How Steve Jobs changed our world

11 Oct

October 11, 2011

By Geoff Meeker

If you can know a man through the products he creates, then Steve Jobs and I go back a long way.

I used my first Apple when I joined The Sunday Express in 1988, where there was a Macintosh computer on every desk. I’ve been using Apple ever since, and am now on my sixth Mac computer. It’s a beauty.

The early Mac was a wonderful device – easy to use, reliable and durable (unlike the dominant DOS systems). The hard drive was 512K – yeah, half a meg – with 128KB of RAM, but that was a lot back then. You could store a full two weeks’ worth of stories before backing up to floppy. And the pull-down menu system, with its intuitive commands, was a breeze to use. In fact, the Microsoft Windows operating system stole the pull-down windows concept from Apple (though Microsoft actually had some rights to it).

Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985. When he rejoined in 1996, the company was toiling in obscurity and just weeks from bankruptcy. Jobs promised to revitalize the company, and provide “fuel for its imitators.”

He wasn’t kidding. Jobs sniffed the wind, saw that MP3 was the way of the future, and led development of the iPod. Until then, MP3 players were not so easy to use, and virtually all music was downloaded illegally.

The iPod changed all that. As with all Apple products, the user interface was intuitive, easy and fun. The storage capacity, at 2,000 songs, was unprecedented. And the iTunes software was more than an easy way to burn music to digital – it also linked to the iTunes store. Jobs gambled that music lovers, accustomed to getting music for free, would willingly pay .99 cents for a song to own it legally. He was right. iTunes was an immediate success, and still dominates the online digital music market.

I owned a first generation iPod, and watched closely as this went down. Not only did Jobs foresee the digital music revolution, he designed the hardware, software and an ecommerce site that made Apple more powerful than the record labels. iTunes now does more than $1 billion in sales per year.

But Jobs was just getting started. In 2007, he took the iPod and meshed it with a cell phone, camera, a web browser with email, and a computer platform that could run a variety of applications. The multitouch interface, where you pinch an image to make it smaller, or spread your fingers to make it larger, was revolutionary. The iPhone changed everything. Again.

We’ve been through several generations of the iPhone, including the latest 4S, but in my view, the most important innovation is the FaceTime feature, which allows video calls between two compatible iPhones. For the first time, profoundly deaf people can “talk” on the phone. Now that is cool.

Do I need to tell you about the iPad? No. You were there, too. You probably own one. (I don’t. I own too much technology, and just can’t justify it. Yet.) The iPad has the same intuitive, touchscreen interface as the iPhone, but with a bigger screen, enabling it to compete as an ereader as well. A child can learn to use it in minutes, which speaks volumes about Apple’s approach: keep it simple.

The success of the iPod, iPhone and iPad breathed new life into Apple’s computer business, which has grown to more than 10 percent of the personal computer market.

Oddly, Apple wasn’t the biggest moneymaker for Jobs. When he left that company in 1986, Jobs bought a controlling interest in the fledgling computer animation company, Pixar. Originally, they marketed animation hardware, but there was no market for it, so they switched to filmmaking (that’s Steve Jobs all the way: be adaptable, and play to your strengths).  Then came “Toy Story”, “A Bug’s Life”, “Toy Story 2”, “Monsters, Inc.”, “Finding Nemo”, “The Incredibles”, and “Ratatouille”, before Jobs sold the company to Disney for $7.4 billion.

To recap, Jobs changed the way we use computers; the way we listen to music, and how we buy it. He transformed the cell phone into a multi-purpose device. He changed the way movies are made, and how we watch them. He really did change the world, and became fabulously wealthy doing so.

Even Apple’s advertising was trend setting, and the brilliant 1984 ‘Big Brother’ ad, to launch the Macintosh, is regarded by some as the greatest TV spot of all time. In it, the Mac rebel throws a hammer into the Orwellian face of authority. The great irony is that, during his career, Jobs morphed into Big Brother himself.

Jobs did have some products that bombed, and was not without fault. My biggest complaint was the sealed body of the mobile units, which made it impossible for consumers to change the battery. Replacement is time-consuming and costly, so it’s easier to buy a new device – which is exactly what Jobs intended. His products were high-end, expensive and disposable, an environmentally irresponsible paradox. This is perhaps his greatest sin.

Steve Jobs was just 56 when he died. If there is one thing we can learn from the man, it is this: money can’t buy everything. Your health is all you’ve got. And those who are healthy and strong, regardless of financial status, are rich indeed.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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