August 24, 2011 at 11:45 PM by Dr. Drang
The unique thing about Steve Jobs isn’t his attention to detail, isn’t his incredible focus, isn’t his good taste in product design. These have all been a part of his success, of course, but lots of people are focused and detail-oriented. Relatively few, especially in the tech business, combine that with good taste, but they’re around. What makes Steve Jobs unique is that he’s been consistently right in his vision of the role of computers in our lives.
He was there at the beginning of what we now think of when we hear the word computer, with the machine that defined the personal computer revolution. Yes, yes, yes, Woz designed the Apple II, and I don’t want to diminish his place in history, but do you really think Woz could have instilled in people the idea that computers were for everyone?
Who got the first GUI computer out and into people’s hands? Say all you want about PARC and Doug Engelbart and Jef Raskin, but the Mac was the first GUI computer that regular people, people outside of labs and think tanks and universities, got to own and use.
In some ways, the Mac was ahead of its time. It used a lot of cycles “just” to look nice, and the hardware of the time was barely up to it. But Jobs knew that that was how people should use computers, and he pushed people like Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld to squeeze every last bit of power out of that poor 68000 chip.
In some ways, the Mac was too late. IBM had already knocked Apple off its perch at the top of the personal computer world, and the Mac wasn’t enough to pull Apple back up. It got a lot of press, but it never generated commensurate sales. I remember stories that the Apple II division resented the Mac people because they got all the attention while the old reliable II was pulling in most of Apple’s profits.
But Jobs was right about how people should use computers. The Apple II gained GUI features, then the Amiga and Atari ST came out. And Windows.
There’s been a lot of ignorant history thrown around lately about how Windows defeated the Mac. People have been saying that Android overtaking the iPhone in market share is like Windows eclipsing the Mac in the personal computer market. But the Mac never had a dominant position—Windows eclipsed DOS. DOS had assumed IBM’s top spot as the PC hardware business got commoditized, and Windows inherited that spot from DOS.
It’s true that Windows 95—the first version of Windows that was actually usable—was an important factor in Apple’s late-90s tailspin. But a lot of that was due to the incompetence of the post-Jobs Apple, which frittered away a decade-long head start.
Regardless of when Windows became useable, its success proved that Jobs had been right in ’84. GUIs weren’t frivolous wastes of cycles; they made computing easier, more productive, and more personal. They made computers part of our everyday lives.
In hindsight, it’s lucky for all of us that Apple was still considered worth saving (Michael Dell notwithstanding) when its board decided to bring Jobs back in the late 90s. He knew he’d been proved right, but he also knew the rickety underpinnings that had been supporting the Mac’s GUI for a decade had to be replaced. That took years, but eventually the Mac became as strong internally as it was easy to use on the surface.
As that rehabilitation was under way, out popped the iPod. A computer of sorts, albeit a special-purpose one, it flipped the standard music player conventions upside down. Instead of carrying just one album, like portable CD players and the venerable Walkman, the iPod carried dozens of albums—a thousand songs in your pocket. Instead of a big device with tiny buttons and a small display, the iPod was a small device with big buttons and a big display. iPods were personal and beloved in ways that portable CD players never were and never could be. Eventually, music players that weren’t like iPods ceased to exist. The iPod was right and everyone recognized it.
Then the iPhone and the iPad, where the metaphors of the GUI became less metaphorical. There’s no onscreen pointer acting as a proxy for your finger, you use your finger itself. Once again, this was right. Smartphones with physical keyboards haven’t gone extinct, but they’re getting rarer. And can you imagine a smartphone coming now without a touchscreen?
Would personal computers have gained GUIs without Jobs? Sure, but not as early. It took Microsoft 10 years to come up with a decent GUI, and that was with the example of the Mac staring them in the face. How likely is it that non-Apple smartphones would look and behave the way they do now if the iPhone hadn’t come out in ’07? And we’re still waiting for good tablets other than the iPad.
Steve Jobs’ greatest legacy isn’t the success that Apple’s had under his direction, it’s that the entire personal computing industry is aligned with his vision. In a sense, you’re using a Steve Jobs product whether it has an Apple logo or not.