Commentary: Immortal Ideas

I was walking on 57th street the other day when I saw a little girl coming towards me with her eyes fixed on the iPad in her hands. A woman, probably her mother, was following her closely, trying to prevent her from wandering off onto the street. For a girl her age, I assumed that she was engrossed in a game of Angry Birds or Cut the Rope. But when the two passed by, I took a quick glance at the screen, only to find tiny fingers digitally scrawling out the word “dog”. On a bustling Saturday afternoon in the streets of Hyde Park, the girl was learning how to write.

Don’t worry, this article won’t be another online tribute to Steve Jobs. But Jobs’ death and my encounter with the girl lead me to the following question: How can a company become so widespread and engrained into people’s lives and culture?

Jobs did not create products. He created an idea to live by. Apple’s philosophy of emphasis in elegant design and easy user interface is one that Jobs held onto firmly as he lead the company through the Computer and Internet ages. Rather than confine the machine into the realm of computing only to be enjoyed by those savvy enough to navigate it, he turned it into a friend capable of being enjoyed by all.

And Apple is not the only example of a company guided by philosophy. Look towards Facebook, a company formed around the idea of making individuals more open to each other. Look towards Google, a company formed around the idea of making information and data more accessible. These companies and the others like them rise above the rest because they are not defined by ephemeral products. They see holes in a community – markets, people, institutions, anything – and formulate an idea to fill them. The products, which develop and modify over time, manifest the idea. They are tools used to fill the holes. And once they have successfully satisfied the need, other companies try to compete. But most of the time, if the founding company is creative enough and understands its philosophy best, it stays on top for a long time.

Companies formed around an idea are also able to tap into diverse markets with greater ease, as the same holes can exist in many communities. Or, products can fill holes that communities didn’t even know existed in the first place. But when the holes are filled, the community can’t live without the products, and the idea by which the products were initially created lives forever.

Jobs may not have pioneered this type of entrepreneurial thinking, but he certainly embodied it. So can an individual be as immortal as an idea can? I thought about this as I learned that the man died from a device that he himself created.

by Suchin Gururangan

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