Blog Post

Is Jack Dorsey the heir apparent to Steve Jobs?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Before Steve Jobs had even passed away, people had already started playing the “who is the next Steve Jobs” game — trying to come up with names of technology and design visionaries who might be able to don the mantle of the Apple co-founder and CEO. Jeff Bezos of Amazon? Napster co-founder and Spotify investor Sean Parker? Those names and others have been floated by industry watchers, but listening to Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey at GigaOM’s RoadMap conference on Thursday made me think that he is at least as strong a contender for that mantle (if such a thing even exists) as any of them. Could Dorsey change the way we interact with technology and the world around us in as profound a way as Jobs?

Why do we even need an heir to Steve Jobs? The obvious answer is that we don’t. Jobs was unique, in both positive and negative ways, and the precise combination of those features made him who he was — and thus made Apple what it was. No one is going to be “the next Steve Jobs” because they will have a different combination of strengths and weaknesses, and they may not be as smart (or as lucky) in specific ways. But when it comes to the role that Jobs played in technology — the role of visionary designer, creator, instigator and disruptor — it’s a different story. We need those people more than ever, because visionaries inspire others, and they change the way we look at the world in fundamental ways.

Not just technology, but how it changes us as human beings

I haven’t spent a lot of time around Jack Dorsey, but based on his conversation with Om at RoadMap, he clearly spends a lot of time thinking about the big picture behind the technology that he is involved in. So it’s not just about Twitter and how it works — or what it looks like or even how to monetize it — but how it connects us to our own “humanness” as he put it, and enables us to experience things and see through the eyes of others. He described how he found this an incredibly powerful thing during the protests in Iran, and I think others have had a similar response to the events of the Arab Spring and the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti.

And when it comes to Square — the other company that Dorsey is helping shape and create — it’s not just making payments easier or more efficient that interests him, but how making that easier can help artisans and individuals more easily become fully functioning businesses, and how that could help change society.

Dorsey’s roles with two very different companies have also sparked some comparisons to Jobs, who helped revolutionize animated films with Pixar while also changing the personal electronics industry at Apple (the differences between Square and Twitter are arguably even more dramatic than Pixar and Apple, since Square is device-based and Twitter is an information network). And Dorsey was also forced out of the company he founded, much like Jobs was — after a dispute with former CEO Evan Williams, who funded the company in its early years — and then returned to become the product visionary.

The way Twitter has evolved as a service is also very different from the way things worked at Apple. The company excelled at product design during Jobs’ reign as CEO, but it was notoriously inept at anything service related: iTunes, to take just one example, is a total mess when it comes to usability and design despite years of evolution, and efforts like Ping have effectively been stillborn. One of the most powerful things about Twitter, however, is the way in which the service was transformed by its users, with additions like the @ mention and the retweet — features that were never even imagined by its creators. Steve Jobs, by contrast, wouldn’t even let people replace the battery in his products.

Steve Jobs’ replacement or not, vision is in short supply

From what I can tell, Dorsey also seems to be missing what could charitably be called the “difficult” elements of Jobs’ personality (other people have more blunt terms for it), which are detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography: the shouting, the merciless humiliation, the ruthlessness even with friends, the crying in meetings, and so on. One of the questions that this description of Jobs raises is whether those things were a necessary part of his success, or simply character flaws. Would Apple products have been the same, or been as revolutionary, if he were a different kind of person?

So is Jack Dorsey the new Steve Jobs? Probably not (although even some early Apple employees think he could be). But he clearly has a vision about two fairly significant areas of the technology sphere — the way in which even a simple service like Twitter can change the way we interact with each other and distribute information in a digital and connected world, and the way a simple payment service like Square can potentially transform entrepreneurialism and small business. And he is thoughtful about the implications of those things in a way that many product or business-focused technology executives are not (he even has a fascination with Zen Buddhist design principles, as Steve Jobs did).

Dorsey has already altered the media landscape with Twitter, whether he knew that’s what he was doing or not, and he is also trying to alter the payment landscape with Square. Either of those would be a substantial undertaking for any technology CEO. Whether those changes turn out to be as massive and transformational as the ones Jobs unleashed remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — we could definitely use more visionaries.

34 Responses to “Is Jack Dorsey the heir apparent to Steve Jobs?”

  1. Steve Jobs was surrounded by visionaries. He didn’t build Apple (or Pixar) single-handedly. He had the visibility however, there are so many examples of true innovation and incremental success that it is arrogant to make a convenient argument for the sake of a fluff piece.

  2. Monica Renée

    Perhaps he can change technology and media, but it is too early (too near Job’s death and too near Dorsey’s innovation) to consideration him the “next.” There is a chance he can change the world, but we probably won’t see it for a very long time.

