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Thoughts on revolution: Apple after Steve Jobs

Sections: Apple News, Features, Opinions and Editorials, Originals, Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs hero

As a fanboy from way before when it was cool, writing an article on Apple’s continued fortunes without Steve Jobs is immeasurably difficult. Until now, all I have managed to do is re-watch keynotes and marvel at the evolution of Jobs the presenter and Jobs the prognosticator. Those of us who remember or owned (or both) the Newton and Performa know just how far Steve Jobs brought Apple from a second-rate has-been to the pinnacle of consumer electronics it is today.

I’m a bit young to remember Apple’s original heyday, having arrived in this world right around the time the original Macintosh went on sale (though I have fond memories of MacPaint and MathBlaster), but 14 years of Stevenotes introducing candy-colored computers and revolutionary Internet Communicator, Phone, and Widescreen iPods are enough to make me realize a small-but-impeccably-designed hole is now present in the universe. Most of the remembrances of him use words like “visionary” and “genius,” but those capture mere aspects of what Steve Jobs did for the world. Though we value specialization in today’s society, Steve Jobs was a Renaissance Man, dabbling across design, engineering, and user interface to bring joy to Apple’s customers and push forward our understanding of what we can do with computers. Without the light of his obsessive genius, Apple’s path to the future may seem uncertain (just see the collective yawns at the iPhone 4s launch), but those who doubt Apple’s ability to sustain miss a key point. Apple is no longer a weak underdog, but a fighting force on the cutting edge of technology+liberal arts—a position no other company can claim. While Steve Jobs will always be the foundation of Apple, he built a legacy that can be maintained not only by his senior executives, but by us all.

The Revolution has Already Happened

Apple in the mid ’90s had no lack of creativity or genius, it simply lacked someone to act as a prism and focus that energy. Countless projects were spun up—from Mac OS replacements to PDAs to non-Apple Mac clones—but no single authority said “no” to the ones that were technologically interesting while being unrealistic to send out to market. Steve Jobs’ first act upon returning to Apple was to axe projects that did not fit his vision of what the computer could be used for, and which took focus away from building a strong base for OS X (though that took a bit longer than planned). Rebuilding the Mac was a simple, four-pronged strategy comprising one pro and one consumer laptop, and the same for desktops. The desktop revolution is pretty much complete today, so looking for massive OS X change at a WWDC keynote is likely to leave you perpetually disappointed.

At this point, Apple is simply improving upon what it has already created. In the past, Apple revolutionized markets precisely because the then-leaders had no grasp of what to do. Focus groups are not the best way to design a product, so when Jobs realized that the computer needed to leave the desk and jump into our pockets, he looked at why smartphones of the day were not equal to the task. And from there, the iPhone was built. His Macworld 2007 keynote, introducing the iPhone is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the Stevenote experience because it was the last launch where rumors of his health did not overshadow the product. When introducing the iPad, the message was not on revolution so much as it was on the magical nature of the iPad. It was revolutionary compared to tablets of the day, but it was really an extension of how much more useful the iPhone could be with more screen real estate. Steve Jobs said in an interview that nobody wanted to watch video on a screen as small as the iPod’s, and the iPad’s screen is a perfect blank canvas for movies and so much more.

Revolution for revolution’s sake is not a winning game. Complicated technology is no longer the rule; ease of use is now expected, and new technology succeeds or fails based on its interface. Shifting our expectations was the real revolution, and face it; there are only so many totally-undreamt-of iProducts that Apple could possibly create, either with or without Steve. Continuing to evolve what is already the best is hardly stagnation or a failure of leadership. The iPhone 4S is a perfect example of Apple’s approach, with a blend of advanced but not bleeding-edge technology married to a rock-solid user experience and backend services (iCloud). As the market leader, Apple is in a position where revolution of their own leading products is less desirable than evolution to a better state.

The Computer isn’t Personal. We Are.

