I’ve seen many, many comparisons of Steve Jobs to the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the past few days, but only one so far to the guy I think he most closely resembles in American life: Walt Disney.
Surely, Ford was an innovator as was Jobs. Edison was an inventor as, in a different way perhaps, was Jobs. But neither of those men, with their impressive catalog of achievements, had the same kind of emotional connection that Jobs seems to have had with the world. Facebook on Wednesday night was like one big Steve Jobs tribute site. People I never would have expected to were posting their reminiscences about their first Apple products or how Steve’s aesthetic impacted their lives, both professionally and otherwise. You have to go back to 1966 to see a moment where the death of a business leader had the same kind of impact.
Both Walt and Steve (besides being known worldwide by their first names) were the embodiment of the companies they founded. They were equal parts celebrity, business leader, and inspirational innovators. Walt turned our perception of animated film on its head and advanced the art, both technically and artistically, more than any other person before or since (though John Lassiter is giving him a run for his money). He turned his enthusiasm and attention to detail to motions pictures, television, theme parks, and even urban planning and revolutionized them all. He would have fit perfectly into Apple’s “Think Different” campaign had his likeness not been locked in a steel vault under the Matterhorn. Steve of course “ignited the personal computer revolution” (as the Apple press releases always say), and radically impacted the entire entertainment business, from music to movies to gaming. His devices made possible the explosive rise of such diverse interests as social media, photography, and even filmmaking, from guys in their bedrooms to guys like Peter Jackson. His influence on design and manufacturing will be felt for a decade, at least. The mobile device industry is nothing at all like what is was only four years ago. All because of Steve’s vision.
Both Disney and Jobs pushed to create idealized realities. Steve’s very much in the present through a fanatic attention towards experience design, both virtual and physical, and Walt by representing both the past and the future as how he’d like them to be rather than how they were or would be. Their visions, based solely on their own internal ideals, were wholeheartedly embraced by millions. We not only loved what they created, we loved how they saw us in their creations.
They’re very different in what they left behind, however. When Disney died, he left a company that couldn’t replace him. Not only was there no heir, there was no interest in finding one. They went along for years thinking “what would Walt do?” and ended up nearly being consumed in the process until another leader came along and (for good or ill) started to create a new vision for Walt’s company. Steve, however, has done much to leave Apple in the best possible spot it could be. All the assets that make Apple great are still there. He even oversaw the creation of an internal Apple University to distill the qualities he led with and to ensure they’re passed on to others. Where the Walt Disney Company wandered and became diminished in the years following Walt’s death, Apple seems poised to continue its remarkable ascension specifically because of its founder’s vision and commitment.
Walt always acted like his company was there to enable him to follow his passions. In the case of Jobs, Apple was his passion. His single greatest creation. And that will make all the difference in the world.