RIP Steve Jobs

By now, most of the blogosphere and the Twitterverse is buzzing about the passing of Steve Jobs. There’s not much I can add that’s already being said, except that Jobs, along with partner Steve Wozniak and rival Bill Gates are largely why I’m not earning a living asking if you want fries with that.

Some time in the early 1980’s, all three men paid a visit at one point or another to Xerox’s PARC labs. See, Xerox was great at inventing stuff, but their PARC facility did a lousy job of turning those inventions into something people wanted. What attracted Jobs and his fellow tech pioneers to PARC?

They invented this method of interacting with a computer called a graphical user interface. You moved this thing called a mouse and, with a button click, made a pointer manipulate these little pictures called “icons.” When you clicked on one, stuff happened, stuff that normally required some arcane word or phrase typed in like a supernatural incantation after something called a “C prompt.”

Result?

Computers haven’t been the same since. First came Mac, then IBM’s OS/2, both of which had underpinnings from this company up in Seattle called “Microsoft,” who in turn invented Windows – first a shell, then an operating system in its own right.

Jobs and Wozniak started Apple out of their garage in the mid-1970’s, when the idea of a personal computer was toyed with, flirted with, experimented on by hobbyists and skittishly approached by Datapoint (Had they taken the dive, you never would have heard of Apple or Microsoft, but alas, they are no more.) Yet in the late 80’s, hotter heads prevailed, and Jobs found himself ousted from his own company. Did he disappear?

Hardly. He started another company called NeXt on a curious premise. See, there was a perfectly good OS that predated Mac and Windows and DOS called Unix, and Berkley University created a version called FreeBSD. Jobs draped a rather impressive GUI over it and massaged and tweaked it to near perfection. So by the end of the 1990’s, with Apple on the ropes, Jobs returned with his NeXt OS in tow, Pixar under his belt, and a mindset focused entirely on the customer’s total experience. Apple went from an overpriced, over-designed computer for a shrinking cult following to something kind of cool.

And that mindset spawned more innovations. Remember Newton? No? Don’t feel bad. Apple created the first handheld on Gil Amelio’s watch, and frankly, Gil couldn’t sell Febreeze to pig farmers, let alone this poorly thought-out first PDA. Or was it poorly thought out? Actually, just poorly designed. Palm found a better way, as did Microsoft, but chances are, your smartphone, even that Droid in my pocket, owes more to Jobs’ focus on the customer than anything Palm or Microsoft ever did with PDA technology. That’s why people argue over the iPhone vs. Android, produced by Google, who took notes from Steve Jobs.

Tablet computers? They’ve been around since the late 1990’s, but who’d want them? iPad owners, that’s who. Or they want Android-powered pads, which look a lot like…

iPads.

Windows 7?  Looks a lot like OS X. Runs like it, too.

Steve Jobs made computers smaller, lighter, faster. He put 10,000 songs in your pocket and made downloading music legal and profitable. He brought a small computer company he started back from the dead and made the giants dance to his tune. He changed the way movies are made, and the way we interact on the Internet.

Sure, we owe a lot to Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and even stodgy old IBM, who may rival Apple in its ability to reinvent itself. But Steve Jobs drove so much of the technology we take for granted these days.

And for that alone, his passing is a major loss.

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So Long, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs stepped down as head of Apple last week. An era in technology has ended. Some might say that the dumbest thing Apple did was to force Jobs out in the late 1980’s. I disagree. If Jobs had not spent the next decade in the wilderness, he would not have discovered what made both Apple and himself great.

We all see what Jobs has done after his second coming in the late 1990’s. Jobs was hailed as a savior and a breath of fresh air after the self-important reign of Doctor Gil Amelio. (Gil had a nasty habit of insisting on the doctor part often when it was not appropriate. Micho Kaku is a Ph. D., and everyone already knows he’s smart.) Since then, Apple has had the iMac, the MacBook Air, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes. What Microsoft was to the 1990’s, Apple was to the 2000’s.

But all that was made possible during Jobs’ exile. During that time, he founded Pixar, which rules the computer animation roost. Pixar practically invented modern animation. He also founded NeXt, a computer company that ran a slicker-than-Macintosh OS based on Free BSD, the original open-source Unix variant that predates Linux by years. It was at Pixar and NeXt that Jobs discovered he was lousy at business. Oh, Jobs is a brilliant businessman. Even rivals hang onto his every word at Apple events. But it’s the consumer where Jobs found his business nirvana. And if you’ve ever seen a NeXt machine, you know they were pretty impressive, light years ahead of Windows 95 and the various Mac systems out in the 90’s. This became OS X, the operating system that runs every Macintosh today.

So Steve Jobs left Apple unsure of how to run a company and returned knowing better than anyone, certainly Bill Gates, or even better than Oracle’s Larry Ellison, how to connect with the consumer. Of course, this has made for some of the most obnoxious devotees of a product line ever. As an Apple shareholder, I’m pleased Jobs has cultivated his own cult. It funds my retirement. As a consumer of computer goods and services, I don’t see the justification in Apple users’ smugness. How do I deal with it?

I crank up my iPod and drown them out.

So what will happen to Apple now that Jobs is stepping away?

Jobs spent the last fourteen years recreating the company in his own image. Those who run the company day to day already know what goes into the Apple experience, what to look for when designing the next device, and how that device or service should look to the end user. Microsoft, whose product line has improved over the years, needs to find someone to similarly carry on after Gates completely steps aside. Steve Ballmer ain’t cutting it.

Eventually, someone will need to reinvent Apple, but that’s not likely to happen in the near future. Instead of resting on their laurels, Apple learned from Jobs how to keep going.