What Web App Developers Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Today, the world is waking to the news that Apple’s dynamic leader, Steve Jobs, is stepping down from his position as CEO of one of the greatest companies in the world. Nearly 15 years after returning to Apple, and 11 years after becoming CEO again, Jobs is leaving Apple as one of the strongest companies in the world today. Few tech products, from Apple or its competitors, have not had some influence from Jobs’ work, and its tough to imagine many of the advances we’ve seen in the past decade without his leadership.

More than ever before, the past few years have cemented Apple’s position in computing, and native apps on OS X and iOS have been the main focus of tech writing for years now. But interestingly, in the years since Jobs returned to Apple, he has focused on web technologies, too. Let’s take a look at Steve Jobs and Apple’s legacy on web apps, and what developers today can learn from his influence over the years.

The iCEO

It seems difficult to imagine Apple without Steve Jobs, but it was only 11 years ago that he completed his comeback and became CEO of Apple again. I was reminded of this while reading Macstories’ article about Jobs’ resignation this morning, which included a video of his speech at Macworld announcing that he was CEO of Apple again.

Steve Jobs: the iCEO

Steve announced jokingly that he would be the iCEO, instead of simply being a CEO. Yet what he said afterwards was interesting. He said:

“Somebody once called me the iCEO about a year ago, and I liked that. So I’m going to choose that as my title, if it’s ok with you, to remind myself of what’s really important, which is, of course, the internet.”

The internet. Not iPods, not iMacs, the internet. That very i prefix originally stood for the internet, the thing Jobs saw that made devices come alive, turning beige boxes into magic. Interesting comment for the leader of the company that would convince us to spend more on devices and native software.

What was it that Jobs found so fascinating about the internet?

The Internet Connects Us All

Step back a tiny bit, and you’ll find that the internet, indeed, was one of Steve’s biggest passions when he returned to Apple. In a keynote in 1997, shortly after his return to Apple, he discussed his personal computing system. Rather than keeping all of his data on one computer, he stored it on a server so he could access it wherever he was.

Here, nearly a decade before cloud computing was a buzzword, Jobs saw the future of being able to use networking to make computing simpler. The iTunes Store was built around this; it made music and video distribution simpler through the internet. The App Store did the same for software distribution. The iPhone brought the full internet (sans Flash) to our pockets, and while other smartphones had internet capabilities before, few truly used the internet on the go before the iPhone.

Knowing When to Say No

But it’s not just web sites that make the network or cloud magical. It’s great to be able to book a ticket on the go or comparison price. But web apps have really made the web a better place, bringing to all of us the future that Jobs envisioned. When I recently bought a new computer (incidentally, my first Mac), I was up and running in minutes thanks to web apps. I just needed to open a browser, login to Google Apps and WordPress, get Dropbox syncing, and I was ready to get to work. I could literally have set in the store on the other side of the world, and started working just as fast on a brand new computer. That’s the magic of the cloud.

That’s also an area that Apple has historically struggled in. They’ve made great devices and software, but MobileMe and their other internet initiatives have often been met with failure. Jobs admitted as much himself in his last WWDC keynote, but then proceeded to take the majority of his time on stage to give an introduction to Apple’s newest web app initiative: iCloud.

One of his best traits as leader is knowing when something isn’t working, and killing it off. That’s something other web app companies could learn from. Our greatest ideas at 2 AM might turn into billion dollar businesses, or they might flop. It’s never wrong to try, but sometimes you have to learn when to cut the cord and stop. The biggest problem with online businesses that was evidenced in the late ’90’s is that so many didn’t have solid business chances. We’ve been historically slow to kill off old tech as well, which is why our browsers have been saddled with slow Java and Flash plugins for years after they could have been killed off. Jobs knew when to kill dead technologies, and we would do well to do the same.

Here’s to The Crazy Ones

But sometimes, you’ve got to know when to stick with it, too. The worst thing about web apps is that so many seem to only stay around for a little while, their developers hoping to get bought out or running off to create the next big thing. Steve Jobs said in 2000:

“The problem with the Internet startup craze isn’t that too many people are starting companies; it’s that too many people aren’t sticking with it. That’s somewhat understandable, because there are many moments that are filled with despair and agony, when you have to fire people and cancel things and deal with very difficult situations. That’s when you find out who you are and what your values are.

So when these people sell out, even though they get fabulously rich, they’re gypping themselves out of one of the potentially most rewarding experiences of their unfolding lives. Without it, they may never know their values or how to keep their newfound wealth in perspective.”

Apple didn’t quit making web apps when MobileMe didn’t work. They didn’t settle to use Internet Explorer forever, and instead forked KHTML to create Webkit, the engine that powers some of the best innovation on the web today. Everyone said Safari wouldn’t gain marketshare, and overall, it didn’t gain much marketshare, but it still over time made a profound impact on the web. Sometimes you’ve got to just stick it out. It may not be easy creating a new CMS or the next greatest project manager, or better yet, an entirely new app that no one even knows they needed. It may take perseverance and patience and perspiration. But if you’re building something you truly believe in, it’s worth it.

So many successful web apps seem simple in concept: Dropbox, Facebook, even Google search and Gmail. But their teams wouldn’t give up, and that’s why we can enjoy the freedom of using cloud computing today. If you’re a developer, you can do that too, if you’re willing to stick with it. Know when to kill failed projects, but when you know there’s potential, don’t give up. Others may think you’re idea is crazy, but it’s the crazy ones that change things.


So today, much of the world is wondering what comes next. Will Apple continue to lead the tech world, or will we see a repeat of Apple’s stumbles in the ’90’s? John Gruber argues that Jobs’ greatest creation is Apple itself, and that Jobs has built up a team that can continue the legacy of greatness. But it’s not just in Apple’s team that Jobs’ leadership can live on. Instead, the best of Jobs’ legacy at Apple could perhaps be summed up in the high quality apps that fill Apple’s App Stores, testaments to his influence on generations of developers.

Steve Jobs can inspire us all to greatness. His work is a reminder that making great products, and being willing to kill off bad ideas, is truly worth it. He’s also a reminder that sometimes, it takes time for your efforts to pay off.

Here’s to the next generation of developers, designers, writers, marketers, animators, and more. We, too, can create great stuff, stuff Steve Jobs himself would be proud of. Why settle for less?