This won’t be new news by the time this gets published, but Apple’s leading light for the last decade, Steve Jobs has sadly passed away.
Whether you admired the man, or disliked the business practices that Apple carried out under him, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the man had a profound effect on computing, over the way we interact with the world today.
I doubt I’d be called a proper Apple fan; it’s only in the last year or so that I actually purchased anything Apple branded, and it seems somehow oddly apt that today was the first time in weeks that I fired up my Mac. But putting that aside, I think there has been some serious innovation driven by Apple, even as the press have only this week been up in arms that the iPhone 4S is nothing new, just the same as before but ‘improved.’
More interestingly, if you look back at what Jobs made happen, he’s neither an engineer or designer himself, and some less favourable have suggested that he’s largely someone who was in the right place at the right time, but I suspect these aren’t actually that relevant.
What Jobs was, what his real legacy to the world will prove to be, is that he was in every sense of the term a visionary. He had ideas and aspirations of computing that extended beyond the conventional wisdoms, where the user is the centre of things, not the machine.
I don’t know for sure how involved he was on any real day to day basis with the designwork and implementation of things like the iPhone or the App Store, but I’d be genuinely surprised if he were a hands-off kind of guy.
If you ever heard him talk about devices that Apple brought out, it wasn’t the conventional PR type fluff that most CEOs talk up. He had sincere care and enthusiasm about his company’s products.
I remember hearing the presentation for the original iPad, where he described it as ‘magical and revolutionary’, and while even some hardened fans may be disinclined to use those adjectives, there is no doubt that he genuinely believed it to be the case.
And, to be fair, it was revolutionary in a way that even Apple’s most hardened critics can’t really deny: there was no device with the tablet-style form factor in active circulation, using only a touch screen device – at least, outside of re-runs of Star Trek. For a product that critics decry having no ‘killer application’, it’s sold surprisingly well into the millions.
Why? Why is Apple so successful over the last decade, with its phenomenally successful iPad, iPhone and iPod series of devices? The answer, ultimately, comes back to Jobs’ vision for these devices.
Whether you like the devices, or deride them for being pretty, shiny but less functional, there is an unarguable fact: they’re designed and engineered carefully. The shape, ergonomics, usability and so on are all designed together as a cohesive whole.
How often have you ever used a gadget where some aspect of it seems like it was thrown in at the last minute? That one part is always less well polished and refined, because it was an after-thought? It’s something that, generally, doesn’t happen to Apple equipment – because everything is controlled to the smallest details, and designed to a cohesive whole.
Like or loathe Apple, that’s been their hallmark for the last decade, and one that was bestowed upon it by Jobs.
I mentioned before that Jobs wasn’t himself a designer or engineer. Thing is, you don’t have to be to innovate. You have to have a vision, and one that is prepared to bend some of the trends that pre-exist.
Apple, under Jobs, did exactly that. Instead of complex combinations of hardware and software like in the PC arena, there are a relative few models of hardware, in very broad categories, and all running the same base operating system, one far less unevenly distributed in terms of versioning due to having very few device drivers needed for it.
That’s the thing that no-one else has really grabbed the bull by the horns with: they manufacture both the hardware and the software, and present the entire thing to the user in a combined, cohesive experience – one unmatched in the computing industry, because Microsoft (and therefore Windows) is generic software for a variety of platforms and all the manufacturers ship Windows, rather than their own environment tailored to their hardware.
That allows them freedom unprecedented in the industry to make changes. I outlined the changes that OS X 10.7 (Lion) brings, most notably that it marks the shift towards putting the user and the user’s work at the forefront, not the application around it. I can’t imagine Windows introducing that any time soon.
Anyway, I’m gushing. Whatever your thoughts on Apple, on Jobs himself, I know I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost someone actually special. Someone who wasn’t prepared to accept the status quo with what we had, and was more than prepared to go out on a limb to pursue his vision, and make that real.
Wherever he is, I kind of hope he’s sat on a comfy chair, browsing the web on an iPad, and able to reflect on the legacy he has left: one where form meets function, and where creating something new, something wonderful is not only permitted, but actively encouraged.