Saturday, October 08, 2011

Henry Ford was no Steve Jobs

Henry Ford (left) invented the assembly line, Harely Earl started America's love affair with the car.

Over the last few days, I have heard one talking head after another compare Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. I'll agree with the Edison comparison, but Henry Ford? This shows how little, even to this day, the business press and business leaders understand Jobs' contributions to Apple and the world.

If you want to compare the evolution of digital devices and automobiles then Henry Ford was similar to Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM. True, by inventing the assembly line, Ford made automobiles affordable for the masses, and Jobs designed a computer for everyday people, but even that analogy is a stretch because Ford's automobiles were manufactured as strictly utilitarian transportation machines.

Jobs' was focused on revolutionizing computers for everyone by making them user friendly. He took, what was universally regarded as a utilitarian device and made it a playful and intuitive creative tool. No, if you want to look for a game-changer like Jobs in the automobile world, then consider Harley Earl the head of GM Design in the 1940s and '50s, who is generally recognized as the father of automotive design.

At the time Earl joined GM, Ford was the dominant automaker. All cars were manufactured with few variations, and any upgrades or innovations were made by engineers on the assembly line. Earl changed all that by convincing GM President Alfred P. Sloan that design should come first. GM Design ultimately became the company's most powerful division, dictating manufacturing and marketing strategies for all GM brands. Earl's many innovations, style initiatives and flamboyant marketing techniques made GM the largest automaker in the world, and started America's love affair with the car.

America waited with baited breath for GM to roll out the new body-style every couple of years, just like they do for Apple to announce the Next Big Thing today. Henry Ford on the other hand, once rather famously said, "People can have the Model T in any color — so long as it is black."

I wrote a feature article about Harley Earl in 2007. You can download a pdf file of the article and learn more about him by clicking here.

Read more of my feature articles here.

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