Like many, I was saddened at the death of Steve Jobs yesterday, and inevitably it led to some reflection on the impact of a person's life.
In 1999 I wrote part of a course (T171, You, your computer and the Net), based around the story of the early computer industry. We used Cringeley's Accidental Empires as a set text. Ultimately this came down to a story of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Incidentally, this compelling narrative was a very good way to teach about dry subjects such as microprocessor operation, analogue to digital conversion, etc. At the time Jobs had just gone back to Apple, and it was by no means certain this would be a success. Many people were predicting the end of Apple and Microsoft were all conquering. Like football managers, the advice for company founders is usually "don't go back".
If Jobs had done nothing in this second phase at Apple, we would still be marvelling at his achievements, but that he made this second reign eclipse the first is really a remarkable achievement. Much of the eulogy yesterday focused on the number of people using his products, which I agree is testament to his success, but I think perhaps even more powerful is the long reach he had – the impact beyond immediate Apple products.
I saw a couple of snidey comments on forums along the lines of 'I don't see why it is the lead news on the BBC', and 'I don't use Apple stuff so he had no influence on my life.' To these people I'd say: if you don't think Steve Jobs had an impact on your life, then you simply don't understand the world you live in. (At least in the developed world, but arguably everywhere).
So what is this long reach of Jobs:
- Windows – Gates can be seen as the great democratiser of computers, but the Windows interface, which was key to this, was driven by competition with Apple. I'm not saying we'd still have DOS interfaces (and yes the original ideas came from Xerox PARC), but the Mac pushed it forward a good decade or so. Which leads us onto the next point:
- The Internet – now, you're probably thinking I'm stretching things here, and yes I know Jobs didn't invent the internet. But the work he did to create a world where the personal computer was ubiquitous laid the foundation for our whole internet driven economy.
- Music and other sectors – I wrote a post once asking the question 'Why didn't Microsoft invent iTunes?'. By really grasping what the net meant for a digital content industry, Jobs completely transformed this industry. In so doing he also highlighted how other similar industries would be challenged by the arrival of digital content distributed via a global network (eg the film industry). As with the graphical interface, it may have happened eventually, but the music industry themselves weren't driving this change, so who knows how long it would have taken.
- Economy models – iTunes is still the only really good example of making micropayments work, and as such it is often held up as a model for other sectors to immitate and explore.
I could go on. My point is that Jobs' impact is not just that a lot of people have an iPad, but on the subtle ways his work pushed others and changed society. I should stress that I'm not a Fanboi and lots of Apple's products and approaches infuriated me. But we can view it like Adam Greenfield's analogy of network weather – even if you don't engage then it has an impact upon you, like the weather. Jobs weather can be seen in everything from the number of people using social media to report on an event (because they have easy to use mobile devices) to the closure of the record shop in your high street (because everyone buys their music online).
How many of us will be able to say our lives were like a 30 year global weather system?