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.