  3. Jeff Schneider

    Mathew – I bypassed the post and went straight to the comments only to find out that several others did the same. I guess they assume that the post isn’t worth reading due to the absurdity of the title. They cast judgement on the author prior to the read. Readers at GigaOM generally are looking for substance, not catchy headlines that are followed by a piece where the author disputes his own headline. (IMHO)

  4. Ben Softic

    What kind of idiot wrote this article? Jack Dorsey the next Steve Jobs? Get real. Twitter was an accident, and he couldn’t do that right. Now with square he’s completely copying Apple. Just look at the idea in the name and logo. They’re both the same thing. Look at the design of the Square website, it’s clearly just copying the styling of Apple. Not to mention they managed to copy the exact format of wording. What a joke. No one has a clue what they’re talking about.

  5. Kameliya Vladimirova

    There are 3 people that have proven to have Steve Jobs’ Vision and Innovation Genius. They don’t need to be better or worse, they all have made and will continue to make profound impact on the world through the continuous innovation they drive:
    – Jeff Bezos, Amazon
    – Marc Benioff, Salesforce
    – Jack Dorsey, Twitter/Square

  6. Adjudicating symptoms – success or failure – to project a future event or person appears to be an obsession.
    A vision or a dream is incubated in uncertainty – not in the already known, or in the establishment If it is a known projection, it is neither a vision, nor uncommon.
    The essence of Steve Jobs lives on. It is an invaluable treatise on the boundless scope and value of creative thought, beyond clinical encapsulations that are commonplace.

  7. The world obsessed with symptoms, continues to adjudicate the transitory, as if events are deterministic or automatically replicable.
    Vision is not rooted in the already known. If it was, then it is neither vision nor uncommon.
    The essence of Steve Jobs, will live on. It is an exemplary treatise on the boundless and evolving world of thought and vision, which cannot be clinically rationalized, or encapsulated.

  8. This is as dumb a question as “who is the next Tiger Woods”. As Steve Jobs was fond of saying, “I’ll know it when I see it”. Dorsey isn’t it. There isn’t any heir apparent at the moment.

  9. I would have to disagree with the comparison for two reasons:

    1. There is no mention of what is arguably Jobs’ most important quality, his talent as a showman and a marketer. There are plenty of tech folks with a vision and a great product but to truly break from the pack, they need to connect with the masses (outside the tech folks).

    2. Twitter is still a service with relatively few active users. A case could be made that it gets a lot of attention because media people and celebrities love it. The service won’t likely ever become the kind of sexy product that turns my everyman non-tech elementary school teacher into an evangelist.

    • I think you’re right about the salesmanship and marketing ability, Chris — not sure whether Dorsey has that (yet). I disagree about Twitter, not surprisingly. I think it has already affected the world profoundly, regardless of whether it is sexy. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Jim Huinink

    Steven Jobs was, as a visionary, at best a “work in progress” until ten years ago when the iPod came out. At that time he was in his mid 40’s. So I think there’s validity in discussing how he changed from a one hit wonder into a visionary, and how others might follow. Like other people, though, I don’t like your title.

  11. Why write a headline like this, blast a professional picture of Dorsey, embed a video of Dorsey, say there isn’t a need for a Jobs replacement, and then answer your headline with “probably not”.

    As a reader, you just wasted my time with a totally pointless article.

    • I think you missed the point, Kerry — I admitted he isn’t a replacement because there can’t be a “next Steve Jobs.” The idea of an heir apparent is different — that’s someone who is similar in their visionary abilities, but not a replacement. Thanks for the comment though.

  12. Square is a welcome addition to the payments infrastructure, but it would be more powerful if they displaced the credit card industry, and not reinforced it. I don’t like that banks literally have a racket – they force merchants to pay an exorbitant fee, part of which they share with cardholders – and I certainly don’t want wireless carriers to be getting a cut of every purchase I might make with my phone. So while Square is a big help for small businesses, it’s not a game changer. I want a new electronic payments system, and nobody is doing that, they are just adding to the incumbent one.

    And twitter? I realize a lot of people love it, but it’s mostly noise, and it takes way too much time and energy to filter all that noise out.

    Dorsey is a good thinker, but not an industrial (or post-industrial) revolutionary.

  13. I don’t think there will be someone exactly like Steve Jobs, but mostly because everyone is unique. But if you mean someone who will work on many technologies that will change the world, Elon Musk is a lot more worthy of that title than Jack Dorsey.

  14. The next Steve will not be exactly like Steve .

    Jeff bezos is the next Steve

    Dorsey for all his achievements is still a startup CEO and even then a better case can be made for zuck

    Jeff on the other hand is a proven visionary.

  15. Morris Murphy

    He’s campaigning for the job. He puts things in his slides that are supposed to confirm your suspicions of his Steveness. But he’s not Steve. He’s too nice, he doesn’t have much of an evil streak. or the chutzpah.

      • Mathew… great response to these commenters! Clearly they just slimmed the article.

        People really need to read before commenting. Well written. Lots of good questions/food for thought.

        I think anyone who both read the Jobs Autobiography and watched the Om interview with Dorsey would get exactly where you are coming from.