It feels a bit strange now that I wrote a post yesterday morning about “Apple’s Glory Years,” not realizing that in the evening I would see the news that Steve Jobs had passed away. There have been many excellent tributes and I read a lot of them last night (collected here on delicious) with one of my favorites being Walt Mossberg’s piece. Like many others, I found myself deeply moved by the passing of someone I had never met in person. That is despite the fact that my feelings about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments are complicated.
I intensely admired Steve Jobs as an entrepreneur who managed to succeed repeatedly and spectacularly where others before him had failed or barely made a dent (music players, smart phones, tablets, animated movies). He did so by bringing beauty to products that had previously been ugly (great tweet by Matt Galligan on this) and by understanding like few others that design is about form *and* function. As Jobs said in a great Wired interview in 1996 “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” His commitment to that philosophy was singular. On top of that Steve Jobs excelled at marketing through an amazing focus on presentation and messaging (the “reveals” were better than the best magic act). Here too Jobs was truly exceptional in his attention to detail and iconography including his personal appearance.
But there are two aspects of Steve Jobs’ legacy that I struggle with. First is the idea that Jobs was a technology visionary. Personally, I feel that Jobs’ real genius was recognizing the product potential in the technology vision of others *and* making those products a reality. Jobs’ visit to Xerox Parc has been much cited here but there are more recent examples also, such as multi touch which had been kicking around labs for some time and even made it into a spectacular TED presentation. But Apple under Steve Jobs was the company to deliver multi-touch as a compelling consumer experience. So maybe the right thing here is to think of Jobs as a product visionary.
Second, is the issue of the high degrees of control and secrecy that accompanied Jobs’ approach to the integration of form and function and the “wow-the-world” marketing. My feelings here are considerably more personal. For several years as a teenager I literally slept below a poster of the wiring diagram of the Apple II which had shipped with the computer! The Apple II was the machine on which I fell in love with programming and computers. I ran additional wires on the motherboard to some jumpers that made the Apple II “hack ready.” While I enjoyed Apple’s software, I also used CP/M a lot on my Apple II. As it would later appear, much or all of this openness was due to Woz’s influence. In college, I did a ton of programming on a Macintosh which was pretty much the complete opposite of the Apple II: an attractive but hermetic box with only perfunctory OS documentation.
Winding the clock forward 25 years, the iPhone and the iPad represent the design-control dichotomy at its most extreme. They are gorgeous and easy-to-use consumer devices. The videos of toddlers using them are a testament to this. And they are highly programmable, as long as you stay within the confines of Apple’s controlled walled garden. This doesn’t represent a practical barrier for the vast majority of people using the devices and doesn’t even impact many development use cases. But it does represent a nearly insurmountable barrier to the kind of tinkering that spurred my original interest. It is possible that my feelings are simply nostalgia for an early period that similarly no longer exists in other areas of technology (e.g., cars), but it bothers me more here since I believe computing devices are so central to our progress. I have not given up on the potential for having personal devices that are beautiful, functional *and* open.
None of this implies that I am any less saddened by the news of Steve Jobs passing. We have lost someone of extraordinary influence on the history of personal and mobile computing. We will all be well served by internalizing the importance of design, the persistence and focus required to achieve it, and the passion that powers it all. Steve Jobs himself expressed that last part best in his inspiring 2005 Stanford commencement speech (which I will now watch annually on October 5).