It seems fitting that Apple is planning to build its new “spaceship” headquarters on land formerly owned by HP, where Jobs had his first computer job. It is amusing, however, to see the marketing tagline HP is using for its PC division: “The Computer is Personal Again.” This message refers to both the expression of personality facilitated by the laptop colors/designs and the tools presented by the computer to foster creativity and personal expression. But Steve Jobs and the Apple he built after returning in 1997 have a much firmer grasp on what is possible when our creative force meets a willing tool—that is the intersection of technology and the humanities he spoke of during the iPad 2 launch. Rather than revolutionary tech specs, this fostering of creativity is a more reliable yardstick to measure the merits of future products.

To see the revolutionize/evolve two-step, one need look no further than the evolution of the iLife suite. Old keynotes look painfully cartoonish, with über-thick pinstripes and lickable Aqua buttons on display, but it is downright spooky to watch when Steve said “We think this is gonna be huge,” and you realize: he was spot on. Introducing iTunes, a digital jukebox that lets you manage music in a new world without CDs; iPhoto, which enabled digital cameras to be truly meaningful forms of expression and sharing; the list goes on. Apple’s approach was called the Digital Hub, where the Mac was the center of your digital life and managed your iPod, camcorder, etc. It is curious to note Apple was never out on the forefront of these technologies, but rather pushed the envelope of what technology could do. Steve’s focus was always on how a tool was useful to its user, at the expense of putting a brand new feature in just for the sake of claiming the most feature-packed product.

While the Digital Hub strategy worked in the PC era, the availability of affordable mobile computing power fractured the computer-user relationship. No longer is the desktop the ruling lord of the Digital Hub, but it is instead demoted to a spoke in the digital iCloud. The availability of iMovie and an ever-expanding suite of photo editing features on the iPhone means we are no longer chained to a desk, or forced to wait until we get home to share those picture perfect moments. iLife is slowly dissolving in favor of something bigger and better, and Steve’s approach of creative destruction shines in the evolution of iLife to iPhone Apps+iCloud. Luckily, we the users will never stop changing, never stop evolving. Apple has the power to revolutionize products or markets where there is no leader, but at the forefront the game changes to evolving with the users rather than upsetting the Apple cart. Every keynote that gets yawns should be reexamined a year later—features that are dismissed have usually become industry standard even if they lack an initial wow factor.

Thanks, Steve

It is some little consolation to think that Steve, a devout Buddhist, may someday rejoin this world reincarnated and ready to start some more revolutions, though religious interpretations vary and he may not return as a technology visionary at all. After his passing, and looking to Apple’s future, it is important to remember that innovation comes from everywhere—we just need somebody to make sure it fits our needs. Steve Jobs was neither the tinkerer nor the animator, but he managed to inspire the best of those professions to new heights. In the years of the Apple slump between 1985 and 1997, plenty of innovators created outstanding products that bombed. The Newton was promising but released too early, and the evolution of the Macintosh itself stalled with substandard-but-overpriced Performa hardware and the ill-fated Copland development project to replace the Mac OS.

Steve Jobs provided the leader Apple needed to focus the creative talent it was so good at attracting. He often spoke of technology as if it were a person, and seemed to realize technology meant nothing without a personal use: “Touch surfaces want to be horizontal,” or iPhone has achieved such-and-such. Ultimately it was the product that mattered, not the teams or the CEO who made it. The emotional connection forged between user and device was the divine spark behind every product launch—using iPhoto to chronicle a birth, or FaceTime providing a deaf couple the ability to chat. In the early days, the Reality Distortion Field was used to talk up sometimes sub-par specs on hardware, but the hardware usually sold in droves anyway because Jobs was able to see what people needed to do. Organize photos? Try iPhoto! Need a truly portable media consumption and connectivity device? Try iPhone! So what if an 800mhz processor was slower than what Wintel boxes had—no Windows user had iMovie to let you share your vacation movies.

This tireless focus not on the technology but on what it empowered us to do is what makes Apple great, and evolutionary products like the iPhone 4S that continue the tradition are just fine by this fanboy.

Keep ‘em coming, Apple, and thanks again, Steve Jobs, for sharing your vision of how we could all be better. We are left to take up the mantle of judging products not by their specs, but by their usefulness, and you certainly educated us well.

Steve “One More Thing” Jobs. 1955-2011.

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