What was Steve Jobs' greatest contribution to society? The amazing thing is that there are so many answers to choose from. Was it the insanely great Mac? Or perhaps the iPod and the MP3 music revolution? Or Pixar and Toy Story and all of the studio's other animated wonders? Or the iPhone and the iPad and all the innovation they've uncorked in the mobile, software, and publishing businesses? Or maybe it's simply Apple (NAS: AAPL) itself -- the world's most valuable company.
I think all of those are fine answers. But to me, there's another answer that encompasses all of them: Steve Jobs taught us to have higher expectations. Of our technology. Of our entertainment. Even of ourselves.
Of course, the expectations Jobs placed on himself, his co-workers, and just about everyone else he dealt with are legendary. We've all heard about the killer stares, the angry rants, the foul-mouthed dressing-downs of employees whenever Jobs was unhappy with a policy or a product. This was a man who did not have time for fools, phonies, weaklings, or people who questioned Apple's mission.
But that same conviction -- which seemed to flow, in turn, from a supreme trust in his own instincts -- is exactly what enabled Jobs to transform industry after industry. And I think it's the way Jobs' beliefs rubbed off on the rest of us -- his customers, his colleagues, even his competitors -- that will be his real legacy.
In statesmanlike remarks following the announcement of Jobs' death on Wednesday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said that, "for those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it's been an insanely great honor." I wasn't lucky enough: I never met Jobs. Like millions of others, I only knew him through Apple's products (and, of course, through my coverage of the company as a tech journalist). But that felt like a real connection. To a degree achieved by no other company on Earth, Apple bakes its values into its products, and those values come directly from Jobs. So being an Apple customer meant, in some sense, bringing Jobs into your life. That's how it always seemed to me, anyway.
I first got my hands on a Macintosh in 1985 (ironically, the year Jobs was forced out of the company he co-founded), and I was immediately enchanted by the attention that its designers had given to details like the adjustable fonts, the garbage can, even the funny little dogcow icon that welcomed you to the Print Setup dialog box. As a college freshman, I wrote all of my class papers (and all of my articles for the college newspaper) on a Mac. I also spent quite a few less studious hours honing my MacPaint skills -- I still have a graphic I made based on the famous M.C. Escher print Ascending and Descending. Unlike most of the personal computers that preceded it, and even the ones that tried to copy it, the Mac wasn't just about making you more productive. It was about helping you express yourself.
And that's how Jobs raised our expectations of technology. Apple products are famously easy to use: The first thing you try is usually the right one, which is a reflection of the company's deep understanding of the way people think and move. But the even bigger idea that Jobs instilled in Apple from the beginning, and managed to reinstill after his return to the company in 1997, is that hardware and software designers should also pay attention to the way people feel, and that digital devices should, at least occasionally, be fun to use.
After all, by the 1980s and 1990s, Moore's Law was generating some serious dividends -- it was finally becoming possible to devote computing cycles to aesthetics and experiences, not just number-crunching. Jobs saw sooner and deeper than anyone else how, in a world of utilitarian and frequently uncooperative computers, a piece of truly pleasing hardware or software would command great customer loyalty -- and often, a premium price.
Apple has more or less conquered the world with this idea. It doesn't yet dominate in PC sales -- even today, three-quarters of the desktop and laptop machines that consumers and businesses buy every year run Windows -- but it dominates in style, as every new iteration of Windows seems to look more like Mac OS. On the mobile side, Jobs' victory is complete: While Google's Android operating system and Microsoft's Windows Phone are both impressive, and include quite a few innovations of their own, they would have been inconceivable if Apple had not pioneered the way in touch-based computing with iOS.
The bottom line is that Steve Jobs proved that consumers care about good design, and this fact forced Apple's competitors to raise their games. The happy result is that consumers win no matter which gadget they buy. Thanks to the pressure from Apple, even the lowliest entry-level BlackBerry device from Research In Motion is far more sophisticated and usable than the leading mobile phones of 2005.
But Jobs' passions weren't limited to technology. He also had revolutionary ideas about the content that technology could deliver, and how it should be made and sold. When Jobs acquired the computer-graphics division of Lucasfilm in 1986, no one could have known that it would spell the end of the era of Snow White-style feature animation. But with 1995′s Toy Story, Pixar proved that CGI characters could emote believably, paving the way for a series of hits like Cars, The Incredibles, Up, and Wall-E that would ultimately transform Disney itself (and make Jobs its largest shareholder).
From movies, Jobs turned to music, bringing out the iPod in 2001 and persuading the record labels a couple of years later to start selling content for the devices through the iTunes Store. Thus was the template created for today's vast Apple entertainment ecosystem, which is all about fluidity and interoperability. If you live in my household, you get your music from iTunes and you listen to it on your Apple iPhone or iPod; you get your TV shows and movies through Netflix or iTunes and watch them on your Apple TV; you download your books and magazines from iBooks or Amazon's Kindle Store and read them on your Apple iPad; and all of these devices connect to the Internet and to each other through your Apple Airport.
In fact, the only media device in my apartment that isn't from Apple is the television itself -- and it should surprise no one that Jobs had his eyes on that niche, too. "The television industry ... pretty much undermines innovation in the sector," he said at a technology conference last year. "The only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign, and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it."
I know that there are Apple skeptics who feel stifled when surrounded by this much Cupertino technology, and others who resent the content controls or the distribution fees that Apple imposes through iTunes. But I feel freed, to be honest. When all this technology is working together seamlessly, which is 99 percent of the time, I don't have to think about where to search for the digital content I want or who to pay -- it's just there. When I think back to the days when I had to drive to Tower Records for an album, Blockbuster for a video, or Barnes & Noble for a book, I experience zero nostalgia. And it was Steve Jobs, more than any other single person, who made all this change possible.
I started off by saying that Jobs has raised our expectations of our technology, or our entertainment, and of ourselves. To understand what I mean by that last bit, you need to go watch Jobs' commencement address at Stanford in 2005 (there's a full transcript here). Jobs never talked much in public about his personal life, but the Stanford address was an exception. Here he laid out the basic philosophy behind his stubborn iconoclasm -- a philosophy that he said became even clearer for him after his initial cancer diagnosis in 2004. And here he challenged the students in the audience to be equally stubborn:
Your time is limited. So don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
It's a haunting but revelatory speech, especially now, because it dwelled on death. Jobs, ever the optimist, called death "the single best invention of life" because it "clears out the old to make room for the new."
Frankly, I wish we could have kept a bit of the old around, because the world won't be quite as magical without Steve Jobs. But even in 2005, I think Jobs was telling us to get ready to let him go. Which, now, the innovators he leaves behind must do -- but, hopefully, using their hearts and their intuition as much as their heads.
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Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wroush. You can subscribe to his Google Group and you can follow all Xconomy San Francisco stories at twitter.com/xconomysf.
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