Steve Jobs has died, aged 56.
He had been on medical leave since January 2011 and resigned as CEO of Apple in August 2011 citing an inability to continue to fulfill the ‘duties and expectations’ of the role. In his letter of resignation to the Apple board he had expressed his wish to continue as chairman, a director and employee of the company.
There is already extensive press coverage of his achievements in founding Apple and his tenure as CEO, so instead I will share a few thoughts on the influences which affected his work, the specific impact on the user experience of digital products and what the future holds for Apple.
Jobs was able to do what he did because he dedicated himself to being a polymath, yet maintained an ability to focus on specific objectives.
“The minute I dropped out [of college], I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting…And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example.
“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”
Jobs’ curiosity and willingness to learn new ideas – even when they seemed irrelevant – gave him a breadth of experience to apply to design challenges.
The second piece of recommended reading is Jobs’ 1985 interview with Playboy (PDF). It highlights his relentless focus on creating products so simple they seem natural:
“People talked about putting a telegraph on every desk in America to improve productivity. But it wouldn’t have worked. It required that people learn this whole sequence of strange incantations, Morse code, dots and dashes, to use the telegraph. It took about 40 hours to learn. The majority of people would never learn how to use it.
“So, fortunately, in the 1870s, Bell filed the patents for the telephone. It performed basically the same function as the telegraph, but people already knew how to use it. Also, the neatest thing about it was that besides allowing you to communicate with just words, it allowed you to sing. It allowed you to intone your words with meaning beyond the simple linguistics.
And we’re in the same situation today. Some people are saying that we ought to put an IBM PC on every desk in America to improve productivity. It won’t work. The special incantations you have to learn this time are “slash q-zs” and things like that. The manual for WordStar, the most popular wordprocessing program, is 400 pages thick. To write a novel, you have to read a novel – one that reads like a mystery to most people. They’re not going to learn slash q-z any more than they’re going to learn Morse code. That is what Macintosh is all about. It’s the first “telephone” of our industry.”
“…good PR educates people; that’s all it is. You can’t con people in this business. The products speak for themselves.”
The best designers use the wisdom of the polymath to understand what needs to be achieved and the ruthless focus of the specialist to ensure the product, when delivered, has not lost sight of its original objective.
In almost every product category where Jobs led Apple he upset the status quo.
Before the iMac, it was accepted that computers came in one colour (beige), arrived in multiple pieces and took an hour or more to set-up. Jobs’ product integrated everything into a single device, simplified set-up so the user had only to plug in the power cord and transformed the computer from an item customers wanted to hide away in a corner to an object they were proud to display in their homes.
The iPhone swept away the design conventions of the mobile industry. Apple was the first company to remove all but one of the physical buttons from the face of the phone, abstracting the interface elements into a software UI. Crucially, Jobs focused his team on delivering the best user experience for music, video, web browsing and email, allowing them to tear up the legacy rule book created for voice-driven phones. It was also the first mass market mobile product to use a capacitive screen supporting simultaneous multi-touch, allowing natural gestures such as ‘pinch to zoom’ and kinetic scrolling.
It is testament to the effectiveness of the design that many now find it hard to remember the time before most handsets looked like the iPhone. For a reminder of the impact it made upon launch in 2007, read the original MEX article from that time entitled ‘Apple’s new mobile experience‘.
Perhaps most importantly, Jobs laid the foundations for a new class of multi-touchpoint experiences, where several digital devices work together to create an experience greater than the sum of their parts. The move began with choosing a variant of OS X, the operating system already established on Apple’s desktop and notebook computers, as the software platform for the iPhone. Apple has gradually built a complete eco-system of digital experiences across iMac, Macbook, iPad, iPhone, iPod and Apple TV. It has built an economy around this platform to ensure users can access an unrivaled portfolio of apps, music, video and books across all of the various touchpoints.
With Apple’s products, a user can purchase a film on their PC, watch the first half while commuting with their iPhone and then return home in the evening and share it on their big screen TV with other family members. This use case – simple as it may sound – has remained elusive for the technology industry for years, despite all of the technical underpinnings being present. Jobs’ skill was in connecting the dots into a complete experience, from sourcing the content to operating the devices and paying for the service.
The future for Apple lies in taking this experience beyond the replication of content and into a realm where each touchpoint contributes to a multiplier effect. The AirPlay technology already found in iOS gives a first hint of how this might work. It will enable, for instance, an iPhone to be used as a controller for a game showing on the TV screen. In the future, it might be used to join together the screens of several iPads, allowing a family to play a game across all of them around the kitchen table.
This is the next macro challenge for Apple and one which will test its ability to deliver an experience which transcends hardware and performs as well in the virtual sphere of the cloud as in the physical sphere of the device.
Jobs’ influence at Apple will continue after his death. The 18 – 24 month lead time of digital products means the next several Apple launches will all have been developed under his operational guidance. Furthermore, his status as founder and figurehead of the company will ensure he remains a motivational force for years to come.
Tim Cook’s time as Chief Operational Office and as defacto-CEO during Jobs’ medical absence speaks for itself: a constant string of results which exceeded the expectations of users and investors alike. His appointment to the role will have been planned for many months and he is supported by a strong team.
Perhaps the most important of these team members is Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head designer. The creative partnership between Jobs and Ive was the engine which drove all of Apple’s recent products and the overall design language employed by the company. If Ive were to leave, there would inevitably be a change to Apple’s design strategy.
Such a change could, in fact, be a positive move. No one is infallible and everything ages. It would be exciting to see how Apple’s formula could evolve in a new design language.
I will return to Jobs’ 2005 Stanford speech for a closing thought on this:
“…death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.
“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 others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”