Sunday, October 9, 2011


It's been four days and it's still hard to get my thoughts together. I think my mind still can't fathom that he's gone. He shaped my life and the lives of others in ways I never even thought about until now, despite us not knowing him personally.

That Steve Jobs changed the world is not an overstatement. In a personal sense, he is a big reason for me having such a great interest in computers and technology (the other reason being my dad). When I was a wee lad, my dad would bring his work computer home over holiday breaks. The computer was a Mac Plus, the black and white screened all-in-one that was a descendant of the original Macintosh. My dad used the computer to do work, but I sure had a heck of a lot of fun with it. My first exposure to computers had me instantly hooked. I loved everything from the oldschool startup chime to the intuitiveness of the Mac System 6 user interface.

But the true test is to ask whether I still would've been hooked if the computer had been a Windows PC. Ah, but that's a trick question, isn't it? Windows would not exist if it weren't for Steve and his Mac operating system. Don't believe me? Go watch Pirates of Silicon Valley, starring Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall. Besides, back in those days Windows was pretty much nothing, and most non-Apple computers ran the useable but horribly unintuitive DOS. I am certain that if my first introduction to computers was DOS or Windows 1, 2, or 3.0, I would've been repelled. My preference, and my family's preference, has never wavered to this day. There has always been something about Apple's products that transcend price and specs that, if you haven't experienced them, you probably don't understand.

But the success and the impact of Apple and Steve Jobs, as well as my appreciation for them, goes beyond simple personal preferences and money. This is something that a lot of detractors seem to completely miss. Common refrains from the hater camp are that Apple claims to innovate but their successful products are ones that have been done already in the past. That Apple's unwavering adherence to their often draconian policies severely hurts the industry and hurts innovation. That Apple's marketing dangerously misleads people into believing their highly priced products can cure the common cold and create world peace. And that Apple doesn't even adhere to their own slogan "Think Different" because they make stuff that's been done before. Even a decade ago, many people held to the believe that Apple's products were just toys compared to their competition, and I even had one friend tell me "Macs are for people who can't afford PCs", which was so wrong in so many ways.

I will address these points individually, and in doing so attempt to explain why Steve's and Apple's accomplishments and contributions must be celebrated. First, people who think Apple just retreads what others have already done are not seeing the big picture. Sure, personal computers were around before the Mac, and MP3 players were around before the iPod, but who used personal computers back then? Only geeks who could stand to use a command line for doing anything besides listing directory contents. And who used MP3 players in their infancy? Well, I didn't know anyone, but I do know that they were hard to use and were mainly the domain of geeks who, again, could stand to get their own MP3s somehow and finagle them onto their clunky portable music player. But when the Mac came along in 1984, and when the iPod launched in 2001, it got regular people excited and regular people understood how to use these machines for the first time. Steve's power was the power to get normal people excited about things that they used to consider silly, complicated nerd paraphernalia. People tend to hate the iPod and the iTunes Store for being a closed ecosystem, but they forget that only Apple's stubbornness and cash could convince the entire RIAA to move into the 21st century in terms of selling their music online. And this is why we have Amazon MP3 and all the other online music stores.

The ultimate example of this, and more, is the iPhone. Before the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the term "smartphone" was synonymous with RIM's Blackberry phones, and to some extent, Palm's phones. And at the time these phones could do email, sure. They could do calendars, messaging, and get on the web. But the web on a mid-2000s smartphone was awful. Web sites were designed to run on browsers made for desktop and notebook computers, and thus when these primitive smartphone browsers attempted to connected them, all they got was some poorly formatted text version that was horrendously inconvenient to navigate. I have no doubt that without the iPhone, smartphones of 2011 would still bear those old stodgy, clunky designs and hundreds of millions of people would not be able to access so much good information in mere seconds, as these phones would still be the domain of businesspeople and rich geeks. Oh and no Android for you! So before you dismiss Apple as not having any original ideas of their own, think about that. Today's Windows computers would not exist, or they would suck way more than they do. Today's music industry would have collapsed due to their inability to adapt to the "digital age". And today's phones would still be clunky contraptions that everyone needs but no one likes to use.

