If you asked most ordinary folk to name anybody prominent in technology, the chances are high that they’d name one of two people; either Apple’s Steve Jobs or Microsoft’s Bill Gates — although Gates retired from the position of Microsoft CEO some years ago.
Steve Jobs passed away recently, just a day after Apple announced the latest in its highly successful line of smartphones, the iPhone 4S. But what will his legacy be? I’ve had a number of people ask me that in the days since he passed away, curious as to whether he was (as some have put it), the modern day equivalent of say, Edison, or just a very good salesperson.
The fundamental thing to realise is that while Jobs’ name appears on many of Apple’s patents, his real skill wasn’t in invention. He didn’t invent the iPhone, iPod, or even the graphical user interface upon which all consumer computing — whether you use a Mac or PC — is built upon. But Jobs was clearly a man with plenty of vision, some of it uncompromising, as to future trends. He was good at picking what folk would like to do with technology, in other words, rather than specifically fussing about the numbers, frequencies or figures underneath. As an example, the original GUI work was done by Xerox Parc, but it was Jobs who put a lot of Apple’s money behind the first consumer graphical user interface (GUI) idea in the mid-80s. Apple’s first GUI-based computer, the Apple Lisa, was a crushing failure.
Never heard of it? I’m not surprised; the Lisa sold poorly in an era that was dominated by dry command line style computing of interest only to the technically inclined. The Lisa however led to the original Macintosh, and from there the GUI really took off; Microsoft then made it considerably cheaper and more mainstream, and stole a march from Apple in the process. Apple continued to champion easy user computing, and while that’s not for everybody — many folks prefer the near infinite configurability of Android to the iPhone’s tightly locked down iOS, for example — it’s an idea that’s certainly gained Apple market share and a fair amount of income in recent years.
The same’s true in music; the iPod wasn’t the first music player — but it was the first music player that was both easy to use and really easy to look at. Jobs’ vision could often border on myopia; it’s said that he was a terrible boss to work for when things went wrong, and one that was still a lot of work to please in good times.
So what will history judge Steve Jobs on? In many ways it’s a bit too early to tell, but it’s easy to say that his particular vision of personal computing shaped the way we use technology right now. If you’re in the consumer IT market and you can’t make it easy, you probably can’t sell it, and that’s in direct response to the way Steve Jobs pushed Apple through his two tenures as CEO. Not everybody uses an Apple — and for consumer choice and variety, if nothing else, that’s a good thing — but his impact on everyone’s computing is profound.