Steve Jobs, the consummate challenger

From other PC companies to Hollywood to his own successes, Apple's co-founder took on established players again and again. And he usually won.

Challengers is a blog about products, services, and technologies that take on the status quo. But right now, it's impossible for me to think about taking on the status quo without my mind turning to a person: Steve Jobs.

He spent 35 years in the PC and personal technology industry, and nearly everything he did, he did in the form of a challenge.

Steve Jobs and the iPad, January 2010. James Martin/CNET

Some examples:

The PC business. Jobs helped to create the personal computer industry in the 1970s, then led the development of the Macintosh, the only consumer platform that took on the Microsoft monopoly. For years, the conventional wisdom was that the Mac lost the PC wars--but it's still with us after 27 years and Apple is by far the most profitable PC maker in the world. Now, with the iPad, the company is the only successful player so far in a product category that's the first serious competition the PC has ever had.

Legacy technologies. Jobs didn't like all new technologies--just ask anyone who craves a Mac with a Blu-Ray drive. But he championed countless innovations, from the graphical user interface to Wi-Fi to Thunderbolt , that went up against tried-and-true technologies. And he usually did it well before the rest of the industry got on board.

Retail. The Apple Store, which debuted in 2001, is so different from other computer stores that it's barely recognizable as being part of the same category, and no competitor has succesfully cloned it. CompUSA, Circuit City, and other Apple Store rivals from a decade ago are gone; Apple's storefronts are the envy not only of electronics retailing but of the retail industry, period.

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• An Apple without Steve Jobs
• Steve Jobs at Apple: A retrospective (photos)
• ZDNet: Steve Jobs, our digital version of Walt Disney

The music industry. Early this century, the major companies that own music were clinging to the CD and terrified of Napster and its ilk. Jobs cajoled them into allowing Apple to sell their songs for 99 cents apiece. Billions of tunes later, Apple is the U.S.'s largest music merchant, having helped to drive Tower Records and other purveyors of CDs into irrelevance and bankruptcy.

Hollywood. This one's still a work in progress. For one thing, Apple TV remains an Apple product that hasn't changed everything, in part because Jobs wasn't entirely successful in convincing the studios to give him all the content he wanted and and to let him sell it to consumers in the way he thought best. But when movies and TV complete their transition to the Internet--and they will--Jobs will deserve credit for the role he played in getting it started.

His customers. For a man whose products became such enormous bestsellers, Jobs was uncommonly willing to tick off consumers. He routinely deprived them of things they thought they knew they needed, from floppy drives to FireWire to Flash. Most often, his instincts were right, even when his timing was a bit early.

Himself. One of the keys to Jobs's success was that Apple often came up with the Apple-killing products which other companies failed to create. The first iPod Nano, for instance, was a dramatic improvement on the iPod Mini--so much so that Apple simply discontinued the Mini at the height of his success.

The odds of Apple continuing to be successful in the post-Jobs era seem excellent, and there's every reason to think that the company will continue to have much of his iconoclastic, intensely competitive spirit. But it won't be the same without him--and the thought that we'll never again see Steve Jobs shake things up makes me sad.

About the author

    Harry McCracken is the founder and editor of Technologizer, an award-winning independent Web site about the Web, mobile tech, consumer electronics, and PCs. He also writes a weekly tech column for Time.com.

     

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