The power of Steve Jobs
The charismatic Apple founder pioneered several industries, made an unrivaled comeback, and established a powerhouse brand, placing him at the top of Fortune's 2007 Power 25 list.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Management guru Jim Collins once called Steve Jobs the "Beethoven of business." He was marveling at the Apple founder's ability, time and again, to conjure digital objects of desire from esoteric blends of chips, disks, plastic, and software, and then promote them with his own alluring brand of performance art. But Jobs might also be called its Machiavelli, a man who can bend suppliers, partners, and even industries to his will.
His resurgent brainchild, Apple Inc (Charts, Fortune 500)., is 121st on the Fortune 500, well behind such competitors as Dell (Charts, Fortune 500) (No. 34) and Hewlett-Packard (Charts, Fortune 500) (No. 14). Nonetheless, Apple's fecundity - born of continual and artful innovation in every aspect of its business - has foisted profound changes not only upon infotech but upon many adjacent industries.
Think about it. During the first two decades of his remarkable 30-year career, Jobs twice altered the direction of the computer industry. In 1977 the Apple II kicked off the PC era, and the graphical user interface launched by Macintosh in 1984 has been aped by every other computer since.
Along the way Jobs conceived of "desktop publishing," gave the world the laser printer, and pioneered personal computer networks. As a side gig he bankrolled Pixar, which fostered the technology and a brand-new business model for creating computer-animated feature films.
Since returning to an ailing Apple in 1997, Jobs has exercised his increasing power with the facility of a jujitsu master. Consider: He elbowed aside the likes of Sony (Charts) to change the dynamics of consumer electronics with the iPod.
He persuaded the music industry, the television networks, and Hollywood to let him show them how to distribute their wares in the Digital Age with the iTunes Music Store. He employed the arch austerity of his hugely successful Apple Stores to give the big-box boys a lesson in high-margin, high-touch retailing.
And this year, at the height of his creative and promotional powers, Jobs orchestrated Apple's over-the-top entry into the cellular telephone business with the iPhone, a lozenge of glass and aluminum encasing a do-everything digital device.
That's five industries that Jobs has upended - computers, Hollywood, music, retailing, and wireless phones. He's also had a notable effect on how the creative aspects of all industries operate because of the software tools Apple makes for filmmaking, sound recording, and photo editing.
And he continues to be a tastemaker in TV and print advertising. Moreover, after the sale of Pixar earlier this year, he is now Disney's (Charts, Fortune 500) biggest shareholder. At this moment, no one has more influence over a broader swath of business than Jobs.
"We don't think in terms of power," says Jobs. "We think about creating new innovative products that will surprise and delight our customers. Happy and loyal customers are what give Apple its 'power.' At the heart of it, though, we simply try to make great products that we want for ourselves, and hope that customers will love them as much as we do. And I think after all these years we've gotten pretty decent at it."
Jobs has some other telltale trappings of power too - namely, budding resentment among his rivals and dissension in the ranks of partners and business allies who don't like the way he dictates his own terms, and theirs too.
NBC recently announced it would withdraw its television programming from the iTunes Music Store and start its own video-download service, and some of the music companies would like more flexibility in how their songs and albums are priced. Also the stubble-faced Jobs has drawn the scrutiny of the SEC for his role in backdating options at Apple and Pixar.
What makes Jobs tick? Even his close friends, most of whom won't talk about him for the record, confess they don't know. But no other high-tech impresario could walk into the annual sales meeting of one of his fiercest rivals and get a standing ovation. That's what happened back in 2002, when Andy Grove invited Jobs to talk about innovating.