When I saw a photo of a young Steve Jobs pop up on Flipboard today, I momentarily feared the worst: it had been only a couple of days before that Jack Layton‘s picture appearing on my iPad had signalled his death. And I think a lot of us still worry that this announcement might parallel bad news on Steve’s health.
But to use another politician as an analogy, I feel about Jobs today much as I did when Pierre Trudeau resigned in 1984. Trudeau had been prime minister for almost my entire life, from 1968, with a gap of less than a year. And from before the time I bought my first computer—an Apple ][+—in the early 1980s, until today, Steve Jobs has headed Apple, with a gap of about ten years. Which, from this vantage point, feels relatively brief; though at the time, with the company in a slow and painful decline, it might not have seemed so.
A lot of people are asking what Apple will look like, and how it will fare, without its founder. Speculation is pointless; we won’t know for five, for ten, for fifty years from now. But I find it interesting that no one seems to be asking how the technology industry will evolve in his absence, which is pretty much unprecedented—yes, even NeXT, not to mention Pixar, had an impact. While Jobs was absent Apple, real innovation not only stopped at his former company, it pretty much halted everywhere (except, perhaps arguably, at NeXT).
It’s surprising how many companies still don’t understand what Apple has been doing, and why. They have little real competition: tablet competitors, for example, are still competing on geeky tables of specifications. Users don’t care. Ultimately a lot of what Apple has done in the last fifteen years is a vindication of my area of expertise, interaction design and user-centred design—despite Apple’s apparently unusual approach to this. I expect, in a couple of decades, we’ll have insider accounts of how the company actually pulled off hit after hit during the current era. Until then, we’ll still marvel. And I hope Jobs remains healthy enough to stay on as chairman of the board.
Regardless, the man has been directly or indirectly responsible not only for many of the advances we enjoy—almost every day I pinch myself when I realize that I’m “living in the future” through some of these products—but my own livelihood, as well.
Apple? I suspect they’ll be fine. Steve Jobs? I wish him long life.
Postscript: After I wrote this I realized that I may have left out the most important factor of all. That is, that after being unceremoniously booted from the company he founded; after being exiled at NeXT; and after seeing Microsoft come to dominate the personal computer industry, by arguably stealing the Mac design—Steve Jobs came back and, finally, won. Apple surpassed Microsoft in terms of market capitalization in 2010. It is one of the most fascinating of questions, what might have happened at Apple had Jobs, rather than Sculley, been at the helm. Myself, though I’m sure Jobs learned a lot at NeXT (and Pixar), I think we’d have moved on from the PC era much earlier. The obviously missing “Mac III” would have preceded even this. The world would be even more different than it is now. At any rate, I think that Steve Jobs has proved that he had the right idea all along: computers are for people.