Steve Jobs: the Perfectionist who Shipped

In thinking back on Steve Jobs, I remember an insight I had years ago, while he was at NeXT. Most people in the computer industry are either perfectionists or pragmatists. The perfectionists do well in academia, where it doesn’t matter that their big ideas take years to turn into practical products (think Donald Knuth.) The pragmatists do well in the private sector, where a steady stream of adequate hacks trump elegant designs. Think Microsoft under Bill Gates: they had a reputation for shipping a laughable 1.0, followed by a nearly respectable 2.0, and then kill the competition with 3.0. Compare the Mozilla Foundation, which disappeared and left MS Internet Explorer with a monopoly while they perfected their browser. Or think of well-designed but expensive SCSI disks, which got eaten alive by the inconvenient, cost-cutting ATA format. Or BSD vs. Linux. (Or both vs. GNU Herd, which never shipped.) And on and on.

Of all the paradoxes of Steve Jobs, this is perhaps the most important. He was a perfectionist who didn’t miss deadlines.