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Steve Jobs: Denting the Digital Universe

Steve Jobs: Denting the Digital Universe

From computers to music and everything in-between, a look back at how Steve Jobs and Apple innovated and changed the world.

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The second, and possibly final, conclusion of Steve Jobs run as Apple’s CEO shook the world in ways that would only surprise those still not paying attention. His sudden retirement from the company he helped found, no doubt brought upon by what many are calling a re-occurrence of his pancreatic cancer, despite a well-publicized liver transplant in 2009. The news stole headlines, and for good reason; he wasn’t just the most popular CEO in the world, but also the best. Since rejoining Apple in 1997, he helped steer the increasingly irrelevant fruit company from the trash bin of history and turned it into the most valuable in the world.

Denting the Digital Universe

It’s not difficult to see why, really, especially as the face of corporate America has become stained with what are essentially glorified bean counters as interchangeable as Legos, most commanding companies and industries with little influence outside of giving stockholders often misleading feelings of “corporate confidence”. With his mock turtleneck and blue jeans, he became the antitheses to those championed the bottom-line over excellence. It’s astonishing to see Apple’s greatest periods of success and failure on a timeline, knowing how perfectly they match Jobs’ tenure at the company. Could one man really be the sole driving force for innovation of any company, let along much of the tech world?

Steve Jobs is among the last of a generation that not only created the computer revolution, but became that uniquely American symbol of it. His archetypical twin, Bill Gates, may have been the world’s richest man and Father of Windows, but it was Jobs who provided the spark that would forever change the digital landscape. It was his insistence that computers and technology themselves could be beautiful, in both design and function, that led to several revolutions in how we consume – and create – the world around us. From typeface to music, to novels and games and everything in-between, Jobs assumed the role of the tech world’s Prometheus, and did so with a personality and style so convincingly and unabashedly charismatic that some dubbed it the “reality distortion field”.

From meticulous hardware aesthetics to the simplicity of software, Jobs’ thirty-plus years in the business has impacted practically every facet of today’s digitally entertained world, and then some. Many have pegged him a modern Thomas Edison, others Henry Ford. But while Edison may have given us recorded music and movies and Ford assembly line production, it was Jobs who married the two while practically inventing entire industries and methods to get them into the hands of the most important people in the – the consumer.

He’s among that small group who seem to effortlessly blend engineering precision by way of a futurists’ clairvoyance, bringing the theoretical “what if” one step closer to reality. Of course, behind all of these men were countless others, some more critical than others, working tirelessly to help bring these often uncertain visions into the world. As unfair as it might sound, we seldom give credit to single ingredients, as succulent and delicious as they might be individually, with the finished recipe. In a world of homogenous stone soups and kitchen sinks, Jobs was always crafting tomorrow’s menu.

The original Macintosh computer, with its graphical user interface, mouse control, and design software helped invent desktop publishing, representing the most significant change to the publishing world since Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. The platform’s run on helping establish industry-standard software continued with Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark, as well as countless scanners, printers, and other solutions would radically change the relevancy of home computing and how content could (and would) be created by just about anyone.

And this could help explain why the world, and not just the so-called Apple fanboys, flocked to their TVs and browsers to watch every new Apple keynote helmed by Jobs. We paid attention not so much to see the next ‘magical’ product from Apple, but because it was during these events that we were likely to catch our first glimpse of what the future had in store. Under Jobs’ two reigns as Apple’s leader the company’s nearly three decades of output became a veritable blueprint for the tech industry, pioneering elements as broad as user interfaces and publishing to as minute as single fonts and the color yellow.

But not everyone is sentimental over Jobs’ retirement; some have been downright hostile, issuing some of the most vile and vindictive spittle I’ve ever seen, particularly over Jobs’ life-expectancy and just how little an innovator he really was. What’s interesting is that a great deal of this manufactured animosity seems to emanate from the so-called Android loyalist brigade, a group so slavishly devoted to promoting Google’s mobile operating system they make Ron Paul’s acolytes seem laid-back by comparison. No group is without their own set of detractors (diehard Apple fans have practically turned their fanatic love into a cult), but the ones that I’m referring to are those anonymous trolls who couldn’t tell real innovation and influence from colored Monopoly money. Sadly, it’s a schadenfreude-laced mantra that’s all too familiar, becoming the tech industry’s equivalent to creationist theory; where do they think all these ideas come from, anyway?

It’s ironic that a group so shamelessly devoted to a company (or, at least, their mobile operating system) built around the world’s greatest search engine never seem to use the thing, as a quick Google search would probably be a pretty sobering experience for them. On the eve of their company’s public breakout in 2000 Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted Jobs to lead their company as its first CEO, but eventually settled for then-Apple Board of Directors’ member Eric Schmidt instead.

Following his resignation, Google senior vice president of engineering, Vic Gundotra, related how back in 2008 Jobs had called him early on a Sunday morning to let him know how the “second O in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient” when viewed on the iPhone screen. Jobs’ let him know that he’d already put his people at work on the issue to fix it right away, citing its urgency.

Gundotra never forgot the encounter, saying “in the end, when I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.”

Jobs’ first post-Apple company, NeXT, never became the financial powerhouse of his first was, but that didn’t stop it from being influential, particularly in the burgeoning world of the internet and when it came to browsing the web. The company’s WebObjects project helped synergize application use online, and let’s not forget that the world’s first web browser, WorldWideWeb (aka Nexus), was written using a NeXT computer.

Still not convinced? Check out the history of WebKit the next time you’re busy browsing the web using that Safari, Chrome, or just about any mobile browser in the world. And yes, that includes the Android browser.

