Gundotra, in which he asked for permission to fix the yellow gradient of the Google logo on the iPhone’s menu screen. On a Sunday.

I’ve never met another executive willing to get similarly mired in the minute details of running a company — or even heard about one. It’s just not practical. Except, somehow, when Steve Jobs did it, because…

3. Steve Jobs did everything wrong.

If you missed it before, check out my former colleague Leander Kahney’s excellent Wired Magazine piece entitled “How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong,” which kicks off with the legend of how Steve Jobs used to park in the handicapped spot outside Apple — just one of the ways in which the usual rules don’t seem to apply to him.

More importantly, the article explains how Jobs spurned seemingly all of the latest business wisdom, which encourages managers to “embrace open platforms; trust decisions to the wisdom of crowds; [and] treat your employees like gods.” It’s hard to imagine tenets more diametrically opposed to the way Steve Jobs does things. How is another Steve Jobs supposed to emerge when everything they hear tells them to behave in the opposite way?

4. There’s no law that someone has to be Steve Jobs.

Finally, there’s something fundamentally odd about the assumption that there has to be another Steve Jobs — or even that there was a Steve Jobs in the first place.

We’re a music app publication, so this opinion piece is already a bit of a reach for us. I’m not going to venture into the murky depths of theology, predestination, reincarnation, and the like. But still, it’s a weird assumption that there had to have been a Steve Jobs — and an even weirder assumption that there has to be another one.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Joi Ito)