Steve Jobs’ Many Failures (That Led to Success!)

October 6th, 2011 at 6:04 pm | 43 Comments |

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The obituaries of Steve Jobs, understandably, all talk about his huge successes: he became incredibly wealthy, was universally admired, and played a major role in creating life-changing devices.

What most of the accounts I’ve seen give short shrift to, however, is Jobs’ enormous number of failures: the Apple III computer–the first PC built by Apple from the bottom up rather than as a hobbyist project–was so poorly designed that the company advised owners to pick it up and drop it a few inches whenever it stopped working. The Lisa, a personal computer that, if fully equipped, would have cost almost $20,000 in today’s money, sold very poorly (no surprise) and lost a bundle for Apple.

Early Macintosh computers were slow, balky, lacked the color graphics that even the Commodore Vic-20 had, and broke far too often. (John Sculley, the CEO Jobs brought to Apple, pushed him out over the Mac’s initially lackluster sales.)

Even a few products created after Jobs’ triumphant return to Apple flopped: Apple TV hasn’t caught on. The NeXT-like Apple G4 Cube (a beautiful piece of industrial design) also failed on the market. Apple, despite decades of trying, has never made much of a dent in the applications software market. (Does anyone, anywhere, use Apple’s Pages word processor?) These are not just a few scattered failures: I’d estimate that roughly half of the major ventures Jobs engaged in simply didn’t pan out.

Of course, Jobs was a huge success overall. But the magnitude of his failures–and his ability to recover from all of them–probably teaches at least as many lessons as the dizzying heights of his overall success.

Recent Posts by Eli Lehrer

43 Comments so far ↓

  • Primrose

    Well, they weren’t all failures for the same reason. And the commodore did not compare favorably to the early Mac. Some of Apple’s challenges, like software, came from the need for a uniform standard, and Microsoft’s early deals with IBM.

    But the larger point that people with real vision will fail is valid. Teddy Roosevelt has a quote that sums this up precisely:

    “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

  • Frumplestiltskin

    I am not sure you can call them outright failures, the early mistakes was part of the growth process, and some other things like their word processor is something that they kind of had to have. The Printing company I worked with used only Macs for all the graphics design, and this is back in the early 80′s, and they did not use anything else but Mac, so Mac always did that well. In the regular office though it was all PC’s since you didn’t need high end for spreadsheets or the like. Maybe Mac could have sold a cheap piece to compete with the PC but maybe they didn’t want to dilute the brand. Who am I to say. I remember back in the late 90′s when Microsoft invested hundreds of millions into Mac and I remember wishing I had money then to invest in it well because I knew then that Bill Gates was not doing it for charity (though considering how much charity he has since done, I could have been wrong). Talk about a great and timely investment by Microsoft, they really raked it in.

  • ottovbvs

    Gawd…if you’ve never had failures you’ve never done anything. I’ve has masses of them. I once had the experience of working for a somewhat similar guy to Jobs (not quite as rich but in the multi billionaire class) who in his industry basically changed the way folks did things. He always used to say instead of giving me nine reasons why we can’t do something give one reason why we can. I’d say one in three of his ideas was a bummer but so what. As Edison famously said genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. It’s like throwing eggs at the wall some stick some don’t. I’m not often moved by the passing of a leading inventor/businessman but I genuinely was by Jobs. He was basically a Edison/Henry Ford type, probably hell to work for, often crazy, but a genius. He’s a sad loss for America.

  • indy

    The software in the mac/iphone interface traces it roots back to the lisa. The Next, an absolutely amazing computer in its time both from a hardware and software perspective, was a leap forward in technology. Is Job’s life multiple lessons in success and failure or is it really a single lesson on persistence and vision? The Japanese have a good saying: Money grows on the tree of persistence.

    Anybody who has had any measure of success has also had their share of failure. It seems petty to dwell on it for the man who built the empire he did.

  • Graychin

    I have no idea why Apple’s flops are relevant. Its successes overwhelm its flops.

    Perhaps it makes you feel big to bring up the flops of a great innovator. Good for you. Amen to indy’s “petty” comment.