The next issue is Apple's stubborn adherence to their own policies. The company under Steve was uncompromising, headstrong, and aggressive. It creates and enforces strict rules for the use of its operating systems (see Mac OSX and iOS) in the name of preventing dilution of the products and the brand. To this end Apple brings legal action against companies who make products Apple feels is copying them. Apple also has a history of rejecting or removing apps from its iOS app store that thinks violates the developer agreement. Recently the court upheld a ruling for a lawsuit Apple brought against Psystar, a small company that sold "Mac clones" - generic PC boxes that ran Mac OSX. Many see actions like this and others as anticompetitive and harmful to innovation. Perhaps some of them are anticompetitive, and in terms of US law these situations should probably be judged accordingly. But people should also understand the idea behind their actions. Steve (and by extension, Apple) sought to control all parts of their product because he wanted to make really, really great products that people would love. And to do so, he wanted to leave nothing to chance - "chance" being the possibility for someone outside of his control to screw that up. It's this uncompromising dedication to the end user experience that enables their products to be so sought after and valued. In other words, without the stubborn iron first guiding things, Apple's products would not stand out, and there is a very real possibility that no products in the markets Apple currently occupies would be highly desired by anybody. And because their products are so highly sought after, it lights fire under the asses of the likes of Microsoft, Google, Samsung, HTC, RIM, HP, and even Nintendo and the company that makes George Foreman grills. Those who consider the results of Apple's actions hurting innovation need to reexamine their definition of "hurting".

On the idea that Apple oversells its products, all I have to say is "don't you wish your company had the marketing juggernaut that Apple has?" Anyone who says no is a fool. The other side to the coin, however, is the idea of truth in advertising. I'm all for truth in advertising. The thing is, I think Apple actually tends to be more careful with facts than people give them credit for. It's never been about specs or numbers with Apple. It's always been about going after your emotions and grabbing you such that you feel like you "have to have it". The thing detractors don't understand is, when people see these commercials, and they consequently go out and buy the product, they are usually very satisfied with their purchase. Does that sound to you like dishonest marketing? Telling people (not necessarily in so many words) that they're going to love this product, and people buy it and they end up… loving the product? It's not about truth and lies, but about how the products make you feel. Oh, and by the way, they just happen to do what people expect them to do.

My day to day appreciation for what Steve has created at Apple is fairly mundane: I like how Mac OSX feels more than how Windows feels. And I like how iOS feels. These things are a matter of personal preference, and I would get nowhere trying to convince anyone that Apple's stuff is better than Microsoft's or Google's if they have their own strong feelings. But my goal was to examine how no matter whether one likes or hates Steve and Apple, it is a terrible, terrible mistake to discount their contribution to all facets of technology. Without Steve there would be no Windows. Without Steve there would be no Android. Without Steve the music industry would be a 20th century relic. Without Steve our smartphones would be dumb. Without Steve the world would be a world of boring beige boxes that only schools and businesses would bother to use. And without Steve we'd all still be using Parallel and PS/2 ports on our PCs. Steve's stubborn attention to the most minute detail in every aspect of design has made an amazing impact on how we define our aesthetics in technology today.

It has been said that Steve knew what you wanted even if you didn't know that you wanted it. It's so true, and it's been proven time and again, with the iPhone and the iPad. Now that he's gone, who will make us better devices, and who will make us love our technology?

For more reading or viewing, check out the links below:

Godfather of fonts article

Tribute by Leo Laporte et. al at TWiT TV

Think Different video on Youtube


Unknown said...

good read, good points - agree on many of them!

Johann Ly said...

One thing that I respect about Apple is that with their App Store, they transformed the mainstream perception of "applications" from being complex like Norton Anti-Virus, to simple like Shazam -- hence, the modern term "app". No student wanted to be an application developer fresh out of college in the 90s, but now everyone and their start-up wants to write the next killer iOS app and change the world with it.