Jobs weather

Steve Jobs (5/365)

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?

4 Comments

  1. Carl Morris says:

    Yes, for all of Apple’s faults, there’s absolutely no denying Jobs’ wider impact on technology and society.
    The Apple II did a lot to popularise the Personal Computer, for starters.
    And yesterday I learned that Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web on this NeXT computer, now in a glass case:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/2256358640/sizes/o/in/photostream/

  2. Mymindbursts says:

    On Wednesday I stumbled upon a PDF on using the Steve Job’s approach to presenting which I then used through the night using an iPad (while in bed of course). A Mac fan, my late father, an early adopter of everything, had an Apple II. I started with the Classic. Design and the pleasure of the thing has always been key. From an e-learning point of view the iPad is invaluable, I even read content, follow discussions and check the OU VLE on an iPhone. My brother-in-law has a museum of Macs; is there any value in that?

  3. Joel Greenberg says:

    Many friends have asked me how I felt about the passing of Steve Jobs, probably because I have worked in the IT field for a long time. My initial reaction was simply, how sad that someone so young has passed away. Then all of the legacy stuff started – ie I owe everything to him. Well, I was an early Mac user but I worked for the OU and I started to be given Windows PCs instead. Did not using a Mac ever since have a negative impact on my work over many years? I doubt it. Did not having Mac devices reduce my quality of life? Nope. I seem to remember having an MP3 player before the iPod and as I don’t download tracks, I don’t use iTunes. Hence no iPad, cuz Apple make me use iTunes if I get one. What about all those great Pixar films my kids and I love? All down to Steve? Nope. Actually, Pixar started as a division of Lucas films and Steve bought them and got Disney to put up the cash. The true genius behind Pixar is called John Lassiter.
    Ironically, if Steve had made the Apple more open, we all would have had them rather than the early and clunky Windows boxes.
    Conclusions, Steve was a brilliant guy, Apple kit is beautiful and I guess indirectly it has impacted on my life to the good. So RIP Steve Jobs.

  4. In last weeks Economist, there’s a semi-decent article on reading sentiment from large masses of anecdotal data (tweets, mainly).

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