  • Ray_Harwick

    I’d hate to have my name attached to this article the day after Steve Jobs died. While blogger were busy panning the new IPhone 4S, I saw something on it that made my jaw hit the floor. Maybe nobody noticed that the Siri application can be used for texting in real time using your voice. I’m thinking most people yawn over that. That is, except for deaf people of my ilk – those who have clear speaking voices but wouldn’t hear an atomic bomb go off in their living room while they were watching TV. A few months ago I made my first phone call in 20 years using Apple’s Facetime application on 1)IPhone 4, 2) Ipad 2, 3) Macbook. I’m a lip-reader and until that application came along I had no use for a telephone except to read my email. So, with IPhone 4S here came an even *better* application – Siri. You can text in real time using your voice and with the sucky keyboards on smartphone, when reviewers tested Siri and found out it made *no* transcription errors, I knew that the biggest barrier between me and the people I love had finally been erased. I don’t have to wait for someone on the other end to find a wi-fi network so I can Facetime them any more. I can call and talk to the no matter where they are and do it in real time.

    Alexander Graham Bell’s inspiration for creating a phone was his deaf mother and while he made something really great, it wasn’t accessible to the person who inspired him and it would take nearly 150 years before it had the same utility for the deaf as it does for hearing people.

    So Steven Jobs had failure? Honestly! Who gives a shit. He just leveled the playing field for me.

  • Sinan

    I find this article to be disgusting, immature and in poor taste. For those of us that grew up in the dawn of the computer and networking age, Steve Jobs is GOD. More than any other single individual, he embodied the best of our national spirit of invention and creativity and persevered to create one of the most incredible companies and brands that ever existed. Shame on you for trashing him in this way. When the Mac came out, I was astonished.

  • Sunny

    Okay, well, I got it, at least, that it’s more of a tribute.

    It’s summed up in your last paragraph:

    Of course, Jobs was a huge success overall. But the magnitude of his failures–and his ability to recover from all of them–probably teaches at at least as many lessons as the dizzying heights of his overall success.

  • RLHotchkiss

    I feel this article is too soon. We are not after all French, who immediately talk of peoples faults upon death. This seems to be yet another example of “Conservatives” actually deviating significantly and with little reason from settled social convention. It is not even as though this is a new argument. I have read several very similar articles published before his death.

  • BenignBot

    Put Jobs on the Bell Curve and then we can see that he must be placed very far out on the right side where there are few failures.

    But Jobs’ greatest failure was that he was not enough willing to embrace open source. THIS, the inability to think of what might be better for the whole, is this man’s greatest failing. If Jobs had worked to triple the speed of open source acceptance around the world, this might have impacted so many lives for the better.

    Still, why should we speed up good things when they will eventually happen, anyway, in due time? Thank god we did not speed up that pancreatic cancer cure if we might have. Otherwise, Jobs might still be around to haunt us, even today.

    LONG LIVE LINUS TORVALDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Long live open source.
    Long live free beer!

    Speaking of this, do you think Richard Stallman is now crying in his GNU beer?

    • valkayec

      I’m not sure why Jobs refused to go with open source software. Maybe he wanted to prevent the software from becoming readily available to hackers and black hat types. Lord knows those of us who use Macs rarely have to deal with viruses and worms. That fear free knowledge has saved me tons of money in security software. You might as well ask Abode why they don’t go with open source.

      • BenignBot


        You are smart as a tack, a brass tack even, to ask the question why do we not force Adobe to open up its software. I do not know about you. But there are plenty of people who are truly tired of having our whole planet controlled by just one lousy company, Adobe. We all use Flash for streaming content and for many other purposes. We are in the dark ages with Adobe.

        In days gone by, it might have been patriotic to support a US corporation such as Adobe. But today, these corporations have absolutely NO ties to any single country. Adobe? Screw them! They will never stand up and solute ANY flag.

        This is why we need to BREAK Adobe by adopting open source software which can be far better than almost anything those parochial bastards can offer us.

        Screw Windows. Screw Jobs. Long live BSD and Linux, too.

        But also.
        The passing of Jobs, I hope, will mark the beginning of new thinking regarding Patriotism. Corporations can no longer be considered to belong to any single country. And, therefor screw them! As they will so very willing screw “us”. Very few corporations worth their salt give a sht about any single country. They do not give a sht about any single individual. Which is probably the way it should be.

