The death of Steve Jobs, who the New York Times describes aptly as "Apple's Visionary," feels like the end of an era. "Mr Jobs was said by an engineer in the early years of Apple to emit a “reality distortion field”, such were his powers of persuasion," writes my colleague Tom Standage in an obituary at The Economist. "But in the end he changed reality, channelling the magic of computing into products that reshaped music, telecoms and media."

Indeed. Some corners of reality barely stood a chance. As it happens, yesterday morning I was poking around Spotify's website, trying to figure out if I could use it to create workout playlists for my iPod shuffle. It occurred to me that I haven't bought anything from iTunes since I got Spotify. It's crazy to think that this little Scandinavian startup is going to end Apple's hegemony in the digital music space--but it's also kind of crazy to think that it's crazy to think that Apple has such a hegemony, given that iTunes was only launched in 2001.

I've often heard people my age (I'm 29) reflect that we're the last slice of Americans who will remember what it was like before email or the Internet. My family got AOL when I was in high school, but there didn't seem to be much to do on the internet at that point, except look at Radiohead message boards. The next ten years would be a period of gradual acceptance of online activity among mainstream consumers--you can remember when people used to brag about not using email, and "having a website" seemed to be a geeky male thing--and, in retrospect, this growing embrace neatly paralleled the rise of Apple.

Is that entirely coincidental? During the 1980s and 1990s Apple was a visible example of the "alternative," one of those companies that imply a set of traits and values beyond "this consumer product meets my needs and preferences." By 1999, when I started college, it was also considered cool. My college boyfriend had that jellybean-looking iMac G3, and his screensaver, from the SETI Institute, meant that in off-hours he was helping scientists look for extraterrestial life. The iPod debuted a few years later. There were already a lot of MP3 players on the market, but none of them had seemed worth it--too fiddly and complicated and labor-intensive, compared to the simplicity of CDs. I had a little tutoring job at the time, and would walk to the family's brownstone on the Upper West Side listening to The Strokes's "Is This It?" on my discman--a great album that clocks in at 36 minutes, which was exactly the length of the walk. I was a smug Mac person by this point, having spent what then seemed like a fortune on the aluminum-sided 12-inch PowerBook--a beautiful replacement for the old ugly, heavy, and battered PC Iaptop. But there didn't seem to be a need for an iPod.

And there wasn't, of course. At this point people had started to tout the functional virtues of Apple products, notably their resistance to viruses. But the appeal of Apple was in simplicity, ease of use, and design. It wasn't what they did but how they did it. That didn't just create demand for Apple's products; it goosed entire markets--Mp3 players and smartphones and tablets are the obvious examples. The impact may be broader than that, though. When we say the medium is the message, we mean that the way something is delivered frames our understanding of it. It may also be that the medium helps make the message. It was Jobs who got a lot of people to like computers, who built our desire to carry them around and spend time with them after work, to put them in our pockets and never be without. For better or worse, a lot of what is now communicated is brought to you via Apple or, at least, informed by its design metaphors.

The principle of giving cutting-edge technology to the average person was slightly challenged by the cost of Apple products and its largely closed vertical ecosystem. Given how influential Apple is, it's startling to think how seriously it sets itself against some of the dominant trends in technology. Think about the phenomenon of crowdsourcing--Mr Jobs had said, with regard to the iPad, that he didn't do any market research because it's not the job of consumers to know what they want. But as a legacy, the consumerization of technology is unstoppable, even if the next round of entrepreneurs break with Mr Jobs's emphasis on order and control, as it seems likely they will, and should. Great innovators, and Mr Jobs was one of the greatest, inspire the next generation to innovate in turn.

10/06/2011 11:10

The difficult part is to figure out what mere mortals can learn from Steve Jobs. It's one thing for a genius to be an autocrat, a control-freak, a visionary, a trust-my-guts kind of person. But to what extent can we adopt this behaviour as the average person? Or are we not geniuses precisely because we don't follow our intuitions and rather get bogged down in compromises, meetings, and polite acceptance?

My best guess is that sometimes you just know that you're in the zone and it's time to push. Steve Jobs may have been a lousy chemist, a poor lawyer, an under-performing singer. He had found his calling, the place where his guts put him on the right path. Maybe we need to pay better attention to our own inner voice telling us whether we are winging it or winning it.

10/06/2011 15:03

You remind me of an old post by David Kuo on what the Church can learn from Apple.

Don't forget, I searched for your sake:


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