A break from the Anti Buzz series on Types of Computer users to honor Steve Jobs.
As most of you are probably aware, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs passed away. Out of respect for the man I’m not going to present some Buzz/Anti-Buzz hook; all of my attempts to do so were either potentially in bad taste, or just awkward. In the spirit of my usual hook, however, I will present you with a small irony: Why would I, a man who owns zero Apple products, who is openly critical of some of Apple’s policies and attitudes, want to pay tribute to the man? A more cynical view: Steve Jobs’ business was rarely on top, and even now Mac OS X does not enjoy a significant market share among operating systems, so why was he important?
Here’s the truth: Steve Jobs, in the time he was with us, made all our lives better. First, simply by being a competitor, he drove in a bald, economic sense, all the products you use to improve – though this greatly oversimplifies the man’s contributions. Some industries have “innovator” companies that take risks the others aren’t willing to, that seek out new markets and leverage consumer interests in ways previously unheard of. These companies are rarely on top, often produce public failures, but tend to earn a loyal, cultish customer base. In video games this company is Nintendo, in retail it is Target, in grocery stores it is Trader Joe’s. In personal computing, it is Apple. The cult of personality surrounding Apple and Steve Jobs might get those of us who are not fans to sneer, and “innovator” and “genius” can start to sound like some hollow Dilbert buzzword when used to describe Jobs, but in this moment I’d like to step back and remember – it’s all true.
Early in his career, the man “got it” – he knew what widespread, consumer-friendly computing could mean for all of us – and he never stopped pushing the idea. Historically, Apple has been considered superior-but-overpriced, an unfortunate irony considering that the man’s mission was always to democratize new technology. Computing is the most flexible and fun technology in the history of humanity, and when everyone else wanted it in your office, Jobs wanted you to have it in your home.
Pre-2000, Apple’s most well-placed product was the original Apple and its immediate predeccessors. It is short-sighted to look back on the Apple II as some quaint hobbyist toy. The 1970s began with most universities enjoying one or two “microcomputers” – aptly named because they were only the size of an armoire – and ended with arcade machines, business networks and – can you believe it – personal home computers! Apple wasn’t alone, but it was the only company that was trying to push the idea that a regular normal person could have a real danged computer in their house that was on par with what research institutions had only 10 years prior – the competition more or less only offered gaming platforms of varying flexibility. Apple gave you the real thing.
More well known today is Apple’s second go at home-computing – the Macintosh. The typical user takes GUIs for granted, and anybody else knows that the current WIMP paradigm was invented at Xerox, not Apple. The popular legend is that Apple “stole” the idea from Xerox, and they aren’t completely wrong, but as Malcom Gladwell will tell you, innovation is not so cut and dry. (Go ahead and read the article, I’m not going anywhere). Xerox was sitting on the PC, and other companies might have pushed the idea for large business infrastructures, but Steve Jobs, well, he wanted you to have it. Steve’s legacy is that he knew what was good, and he knew what was crap, and he wanted you and your grandmother to get all the good stuff.
Again, the popular legend is that the Mac’s struggle for acceptance from the 80’s through the 90’s is fraught with “it was too expensive” but don’t even try imagine what Xerox would have charged for it. If you had an enjoyable home computing experience in the 90’s, the odds are that it was with Windows and the odds are also that it would have been much worse if Apple hadn’t given the world a taste of usability. The idea that someone other than a hobbyist cave troll might enjoy using a computer at home wasn’t something anyone believed before Steve Jobs proved otherwise.
An equally revolutionary moment in Jobs’ career – and the one that saved Apple from obscurity – was a little thing called iTunes.
Myself and others might be quick to criticize Apple’s somewhat frustrating approach to DRM, but let’s try to remember back to 2000 for a moment and The Great Napster Scare. I risk turning this into an off-topic opinion piece, so let’s just try to stick to the pertinent details: Someone wrote a piece of software that demonstrated how convenient it could be to download music and other entertainment online, and people flocked to it. Ignore legal implications for a moment and just observe that the entertainment industry, which is used to distributing a small amount of content through an expensive straw, was getting a live demonstration of how it could distribute more content for less money and to more people.
Steve Jobs, thankfully, was not a scion of the entertainment industry, where the underlying assumption has always been that consumers are idiot jerks that need to be tricked into buying products. Steve jobs believed that you and your grandmother were good decent people – decent people who might enjoy downloading their music onto their home computers instead of dealing with all that plastic and those lines at Walmart and the traffic and the 8 songs on the album that you don’t really like anyway. Thus, iTunes and, soon after, the iPod. Like the WIMP GUI OS shell, Steve Jobs did not invent digital distribution – he just believed in it. I remember a television interview with him, defending iTunes against the cynical view that consumers would not pay for music online when they could get it for free. I’m paraphrasing, but he more or less said that he believed people were good, wanted to do the right thing, and wanted to download music because it was convenient, not because it was free. Steve Jobs, everybody! He saved home computing from the basement trolls and he saved entertainment from the dinosaurs.
Time Magazine named Steve Jobs CEO of the decade, and probably rightly so. The decade contained most of his tenure as CEO, and no company saw its fortune reverse so sharply at the arrival of a new boss than Apple. But he would not have earned the distinction if the story had stopped at iTunes. iTunes was what Apple needed in the moment. Macs were ahead of their time in the 80’s, so it was karmic justice that Jobs would be so right-place-right-time with iTunes and the iPod, (The iPod, of course, is just an extension of the Sony Walkman – but nobody thought you could do the Walkman again). If Apple had spent the decade just happily carving out their niche as overlord of entertain distribution, we’d all just look at Apple with a sort of pleased whimsy – “it’s nice that Apple guy finally got his infinite pile of money” – but that’s not what happened.
Phones were already feature-rich, iPods were already trusted, and everybody was already browsing the web all the time. Jobs really just had the clarity to observe that you could just have all of these things in one device, in your pocket – but he’d have to rethink interface design first. It’s here where I want to point out that Steve Jobs was also the first to tear down his own legacy: the the WIMP GUI, which as you know doesn’t work out so well on a smart phone. Or maybe you didn’t know or didn’t think about it, but it’s sort of a big deal that you are able to browse the web on your phone without the use of a keyboard or mouse. It might seem simple, but this is no small feat. Even if you don’t use a smart phone, the popularity of micro operating systems that flout the paradigm that Macintosh first established will one day have a non-trivial impact on how you use that real danged computer in your home.
And it is also demonstrates my final point about Jobs: he was never stagnate. His innovations didn’t stop. He wasn’t stubborn. He wasn’t afraid to change his own assumptions. Most important, he didn’t think that you, the customer, were some unwashed yokel. In these ways he was one of the first true 21st Century businessmen and we are poorer for having lost him.