        But then, we also need to fight back tooth and nail to offset the corporations’ final goal which is to treat us like rats with cash to send up to the top of our cage to be harvested. We are not Cash Cows. We are Blinded Cash Rats.

        Adobe? Screw Adobe!
        Fuck Flash!!!!!

        • Primrose

          Since Adobe’s PDF format, and basic acrobat stuff is free for all, I think they’ve been open enough. Also, I am completely amused at the idea that Adobe is the company that rules the world. I mean Adobe?

      • indy

        As someone who builds and sells software, I can say I’ve never really embraced open software either. I don’t think it is a mystery as to why.

        In fact, interesting story. There was a time after Steve was kicked to the curb that Apple agreed to license their OS to run on a ‘standard’ hardware platform (much like Windows runs on a ‘standard’ hardware platform made by dozens of different manufacturers). The specification of the hardware base was complete and nearly approved when he was hired back. Virtually the first thing he did was shut that project down.

        • Primrose

          Everyone loves open source who doesn’t need to make a living from software. It’s like the people who think all literature should be free.

          But it is my understanding that open source means that there would be multiple copies of operating systems out there, which would be disaster for the average person who needs to just transfer data easily and without problems. And as Valkayec points out, the security problem would be immense.

          I am interested, however, at how many of the regulars at FrumForum are connected to the software industry.

  • valkayec

    Sure, Jobs had failures. How many times did Edison fail before he got a light bulb to work? Hundreds? Thousands? What does it matter?

    It’s not how many times one fails but how many times fails to be defeated.

    The first Apple computer I used was the original Mac. Prior to it, I used an HP and an IBM and a Compac. I hated the OS on those compters: DOS. It was a pain in the you know what. Then along came the Mac. The OS was a giant leap forward, even though the only design program available was Pagemaker but it worked so much better on the Mac than on a PC, even though designs had to be printed out and turned into film or hard copy type. A few years later Quark Xpress came along, challenging Adobe’s Pagemaker. By then, Jobs had changed the OS to incorporate Xerox’s GUI – that Xerox’s management had shelved as a bad investment – which revolutionized the graphic design business. I bought my first computer in the mid-’90s: a mid-priced, mid-level Mac. Jobs had already negotiated a deal with MS so I loaded MS and Quark and a host of other apps. That computer lasted for about 10 years before I bought my next Mac, a G4. It still works – but needs a new monitor. Now I use a 4Gb Mac laptop, fully loaded with MS office, the full suite of Abode graphic software, and a bunch of other programs. Adobe software for a Mac is so much easier to use than what is available for a PC. As a result, I’ve designed brochures, logos, business cards, print ads, and designed web sites…as well as being able to manage finances and everything else. Plus, if I can’t remember where I stored the file, I can simply open up the files and see it sitting there. No deep exploration of the file tree roots as with MS which originally was built on top of DOS.

    I never bought an iPod ’cause when riding the bus or train to an from work, I preferred to read and at home I had my stereo system. But I bought a iPhone a year after it came out. Even though I’m lousy at texting – RA scrambles my finger movements – I can’t imagine now living without it: the built in camera, and the ability to look at and read my emails – especially in the winter in the electricity goes out, shutting down my wireless broadband. Moreover, the pix I take via by iPhone I can edit and put on line for family and friends to see and enjoy.

    I’m a Mac addict and have no desire to change. Moreover, my entire family has migrated to Macs and iPods and iPhones. I can’t see any of us going anywhere else.

    If all this is failing, I’d like to know what success is?

    • indy

      What Edison said about the light bulb (or at least what is attributed to him): “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

  • dittbub

    in the 90′s apple had lost their brand appeal. its amazing that apple bounced back. they did it with both hardware and software, namely the ipod and itunes. genious! apple saw a market and boldy went for it. really everything they’ve done since, even in the home computer end, revolves around what they did with the ipod and itunes.

    i’m actually a PC guy but i can appreciate how beautifully apple married hardware with software.

