When Fortune magazine picked Steve Jobs as “CEO of the decade” in 2009, it pointed to his outsize impact on four industries: music, movies, mobile telephones, and, of course, computers. “Remaking any one business is a career-defining achievement; four is unheard-of,” it raved.
After Mr. Jobs’ passing on Oct. 5, many will be raving about how he revived Apple by rolling out “insanely great” consumer products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and created iTunes, the biggest music store in the world.
But there is an older incarnation of Jobs that was equally important for Americans, if not as consumers, then as citizens. It was the very beginning of the 1980s, after the United States had suffered an unprecedented decade of self-doubt and crisis: Watergate, the loss of the Vietnam war, the Iran hostage crisis, two oil embargoes, stagflation, Detroit’s plunge in the face of Japanese auto imports, and (what came to be known as) malaise.
As bad as things were, Americans nevertheless could point to the exciting things coming from the computer industry: the microprocessor from Intel, the DOS operating system from Bill Gates and Microsoft, and the Apple II from Jobs. Mr. Gates and Jobs, in particular, defined a prototypical kid genius, working out of a garage, and creating whole new industries that could take over industrial leadership from General Motors and US Steel.
Entrepreneurship entered the national conversation in a major way. America had something transcendent and innovative that Japan could not reproduce.
The rest is history. Jobs and Gates went on to create industrial titans. In recent years, Jobs eclipsed his longtime rival with his series of “insanely great” computer products. By 2011, Apple would rival Exxon as the world’s most valuable company.
And America finds itself, again, having endured a decade of crises: 9/11, two wars, the near melt-down of the financial industry, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Amid these blows to national self-confidence, America could use something positive to point to.
It’s out there. Thousands of kid geniuses are laboring away in garages and labs, classrooms and cubicles, on the cusp of creating the next big thing that will revive America’s economy in a way that no government program or spending cut can.
Trouble is, we don’t know who those entrepreneurs are or what they’re working on. Americans could use a face for its entrepreneurial genius.
Americans could use another Steve Jobs.