Christopher Bonanos has written an excellent essay for the New York Times about another man who blended art and science to produce extraordinary products: Edwin Land of Polaroid.
Steve Jobs idolized Edwin Land, and it’s clear he learned a lot from him.
Like Jobs, Land dropped out of college. Like Jobs, Land obsessed about function and form. Like Jobs, Land scoffed at the idea of “market research.” (Both men believed that consumers don’t know what they want until they see it.)
Like Jobs, Land built a beloved company that was (for a while) the toast of Wall Street and Main Street alike. Like Jobs, Land rolled out his products in gigantic presentations:
Starting in the 60s, he began to turn Polaroid’s shareholders’ meetings into dramatic showcases for whatever line the company was about to introduce. In a perfectly art-directed setting, sometimes with live music between segments, he would take the stage, slides projected behind him, the new product in hand, and instead of deploying snake-oil salesmanship would draw you into Land’s World. By the end of the afternoon, you probably wanted to stay there.
Like Jobs, Land created products that were “coveted luxury objects.” (See the SX-70 from the 1970s below).
Also like Jobs, Land was tossed out of his company, which then fell on hard times. But unlike Jobs, Land died before he could be brought back to save it.
Steve Jobs knew Edwin Land and thought the world of him:
“The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.”
Land blew it before leaving Polaroid, spending billions developing an instant movie product called “Polavision,” which Sony’s Betamax destroyed. At least in his second act at Apple, Jobs made no such mistakes.
After Land was forced out at Polaroid, the company lost its edge and then ultimately failed. After Steve Jobs left Apple the first time, the same thing happened to Apple (the only thing that saved it from bankruptcy was Steve’s return).
The question now, of course, is what happens to Apple in Steve’s absence. The company will be led by exactly the same people who have led it for the past decade, so in the short term the company will probably be fine.
But the idea of “losing its edge” is important. And if Apple does begin to change for the worse without Steve, this will likely be what happens.