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Steve Jobs: Imitated, Never Duplicated

Wednesday evening, Apple broke the news that Steve Jobs had died.

Since that moment, tributes, eulogies and retrospectives have poured over the world like rain. He changed industries, redefined business models, fused technology and art. People are comparing him to Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci. And they’re saying that it will be a very long time before the world sees the likes of Steve Jobs again.

Probably true. But why not, do you suppose?

Steve Jobs
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Steve Jobs

After all, there are other brilliant marketers, designers and business executives. They’re all over Silicon Valley — all over the world. Many of them, maybe most of them, have studied Steve Jobs, tried to absorb his methods and his philosophy. Surely if they pore over the Steve Jobs playbook long enough, they can re-create some of his success.

But nobody ever does, even when they copy Mr. Jobs’s moves down to the last eyebrow twitch. Why not?

Here’s a guy who never finished college, never went to business school, never worked for anyone else a day in his adult life. So how did he become the visionary who changed every business he touched? Actually, he’s given us clues all along. Remember the “Think Different” ad campaign he introduced upon his return to Apple in 1997?

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.”

In other words, the story of Steve Jobs boils down to this: Don’t go with the flow.

Steve Jobs refused to go with the flow. If he saw something that could be made better, smarter or more beautiful, nothing else mattered. Not internal politics, not economic convention, not social graces.

Apple has attained its current astonishing levels of influence and success because it’s nimble. It’s incredibly focused. It’s had stunningly few flops.

And that’s because Mr. Jobs didn’t buy into focus groups, groupthink or decision by committee. At its core, Apple existed to execute the visions in his brain. He oversaw every button, every corner, every chime. He lost sleep over the fonts in the menus, the cardboard of the packaging, the color of the power cord.

That’s just not how things are done.

Often, his laser focus flew in the face of screamingly obvious common sense. He wanted to open a chain of retail stores — after the failure of Gateway’s chain had clearly demonstrated that the concept was doomed.

He wanted to sell a smartphone that had no keyboard, when physical keys were precisely what had made the BlackBerry the most popular smartphone at the time.

Over and over again, he took away our comfy blankets. He took away our floppy drives, our dial-up modems, our camcorder jacks, our non-glossy screens, our Flash, our DVD drives, our removable laptop batteries.

How could he do that? You’re supposed to add features, not take them away, Steve! That’s just not done!

(Often, I was one of the bellyachers. And often, I’d hear from Mr. Jobs. He’d call me at home, or when I was out to dinner, or when I was vacationing with my family. And he’d berate me for not seeing his bigger picture. On the other hand, sometimes he’d call to praise me for appreciating what he was going for. A C.E.O. calling a reviewer at home? That’s just not done.)

Eventually, of course, most people realized that he was just doing that Steve Jobs thing again: being ahead of his time.

Eventually, in fact, society adopted a cycle of reaction to Apple that became so predictable, it could have been a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Phase 1: Steve Jobs takes the stage to introduce a new product.

Phase 2: The tech bloggers savage it. (“The iPad has no mouse, no keyboard, no GPS, no USB, no card slot, no camera, no Flash!? It’s dead on arrival!”)

Phase 3: The product comes out, the public goes nuts for it, the naysayers seem to disappear into the earth.

Phase 4: The rest of the industry leaps into high gear trying to do just what Apple did.

And so yes, there are other geniuses. There are other brilliant marketers, designers and business executives. Maybe, once or twice in a million, those skills even coincide in the same person.

But will that person also have the vision? The name “Steve Jobs” may appear on 300 patents, but his gift wasn’t invention. It was seeing the promise in some early, clunky technology — and polishing it, refining it and simplifying it until it becomes a standard component. Like the mouse, menus, windows, the CD-ROM or Wi-Fi.

Even at Apple, is there anyone with the imagination to pluck brilliant, previously unthinkable visions out of the air — and the conviction to see them through with monomaniacal attention to detail?

Suppose there were. Suppose, by some miracle, that some kid in a garage somewhere at this moment possesses the marketing, invention, business and design skills of a Steve Jobs. What are the odds that that same person will be comfortable enough — or maybe uncomfortable enough — to swim upstream, against the currents of social, economic and technological norms, all in pursuit of an unshakable vision?

Zero. The odds are zero.

Mr. Jobs is gone. Everyone who knew him feels that sorrow. But the ripples of that loss will widen in the days, weeks and years to come: to the people in the industries he changed. To his hundreds of millions of customers. And to the billions of people touched more indirectly by the greater changes that Steve Jobs brought about, even if they’re unaware of it.

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address to the graduating students at Stanford. He told them the secret that defined him in every action, every decision, every creation of his tragically unfinished life:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.