Steve Jobs died yesterday and I have to admit I’m gutted. A true visionary, Steve Jobs did more than anyone else to shape the digital age. And now that vision is gone.
I’ve just written his obituary for my my alma mater, Stuff. I was lucky enough to be at stuff from the birth of the iMac all the way through to the iPad, so I followed the third act of Steve’s story from… Well, from about four rows back.
If you ever want to feel unworthy, make the mistake of measuring your achievements against Steve’s: the college dropout who (loosely) helped Atari develop the arcade classic Break-out, before launching the personal computer revolution with the Apple II, overseeing the most successful floatation in history and then redefining the computing paradigm with Macintosh. And all before he was 30.
OK, Jobs didn’t do all the work (woz did the Breakout coding and Apple II innards; the mouse/GUI was developed at Xerox) but his design and marketing instincts were way ahead of everyone. Take the meticulous casework and fanless operation of the Apple II in an era when computers sold as circuit boards; or the Ridley Scott ad for the launch of the Mac, which the Apple board hated so much they tried to pull it.
The second act of Jobs’ life began when he was ousted from Apple after poor Mac sales. He launched NeXT computers, and failed to sell any significant numbers. He bought Pixar from George Lucas for $10m and failed to sell much of their hardware either. He’d lost his magical touch. After all the arrogance of Apple, it seemed he was human, after all.
But when most would have thrown in the towel, Steve kept going. He turned Pixar into an animation business almost by accident, and ended up swapping it for 7% of Disney. That $10m investment ended up being worth over $3bn. And then he sold NeXT’s software to Apple for around $300m – and took over as CEO. In less than 15 years, he turned Apple from a loss-making business desperate to be bought by Sun Microsystems to the most valuable company in the world.
The rest is fresh memory, but it’s worth noting that Jobs changed the way we listened to and bought music with iPod and iTunes and redefined mobile computing with iPhone and iPad. Each of those moments is arguably as significant as the Apple II. Jobs – and his talented team – shook the world. They changed things.
Apple is often criticised for repackaging existing technology so that people want to buy it, to use it. They say Apple is all about design and eye-candy. I don’t think it’s a fair criticism – There’s no point in developing new technology if people won’t use it. Time and again, Steve Jobs has redefined the interface between man and machine: popularising the mouse, the touchscreen, the scroll wheel, the one-click music purchase, the invisible sync.
Of course, Steve Jobs also upset a lot of people along the way. His singular vision was a blessing and a curse. But today isn’t the day to dwell on negatives. It’s the day to celebrate genius, and mourn the loss of a visionary. Because what Steve jobs instinctively understood – that so few others do – is that technology itself won’t change the world: it’s the way we use it that matters.