  • Fastball

    Sorry, Eli, but this story was a swing and a miss for you. Any company will have a few flops now and then, but overall, Apple’s products have set a bar for elegance, workmanship, engineering, and user utility that no other technology company has matched.

    Jobs was disruptive in the finest sense of the word – a visionary who saw around the corner, wasn’t content to rest on his laurels, and practiced the creative destruction that exemplified the very best in American entrepreneurial innovation. If our politicians had one-tenth the creativity and vision that Jobs had, our country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

    • BenignBot

      Fastball, you are correct that Jobs was a true innovator like few others.

      But his vision seldom strayed over to Foxconn, Red China, where slaves produced his products and where guys and gals enjoyed jumping to their deaths from the top floor of factories which manufactured Jobs’ designs.

      I would suggest to you that you take a gander at this video, China Blue, if you wish to better understand the cold heart of Steve Jobs. But who does not love a cold hearted bastard who is far more talented than almost everyone.

      China Blue
      This is a MUST SEE for anyone, anywhere, who enjoys the fucked up god damned CHINA PRICE!

      But if Jobs had not been a cold hearted bastard, then no one would love him so much as so many people all over the world do. Even on this other side of the world. People are talking about that cold hearted bastard, Jobs.

      Maybe we can burn some paper computers which will comfort Jobs in his new existence, up in the sky.
      There is no doubt that Jobs is one of the most revered people on earth, and especially in Asia.
      This is why I prefer Papua New Guinea.
      Because I think, like Elvis, Jobs will return.
      But he will return to PNG.
      And He will convert PNG into the next Washington, DC!

      • TJ Parker

        But his vision seldom strayed over to Foxconn, Red China, where slaves produced his products and where guys and gals enjoyed jumping to their deaths from the top floor of factories which manufactured Jobs’ designs.

        Yeah, unlike the U.S. where 14 year olds are regularly hanging themselves and jumping from bridges because of bullying in public schools and on TV by “Values Voters Summit” speakers. “Values Voters” … brr … Orwellian.

  • Noah Kristula-Green

    What on Earth are some of you thinking? Eli’s point is that Apple has achieved tremendous success in spite of the many products and software designed by Jobs that did not catch on or succeed. It is this perseverance and tremendous success in spite of many failures that makes Jobs noteworthy.

    Someone in this thread called Jobs “a God.” That is incorrect, and it does a disservice to his legacy to assume he was a perfect super-human who never made mistakes.

    I really am surprised how this point seems to have eluded some people.

    • zephae

      First, why is it that you are like the only author on this site that comments on its content (okay, JG occasionally responds to stuff on his pieces)? I think it’s really cool that you do and it really sells the idea of this place being a “forum” rather than a kind of super-blog. I understand many others here have plenty of other gigs/pre-occupations, but still I wish more of your authors joined the comments section more often.


      It is this perseverance and tremendous success in spite of many failures that makes Jobs noteworthy.

      My thoughts exactly (and, by the way, I hate Apple). It’s also the aspect about him that’s most inspiring. And I have to say, with the way iTunes is praised, it’s amazing how slow digital distribution seems to be getting adopted.

      Also, the reason why people missed that this was Eli’s point was because the way he wrote it implied that he wasn’t smart or innovative, just lucky. He needed to take a little more time to conclude than the rather abrupt way he did.

      • TJ Parker

        Digital distribution is catching on slowly?? 10 years is slow?? Does anyone over 30 buy CDs any more? DVDs? Boxed software?

    • indy

      The failure here might be partially in the title. I stopped reading about midway through the article since there was never any indication it would turn and go in another direction. Rereading it, I see what you are saying, but still think it was poorly constructed. Maybe it’s just me though.

    • Primrose

      I agree, Noah. I thought that was Mr. Lehrer’s point as well.

      However, I think part of the problem is that many don’t think that some of the “failures” were actually in retrospect failures. Lisa and Next computers were not so much failures as the Beta versions of a finished product. So many here are involved in the software industry that I think there is a cultural disconnect. Failures are products that disappear or don’t work, not products that need modification because to software engineers every product always needs modification.

    • Primrose

      I’m also hoping you noticed the many threads on disappearing letters? It seems to be mildly associated with operating system if that helps.

