There will be many articles written about the legacy of Steve Jobs for years to come. An innovator of his time, he will no doubt stand above the rest from many fronts. Today, I pose a simple question: Did Steve Jobs change the world? Did he make life better for the masses or was he merely a superior technologist ahead of his time? Where does his contributions stack up against legacies of other non-business leaders?
As a premise, its hard to argue that Jobs hasn't conquered the business world. Peers such as Ellison or even Iacocca can't compare to his accomplishments. Business management specialists such as Jack Welch were just that. Jobs single-handedly disrupted three multi-billion dollar industries: computing, telephony, and music. More importantly, he changed the way the entire world lives. If you look throughout history of business, perhaps a few industrialists such as Henry Ford or John Rockefeller have exerted this kind of influence on society.
Sure Jobs increased our quality of living, but has he provided clean water for the developing world or solved life-threatening problems? I've written about the lack of tech philanthropists and Jobs is a prime example. Not to spotlight Jobs' lack of giving, but he is an interesting contrast to Bill Gates who's done less in the business world but much more in the non-profit world. Whose actions are more valuable? And where does Jobs compare to other types of leaders such as Gandhi who brought significant social benefit?
One can argue that Apple has enabled the very poor to participate in the world economy thanks to its devices. The information gap between the poor and rich or educated and uneducated is virtually gone thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and information access. Sure Apple only played a small role in the development of this ecosystem, but their products are the ones that people touch and know. They certainly helped flatten the world. But is this more significant than the Gates Foundation pledge to eradicate malaria?
Part of the answer is philosophical. Given my Ayn Rand roots, I place greater weight on business accomplishments than most. I simply think business is the most effective and efficient way to improve society (although I think more direct causes such as microfinance or social ventures are more impactful than traditional for-profits). I don't suggest Jobs has done more for the world than people like MLK; but if any business leader should make the top 10 list of world changers it should be Steve Jobs. He was much more than an accomplished technologist - he changed the way people communicate, access information, and ultimately live. Jobs' legacy in the business world will be talked about for centuries to come, but it will be more interesting to see how his accomplishments will be characterized in the history books of the future.