The biggest mistake I ever made as a Wall Street analyst was my review of the iPhone. When it was introduced, I titled my comments: “What is the Black Swan of Telecom? Hint: It’s not the iPhone.”
I learned two lessons. One, sadly, is no longer relevant: Never underestimate Steve Jobs. The second is eternal: Never underestimate human creativity in changing a business equation.
In my review, I focused too much on the contractual relationship between device manufacturers and service providers. That remained unchanged. What Jobs and Apple focused on, however, was the value creation made possible through a platform anchored by a beautiful — not just functional — smart phone. That changed many things — including the relative values of Apple and the service providers.
I should have known better. For of the thousands of meetings I have had in nearly two decades in the telecom ecosystem, four stand out. Three of those were with Steve Jobs.(The other was with Wynton Marsalis).
I think it is because, though both men had strong, clear visions, neither had an agenda. Their words possessed an integrity inevitably difficult when one is, say, discussing technical rules for unbundling networks with a CEO whose stock will go up or down depending on the outcome.
Jobs was interested in things that government can do — the one meeting at his request, in summer 2007, concerned spectrum policy and a coming auction. But his faith, ultimately, was in his ability to provide consumers experiences they would love. This gave him a Zen-like indifference to major policy issues.
Jobs also had an ability to boil down complicated issues to clear directions. Education came up in all three meetings. Though the issues are complex, he always addressed them from the perspective of what the student was actually learning — something often lost in these conversations.
He stayed focused in a way unusual for celebrity types meeting with government officials. Jobs may have created a generation of multi-taskers, but he never carried a device of his making into any meetings.
He also spoke in a way that made him impossible to categorize as liberal or conservative. His words reflected his personal experiences rather than an ideological framework. The conversations made his “think different” ad campaign less a slogan than a lodestone.
What made these meetings perhaps most memorable was that Jobs had mastered the rare art of appearing completely transparent and sincere — while also being a master showman. At that level, an act is no longer an act.
Jobs – and Marsalis — combined perfectionism on technical details with a capability of communicating an aesthetic vision that retains the same power — whether in a room of thousands or in a room alone, whether it occurred yesterday or a decade ago.
Much discussion Thursday was about which of Jobs’ products will have the greatest legacy. For my money, the iPad will lead to the destruction of the textbook industry and eventually to a huge transformation of education.
But Jobs’s greatest legacy will likely be the passion and integrity with which he communicated his vision. He was the equivalent of a Black Swan of chief executive officers.
As the father of three children — who grew up in a world that Jobs, in so many, ways, created — his most lasting contribution was his much-cited Stanford commencement speech.
It will be a perennial—like the Pixar movies but with even greater staying power. Generations will send it to their successors, for it explains how to think about the path of one’s life — how to combine a sense of purpose, integrity and creativity that contributes the most to our common humanity.
Blair Leven is the executive director of Gig.U and a fellow with the Communications and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. He served as a Wall St. analyst, executive director of the National Broadband Plan and chief of staff to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt.
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