What Steve Jobs' change of job tells us about Microsoft

Among all the many words published in the last couple of days about Steve Jobs, what stood out for me was some of his own quotes rather than the many “expert” opinions expressed about his stepping down as CEO of Apple.

Jobs – who will still be chairman of Apple, so his creative influence is not going away – is one of the few technology leaders who can genuinely be described as a visionary, a much over-used word in the industry.

A visionary is someone who can visualise a future, and work out how to get there, regardless of the doubters, distractions and failures along the way, remaining convinced, essentially, that they are right all along – and who then delivers that vision.

There are plenty of people in IT described all too quickly as visionary. At any one time, you can find dozens of creative company executives with a vision. But the visionaries are the ones who, years later, are proved right. Being a visionary is a long-distance race, not a beauty contest.

The visionary that Jobs has most in common with is not a modern technologist, but Henry Ford, the giant of the early 20th century car industry.

Ford once famously said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.”

Compare that with these quotes from Steve Jobs (thanks to the Wall Street Journal for its round-up of Jobsian quotations):

“For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

“This is what customers pay us for – to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, ‘Oh my God, that’s great!'”

And as far ago as 1985, he said, “The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people–as remarkable as the telephone.”

See the similarities? Ford-like, Jobs has always been driven by the belief that his vision of the future was right – it’s only in the last five or 10 years that he has really been proved correct.

Apple will continue to flourish because Jobs has yet to achieve the entirety of his vision, and as chairman he will still be there, health permitting, to continue that direction.

Compare and contrast with Microsoft.

The Seattle giant was driven from inception by Bill Gates’ vision of a PC on every desk and in every home, and of software becoming a revolutionary force. He was right, he achieved his vision, despite doubters, distractions and failures along the way. And once he had delivered, he went on to delivering a new vision, for improving global healthcare and education, funded by the riches amassed in delivering his original vision.

So what is Microsoft’s vision now? Where is the visionary leader? CEO Steve Ballmer has many strengths, he’s perhaps a great leader (although many Microsoft investors might not currently agree), but he is nobody’s idea of a visionary.

Microsoft has become a collection of very good products, supported by a world-class global marketing and product distribution network. But I couldn’t tell you what its vision of the future is.

Bigger and better PCs, running bigger and better versions of Windows and Office? I think not. An open, integrated, flexible network of standards-based devices and software interacting in real time across a global interconnected network? Ah no, sorry, that’s what pretty much everybody else is doing. Microsoft is involved in that of course, but few would call the firm a leader, an innovator, or a visionary company these days.

Given the decades of rivalry and bad feeling between Apple and its great rival, perhaps one of Jobs’ legacies will be the perspective that it brings to the post-visionary Microsoft.