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Steve Jobs: More than a turnaround artist

The Apple CEO's unique combination of showmanship, eye for detail and instinct for business strategy may make it hard to identify his rightful place in business history.

October 05, 2011|Michael Hiltzik

What we think of Steve Jobs five or 10 years from now may have a lot to do with how his heirs at Apple manage the inevitable transitions ahead in digital technology.

Jobs has left them many useful lessons. Indeed, when his return to Apple as an informal advisor to then-CEO Gil Amelio was announced in 1996, the company was a few wheezing breaths from extinction.

In September 1996, he visited The Times for lunch in his role as head of Pixar, the digital animation studio he created after acquiring the computer graphics unit of Lucasfilms in 1986. Flanked by Pixar's chief technologist, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter, director of the studio's hit "Toy Story," he picked at his vegetarian plate and shunned questions about his old company.

"That's my former life," he said. "The great thing about being involved with Pixar is that I don't have to think about any of that."

Once reinstalled as Apple CEO, Jobs succeeded in part by ignoring advice from learned competitors. In 1985, Microsoft's Bill Gates had advised then-Apple CEO John Sculley that the company's only hope for survival was to license outside computer companies to manufacture Mac "clones" featuring Apple's Macintosh operating system.

But Jobs, perceiving correctly that the clones were cannibalizing Apple's own sales without doing anything to improve the product, shut down the business. The end of the clones presaged Apple's resurgent manufacturing and technology leadership under Jobs.

Jobs also ruthlessly pared back Apple's product lines; the jettisoned products included the Newton, a kludgy hand-held tablet computer — an iPad well ahead of its time. But the simplified inventory became the foundation for fresh expansion, starting with the translucent blue $1,299 iMac in 1998 (followed by its candy-colored cousins and iBook laptop a few months later).

It may be that the essential ingredients in Apple's business model have been the drive and charisma of Steve Jobs. Apple's faithful will say that the team of executives he put in place will follow in his footsteps.

And so they will, until a new technology emerges that demands his unique vision, authority and credibility. What then?

Timeline: The life and work of Steve Jobs

Michael Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. His latest book is "The New Deal: A Modern History." Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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