Without Steve Jobs, there wouldn’t be Pixar Animation Studios, at least not as we know them today. After picking up the company from a disillusioned George Lucas back in 1986 and injecting his own capital into the struggling hardware-driven outfit, he helped transform them from a relatively rudderless collection of tech nerds into an animation powerhouse hell bent on changing the world. Early work on traditional features like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin led to the world’s first completely computer-animated featured in 1995 with the original Toy Story and eventually becoming the most successful movie company in the world.

Jobs’ skillful guidance of Disney’s 2006 ‘buyout’ of the company to Disney was legendary, effectively putting Pixar’s wizards in charge of the (mouse) house that Walt built and himself the single largest holder of Disney stock in the world. Critically, this led to the restoration of laid-off traditional (hand-drawn) animators, the end of unnecessary direct-to-video sequels, and the end of the cancerous reign of Michael Eisner from Disney.

Even more trivia fun: did you know that Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) personally asked Jonathan Ive, the man who designed the iPod, to help assist with the design of Wall-E’s beloved robot companion, EVE?

But it’s been Jobs’ triumphant return to the company he founded in 1997 that would lead to his greatest run of successes yet. Starting with the bubblegum-themed iMac, which not only anointed the company’s ubiquitous i-naming scheme but helped pave the way for much of Apple’s – and the industry’s – next decade of aesthetical design choices. Perhaps his most prescient decision was to switch Apple’s focus from a competitor to Microsoft and Windows, a battle Jobs admitted was over just prior to rejoining the company, to a more consumer-oriented electronics company.

The Return: Enter the iAge

Of course, its difficult not to think of the iPod when talking about the company’s ‘second coming’, as it was the device that would signal what was to come from Jobs and a newly reinvigorated Apple. The rare corporate AND culture phenomenon, the iPod was the first iDevice to convince millions of music fans that dangling white headphones from their ears was the best way to listen to and experience music, and was instrumental in everything that was to follow. Where the iPod changed the way we listened to music, the iPhone changed the way we looked at our phones, opening up unparalleled possibilities into what many believe will ultimately be the home PC’s successor. The iFamily’s newest member, the iPad, once again defied tech industry analysts and other ‘experts’ to basically create an entirely new tablet market, once again proving that there’s little reason to take anything they say seriously.

With the music world in a panic following the collapse of the monstrously popular downloading world that was Napster, few record companies would even think about committing their catalogs to the online world without serious restrictions, on both user and how they used them. Some might recall what seemed like an endless number of digital growing pains, as music CDs were sold with toxic software (spyware by today’s standards), incompatible formats, and even those brave enough to venture online were overreaching, overcharging, or both. Enter Steve Jobs and what would eventually become the most popular music service in the world, iTunes. Users flocked to this safe, non-subscription based virtual store in droves and downloading billions of digital tracks, demonstrating that people would indeed still pay for music if the price was right.

The iTunes Store has been credited with helping save the music industry from a potentially disastrous transition away from physical media, and it was Jobs at the center who orchestrated much of these negotiations personally. If you’re downloading music (legally) today there’s a pretty good chance you’re doing it using iTunes.

Much has been made of Apple’s game-changing iPhone/iPad family of phones and platforms, but much like the iPod before them, they’re really a means to an end. As influential to the smartphone (and tablet) interfaces as they’ve been, perhaps the most influential of all Jobs’ creations has been the creation and maintenance of the iEcosystem (my word). With iTunes as its skeleton this virtual circulatory system has let users buy and keep track of their music, video, and now game collections using a unified account. But even more critical has been how this ecosystem, once established, was kind enough to invite everyone else to the party and sell their indie digital creations alongside the world’s most established companies.

Apple’s sphere of influence, in which their headline-stealing family of iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, etc., gives just about anyone with enough ambition (and a Mac) access to hundreds of millions of users, easily the largest platform of ready-made customers eager to spend, spend, spend. Perhaps the biggest online gold rush since the original internet boom of the late 90s, it’s already born fruit, making millionaires out of amateurs overnight, and global superstars led by the likes of Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Doodle Jump, and countless others.

The original Macintosh, with its revolutionary interface and emphasis on designing software, was built for desktop publishing first and foremost. The very idea of eschewing the clunky, text-driven command lines and opening up an entirely new world of tools for creation for the general public cannot and should not be discounted. Apple, and by extension Jobs’, skill at making computers ‘acceptable’ by the everyday user is perhaps second only to Japanese game-maker Nintendo, a historical contemporary who likewise emphasizes inclusion by way of the synergistic relationship between hardware and software.

And this influence continues today, stronger than ever, with the rise of Apple’s meme-making App Store and the thousands of developers eager to fill its virtual shelves with many of today’s most popular apps, games, and, yes, crap. This logical extension of iTunes market-conquering music and video storefronts has once again changed how users – and content providers – see the future of retail. And once again, it’s a format that’s being or will be adopted by everyone else, including Google and Microsoft. It’s likely that Apple’s recent hard-fought battle will ultimately bring their competitors great dividends, and market leadership, much the same way that the original Mac gave way to Windows. At least, that’s what a cynic might think of an Apple without its captain at the helm.

And so Apple enters its next phase without Steve Jobs leading them through, and the tech industry loses its most reliable divining rod of inspiration. At times like these it’s hard not to think of Warren Buffet’s entirely appropriate “three i’s” explanation of the universe: first come the innovators, then come the imitators, then come the idiots. Which side will you be on?


About the Author: Nathan Evans