Steve Jobs: The Least Disruptive Entrepreneur Ever

Last night, as I watched "Jobs," the new Apple-founder biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, I realized something: Jobs was not a disruptor.

The movie doesn't open until August 16, but Open Road Films, the studio releasing it, had invited me and the ReadWrite community to a private screening in San Francisco, after which I moderated a question-and-answer session with Kutcher and the film's director, Joshua Michael Stern.

Kutcher may be burned into the American pop-culture mind as the unduly good-looking comic talent of such hits as "Dude, Where's My Car?" But in recent years, he has become a more serious actor and a key figure bridging Hollywood and Silicon Valley as an angel investor, backing startups like Flipboard, Path, and Airbnb, among many others.

Kutcher never met Steve Jobs, he told the audience, but he loved him and mourned him.

"I loved a man I never knew," he said. That's because Jobs sought to be loved through the products he created, Kutcher argued.

You Can't Disrupt Your Way To Love

There is a vogue in Silicon Valley today for disruption—the eruptive flood of change, washing away the old and leaving in place the new. Founders are courted by venture capitalists based on their brash declarations of which billion-dollar industry they will overturn.

But the message of "Jobs" is quite different. What we learn by watching Jobs over the decades, from the '70s to the earliest years of the present millennium, is that he was at his best not when he disrupted but when he took what was broken and fixed it.

Disruption is facile. Disruption is easy. Disruption is ineffective. It's the technological equivalent of a temper tantrum—nothing more.

What Jobs did at Apple is the exact opposite.

A Brief History Of Change

If you don't live in San Francisco or the office-park sprawl and leafy suburbs to its south, it is easy to mistake Apple's recent innovations as bursts of change from out of nowhere. And the classic Jobs marketing style—the flashy unveiling, the "one more thing" surprise—sought to cast every new product as revolutionary.

In an all-too-brief two hours, "Jobs" tells the story of Apple and its early team at a pace that shows how every product it brought out built on the last one.

The Apple 1, for example, lacked a keyboard and monitor (though it was more complete than other computer kits of its time). That taught Jobs and cofounder Steve Wozniak that they needed to make an all-in-one device to reach the mass market—that was the Apple II.

And the Apple II's stronghold in classrooms laid the groundwork for the Macintosh's success in that same market.

While the story of "Jobs" ends at the creation of the iMac and the iPod, those inventions, too, relied on decades of effort in industrial design and a courtship of music creators.

What followed—the iTunes Music Store, the iPhone, the App Store, the iPad—were all logical progressions, one building on top of another. They may have been unexpected, but they could never have come other than stepwise, innovation by innovation. These were not disruptive waves—these were stairs of change, solidly constructed, taking Apple and the rest of us to the next level.

Fixing What's Disrupted

Obituaries for Steve Jobs often list the industries whose fates he altered. But he did not disrupt those industries, I'd argue: He came in with solutions to problems at a time when they had already been disrupted.

Take music, for example. Napster had already done its damage by the time Apple appeared on the digital-distribution scene. Likewise, Jobs saw Apple's opportunity in books only after Amazon had already upset the balance of power with book publishers.

When Jobs genuinely tried to disrupt things—say, with the Lisa computer, or his NeXT workstations—he fell flat on his face.

The best inventions do not arrive abruptly. Think of Square, the payments service that doesn't replace credit cards, but makes taking them a little easier for the smallest of businesses. Or consider Twitter, whose evolution from quirky insider-chat tool to worldwide town square took long years of struggle. These are not disruptive technologies: They are evolutionary ones, driven by patience and vision.

If there's any reason for the masses to watch "Jobs," it's this: to learn that truly valuable technology is not about disruption and chaos. Instead, it requires inspiring teams to work for greater goals and creating institutions that last beyond the founder.

I just wasn't expecting to learn that lesson from the star of "That '70s Show."

Lead image from "Jobs"; photo of Ashton Kutcher as himself by Euan Rannachan