Steve Jobs: the perfectionist who raised industrial design to the level of high art

I’m no techie but I have long been an admirer of Steve Jobs, whose declining health has forced him to step down as chief executive of Apple, the Californian technology giant he co-founded 35 years ago. Many tributes have been paid, the Sunday Times even asking whether he is ‘the greatest businessman of all time’. That would be too big a claim: Henry Ford might feel the title is still his. In Jobs’s own field of consumer gadgetry, however, I’d say his only peers were Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, who founded Sony in a workshop in bombed-out Tokyo in 1946 and built a global electronics brand that, like Apple, is associated with bold innovation and engineering quality. The Sony Walkman, so revolutionary that Morita believed they would never have launched it in 1979 if research had been commissioned beforehand to ask whether people would actually buy it, was the pioneering product that personalised music and created the market for Apple’s iPod in 2001.

But it is the iPod, with its minimalist external design concealing complex microelectronics, that best encapsulates Jobs’s special brilliance. An uncomfortable, driven perfectionist — not a man to find yourself on a desert island with — he repeatedly challenged his design team (lead by Chingford-born Jonathan Ive) to create aesthetically pleasing devices with simple, intuitive controls, the opposite of so many other jazzy gadgets in the marketplace. For the first iPhone it was Jobs who insisted on a single button, with every other function driven through the touch-screen. In doing so he brought industrial design to the level of high art — an Apple aspiration from the early days, when the designers’ signatures were etched on the inside of the casing of the first desktop Macs, where users would never see them, because, as Jobs said, ‘artists sign their work’. Whether he has been a truly great businessman will be judged by whether Apple’s success endures after he has gone; what we can say, in the jargon of his industry, is that as a ‘product guy’ he was the outstanding genius of his time.

Signs of stress

Keep your eye on the banking sector as we head into autumn: trouble is brewing again. The share prices of leading British and European banks have halved in recent months — and although stock markets are perpetually prone to over-reaction, I fear investors are right to be worried. Scattered recent signals are beginning to form a pattern.

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At a US Federal Reserve symposium last weekend, Christine Lagarde, the new head of the IMF, warned that European banks are in urgent need of recapitalisation, without which the continent could face another ‘debilitating liquidity crisis’. Her countryman Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank (ECB) dismissed her concerns as ‘plain wrong’, but Robert Zoellick of the World Bank seemed to echo them and to warn that the US would not be in a position to help Europe out of another banking crisis.

Meanwhile, the International Accounting Standards Board expressed concern that banks have not taken sufficient write-downs on their holdings of Greek sovereign debt, so are sitting on hidden losses. And Warren Buffett injected $5 billion into Bank of America, which he evidently considers a good bet but which has seen its shares plunge amid concerns over potential damage to come from its mortgage business.

How do we tie these pointers together? The fundamental problem is that banks are losing confidence in banks again. In particular, American banks, many with unresolved balance sheet problems of their own, seem to be losing confidence in European banks for fear of losses on eurozone sovereign defaults. An unnamed European bank recently had to borrow $500 million from the ECB because (we must assume) it could not obtain sufficient dollar funding in the interbank market — which, according to a recent FT report, has been showing indications of ‘stress at levels not seen since the markets’ post-Lehman nadir in March 2009’.

The economist Michael Taylor, on his Coldwater Economics blog, points out a dramatic shift in Fed statistics on foreign banks’ US operations. Traditionally, foreigners raise deposits in the US market and channel them to their head offices or other overseas operations; now that pattern has reversed, with $200 billion coming in from abroad to fund US branches, which are sitting on unusually high levels of cash. ‘It is as if US money markets were no longer open to foreign banks,’ Taylor writes. Either the Fed has urged them to restructure their balance sheets in this highly conservative way, or ‘their head offices want at least to preserve their US operations if Armageddon hits at home’.

Live rounds

Anyone contemplating opportunities in post-Gaddafi Libya should read Nine Lives of a Bush Banker by the late (but aptly named) George Money, whose assignment during the second world war was to follow the British Army across North Africa opening branches of what was then called Barclays Dominion, Colonial & Overseas. In the summer of 1943, he arrived in Benghazi to find amiable local tribespeople occupying a town that had been bombed to rubble in the course of being captured and lost twice before it was finally secured by the Allies. ‘Shortage of water and electricity were the main problems, followed by shortage of competent artisans of any sort. They are never so happy as when sitting around the kettle… the tea is not considered really fit to drink until it has been boiled for at least half an hour.’

The abandoned Banco di Roma building which he set to refurbishing was ‘indescribably filthy’ and swarming with hungry fleas but, worse, the retreating Italians had taken the vault keys with them to Tripoli, and when a locksmith was called in he found live rifle rounds jammed into the keyholes as a ­booby trap. Nevertheless Mr Money opened for business on time, with a celebratory cocktail party. That intrepid spirit will be needed again in Libya’s latest reconstruction.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated