Steve Jobs and the Development of Apple Capitalism


tirto.id – When he died after battling pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, exactly today 10 years ago, the front page of the world’s media displayed Steve Jobs’ obituary in extraordinary glorification through his character in the world of technology. Technology rubrics from various leading United States newspapers such as The Guardian and New York Times, recalling how Jobs had changed “the way we look at technology, listen to music, communicate, [serta] think about art, design, and invention.”

His character in the development of the technology industry made Jobs a kind of “legend”. However, we can actually carefully assess Jobs’ character by removing all the glorified labels in the field of technology attached to him.

Steve Jobs is the human embodiment of diversity. He is the biological son of a Syrian father, Abdulfattah Jandali (a social science academic), and an American mother, Joanne Schieble Simpson (a linguist).

Born in California, Jobs was later adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. His younger sister, Mona Simpson, later became a novelist and professor of English at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Michael B. Becraft in Steve Jobs: A Biography (2016) mentions that Jobs delved into various Eastern spiritual religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, and others—after giving up Lutheran Christianity in 1968. However, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told the biographer that he was “absolutely never saw Jobs regularly participate in any religious ceremonies.”

Jobs’ life story has been widely discussed in various biographies and popular articles. However, the main point of discussion of these manuscripts often revolves around his career which is considered to determine the future of technological innovation. Journalist The Guardian, Julian Baggini, in his article “How Steve Jobs Changed Capitalism” (2011) has highlighted another side of Jobs’ role: changing the way of doing business.

Capitalism has long been based on the principle of providing the goods the market wants with very tight capital and the highest possible profit. The old capitalist companies researched market demand by looking at what consumers wanted. However, Steve Jobs took a different approach. He is considered to have changed the goal of the old capitalist enterprise to “give the market what they want” to “give the market what we want them to buy”.

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In other words, Jobs shaped companies to think they had to set trends. Jobs encouraged the creation of features that consumers “would need”. Innovations that are continuously updated then indirectly make consumers constantly “need” new products. From a business standpoint, Jobs’ innovation was a remarkable breakthrough in capitalism. However, this thinking tends to create “new needs” on the consumer side whose label “needs” is questionable.

Despite being the face of the poster for Apple until his death, Jobs is not a single player in the technology company. He originally founded Apple through an unexpected privilege in 1976 along with two other co-founders, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. If we remember, the role of a retired German diplomat who gave an unexpected capital of 300,000 guilders to Southeast Asian business magnate, Oei Tiong Ham, is now taken by AC Markkula Jr.—a retired technician at technology company Intel—in the case of Steve Jobs.

In 1984, Jobs broke up with the company he founded. He started another computer company, NeXT Computer. This company innovates human communication through computer-to-computer connections. Developing a way of long-distance communication that goes beyond email, a kind of prototype for the online messaging application we now use.

Jobs only returned to Apple in 1996 and served as president director from September 1997 to August 2011. Throughout his leadership, Jobs demonstrated the qualities of a genuine capitalist who was not too innovative in the practice of capitalism. There are at least two case snippets that can demonstrate this.

First, Jobs embodies an outdated reflection of how labor is valued as a mere resource in a capitalistic system. Labor is not valued as a unique human being, but as a screw or component to a large system that can be replaced easily. Three years after Jobs became president, in 2000, Salon—one of the earliest online media outlets in the United States—published an interesting article entitled “The Once and Future Steve Jobs” about how Apple employees were terrified of the company’s new director.

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Previously, Jobs had abruptly ended his employee career several times. Although the online media has played down the significance of such acts by revealing that this case only happened to a few people, the footage has shed light on Jobs’ way of thinking. The action then sent fear throughout the company. However, the actions shown by Jobs can be judged from the other side as a whip against the work ethic of Apple employees.

The second case relates to Apple’s financial governance. Professor from Harvard Business School, Mihir A. Desai, on July 10, 2017 wrote an article entitled “Capitalism the Apple Way vs. Capitalism the Google Way” in The Atlantic, then on August 6, 2018 entitled “Why Apple Is the Future of Capitalism” in The New York Times. The articles praised Apple’s financial governance. However, the financial governance that Desai praised was precisely the governance of the company after Jobs’ death.

STEVE JOBS mosaic illustration. tirto.id/Gery

During the leadership of Jobs, Apple applied the old principles of capitalism by cultivating the wealth or assets of the company. When faced with the suggestion of creating a “lightweight” company, Jobs rejected and defended the old financial governance model that had proven to destroy ancient giants such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

What kind of old model did Jobs defend and what kind of new model did Desai commend? Until now, many companies maintain assets in accumulated amounts. Especially after a company releases its shares to the market and manages to acquire new assets. Cash assets and physical assets, for example, such as buildings, cash, and others, that accumulate within the company will require high management costs and force the company to continue to take capital from new external sources. This was one of the diseases that pushed the VOC to the brink of bankruptcy.

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In simple terms, to keep the company running—maintaining ships, trading offices, and so on—the VOC required huge funds and even at the last stage had to take out loans. The costs of managing ultimately outweigh the benefits of being “very rich”—rich in physical assets. This is the outdated model that Apple tried to maintain under Steve Jobs by holding company property without distributing it.

Apple’s new leadership in 2012, a year after Jobs died, chose a new path to create a “lightweight” company. The company decided to no longer accumulate cash assets and distribute them in the form of dividends to shareholders. In this way, the value of the real assets held by the company does not swell and the operational costs needed to manage assets and keep the company running can be cut. In this way, the company is not burdened by too many assets to manage and on the other hand, thanks to the stability of the business that has been built, still generates profits that do not change.

Post-Jobs leadership has made capitalism more efficient and effective. This is one answer to one of the ills of capitalism. Meanwhile answers and breakthroughs to erode the other “diseases” of capitalism—the value of labor, income balance, and others—must continue to be sought and developed.

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