During my time at University, when it came to access to technology, I was one of the privileged ones. Being in the computing department, I had a dedicated Unix workstation. Down the corridor, the rabble fought to get time on the small, clunky PCs running MS-DOS. We mocked the blocky, keyboard-navigated interfaces they had to use, though there was a sense too that all was not right in our world. We had crisp, white, high resolution displays running a mouse-navigated windowing system of sorts, but these were monochrome and effectively, each window was just a text terminal. Surely this could be done better?
After I graduated, a few days before I left campus, I did a job for the Psychology department. They wanted some help scanning and creating some graphics. They took me to a small room at the top of the department and within it was something that changed my life. It was a Mac.
Roll forward to 2007, when I like many others were frustrated with mobile phones. These were slow, buggy, restrictive and difficult to use devices. People dreamt what Apple could do in that space and how they responded. Personally, I think the paradigm the iPhone started is a far bigger step than the personal computer or even the television.
Arguments that Jobs was merely caught up in inevitable advances in technology or that they existed prior to his involvement is tenuous in the case of the Mac, though ridiculous in the case of the phone, where Apple entered an existing multi-billion dollar market already producing a vast array of albeit mediocre devices, all very different in form and function. Several global hardwire and software companies and service providers could not after years of trying get even close to what Apple unveiled on that day. Now every smart phone, give or take a fiddly plastic keyboard, largely owes its design to the iPhone.
But to limit Steve Jobs’s influence and vision to technical achievements is short sighted.
One of the most significant revolutions with the iPhone was smashing the cartel mobile providers had on the Internet. Prior to the iPhone, we saw a stunted Internet. Mobile companies sought to create walled gardens, where you could only see the the content they wanted. On top of their high pay-as-you-go data charges, you were often expected to pay for content as well.
It was a pattern Steve Jobs repeated frequently, targeting stagnant, inward-looking industries who had become lazy, greedy and had almost forgotten why they existed. The foundation was to produce a game-changing, technically brilliant device but equally brilliant were his techniques and the sheer brute force to break through all the false barriers involved in bringing that product to market.
In music, the fact that we can now at the touch of a button cheaply and legally buy virtually any piece of published music to a device in the palm of your hand is not just about vision, but also the sheer bloody-mindedness of one man who needed to dismantle an entire established industry to make it happen.
In retail, customer service is on a comeback. Banished are the High Street box shifters, such as Curries and Dixons, whilst other shops as diverse as cosmetics, coffee and clothing these days all feel strangely reminiscent of an Apple Store.
In software, the App store has ensued the return of the age of the small, creative independent software developer, with a platform that makes it possible to create and sell niche, lightweight apps that break the tyranny of the culture of a handful of giants producing monolithic, overpriced bloatware.
No matter how well Apple may maintain its culture and innovation after Steve Jobs, it is this ability to turn entire industries upside down that we will sadly miss.
One battle that he lost, however, was against the Film industry.
Like my university Unix workstation or my old, chunky Nokia phone, there’s something just not right about the Film industry. Audiences prepared to pay money can’t watch the films they want to see or choose where and when they get to see them. Filmmakers (coincidentally, empowered by Apple technology to make low budget films in the first place) can’t get their films to audiences. Online, a fraction of the films I want to see are available. Some I can buy but not rent, others I can rent but not buy. A stagnant, inward looking industry, determined to steam the meat off the carcass of the DVD industry and breath life into the stillborn Blue Ray format stubbornly resists to give an audience what they want, and the audience in turn are forced to piracy.
The Film industry is broken.
Sounds like a job for Super Steve.
But, with the studios forewarned and forearmed after the loss of control their sister divisions yielded to the iTunes Store, they gave up little. It was to be a longer battle, and tragically, time has run out.
Perhaps, one day, through a steady process of evolution, we will get there, though the world has lost the only man capable of achieving this by revolution.