  • Bulldoglover100

    Jealous much Eli?
    Without failure there can be no success. Jobs knew this…apparently your still trying to figure it out…

  • Michigan Outsider

    Since it’s October, it’s a good time for a baseball analogy. The only way not to strike out ever again is never get up to bat again. The good hitters try to learn something from the last at bat to have a better chance at hitting the ball the next time.

  • forgetn

    No point in picking a stupid article apart, one example alone: Next Computer was not a failure by any stretch of the imagination. first Jobs sold it for $400 million — so by wall street own system of value it seems Jobs did ok, second Have you ever heard of OSX — that’s Next Computer core software.

    Doesn’t look like failure to me.

    As for the rest…Really that it!

  • Graychin

    I see that the headline has been amended, adding the parenthetical expression.

    The old headline helped to emphasize the negativity of the piece. The new one softens it a bit.

  • hlsmlane

    Some very good points made in the comment thread. One I didn’t see explicit is this: Failure is always a learning experience, or perhaps more precisely, a learning opportunity. Whether we choose to take that opportunity is up to us. And it’s what Jobs chose to take from his failures that is so impressive.

  • PracticalGirl

    I love the sentiment of this article: Nobody who has achieved unfathomable success has done so without some dismal failures. There are hundreds of pithy quotes from some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs on that exact truth, but in the end there is this:

    “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he created.”
    —-President Obama

    For the true visionaries, failure is fleeting but success is a legacy never forgotten.

  • dittbub

    the writer also wrote that government is a lousy investor. he based that on one failure; solyndra.

  • Steve D

    Jobs belongs on the short list with Gutenberg and Edison and Bill Gates, among others, as one of the people who did more to make information freely available than anyone else.

    But early Apple made some horrible decisions. Partly it was the infancy of the field, partly perhaps that Jobs was more interested in the future than things that were already done, and partly it was Apple’s determination not to share. I resisted PC’s at first as Johnny-come-latelies who waited until Apple had pioneered the way before trying to muscle in, but my personal loyalty to Apple evaporated when ProDOS came along, with zero backward compatibility. It couldn’t read Apple’s DOS 3.3 files and had no conversion utility. And that was a lesson that IBM had figured out long before. Just imagine if Windows X.Y couldn’t read files created by Windows X.X.

    And unfortunately Apple still has the same mentality. Just look at the obstacles they put in the way of app developers.

    • TJ Parker

      Just look at the obstacles they put in the way of app developers.

      You laud Jobs and then strike at the core of his success: You do it Steve’s way or you don’t do it.

  • Gramps

    Futurist and mentorist…

  • Gramps

    Steve was always…concerned..!

  • TJ Parker

    Whoa, what heresy!

    Let’s remember for most computer companies, especially in the early days, the “first release” was never the successful one. Microsoft’s products notoriously suffer from “v.3″ syndrome: they don’t get it right until the 3rd time. Especially in the early days, these guys were still exploring what was possible, which is always a good thing to do before asking what is profitable.

    I’ve actually seen a Lisa, as well as an old Xerox Alto. Yup, $20K and $60K commercial failures. But in reality these machines were the roadmap for the next 20 years of computing. Yeah, this was Athena popped fully formed from the head of Zeus. Between then and the late 1990′s the industry was pretty much just working out the bugs, and waiting for Moore’s Law to bend the price/performance curve to the point where such a machine could be profitable. There’s a great inevitability to Moore’s Law – the exponential improvement in processor power and speed – that few truly appreciated. Exponential curves are steep! Alan Kaye was another such visionary, who used to carry around a wooden “laptop” computer 20 years before it could even be made functional.

    Re early Mac computers! Dude! Face it: you’re a Wintel weenie. Yeah, Mac was nothing until the second coming of Steve. Which is false. You were willing to live in the Microsoft world for so long because it was cheaper, and because you didn’t know what you needed, until Stevel lured you into the Apple world and showed you what you were missing.

    A few years ago my nephew called me after installing a game on his Windows box. Something went wrong. Typical Windows “DLL hell” issue. Right then I bought iMacs for my brother, my sister and my parents. They’ve never gone back. Windows was always cheaper, but only when you failed to factor in the convenience of computer-as-appliance.

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