On October 5, 2011, we said goodbye to arguably the person most singularly responsible for the way we have been using computers (and, more recently, entertaining ourselves and making phone calls) for nearly 30 years.
In the interest of full and fair disclosure, I should state up front for the record that I have never personally purchased an Apple product. It was (and is) easy at times to poke fun at the “Cult of Apple”. Like so many of my contemporaries, though, many of my formative computing cycles came on an Apple ][, and I have always admired the design (and marketing!) of Apple products.
In the hours and days following the death of Steve Jobs, there were a lot of comments in the world of social media asserting that he had never actually invented anything. This is not only completely untrue (Jobs is listed as the primary or co-inventor on almost 350 US patents or patent applications), but completely irrelevant: claiming that Steve Jobs was not an innovator because he “didn’t invent anything” is like saying that Nikola Tesla wasn’t an innovator because he didn’t invent electricity, or that Henry Ford wasn’t an innovator because he didn’t invent the internal combustion engine.
It is beyond the scope of this Tech Tip to serve as an exhaustive compendium of all things Apple, all things Steve Jobs, or even as a complete list of all of Jobs’ groundbreaking and innovative contributions to the world of computers and consumer electronics, but here are a notable few:
The Mouse & GUI
This one almost goes without saying. Nearly everyone knows the story of how Jobs “stole” the ideas of the mouse and the GUI (Graphical User Interface) from Xerox PARC to develop the Lisa and, later, Macintosh computers. Remember using computers before they had mice? I do. Were it not for Jobs and the success of the Mac, which of course inspired Microsoft Windows, who knows how or when the mouse and GUI would have made their way into mainstream computing.
Before 1984, you got any computer font you wanted – as long as what you wanted was the default system font. One of the biggest features of the early, black and white-only Macintosh computers was the ability to use different typefaces not only on-screen, but in print. This seems incredibly pedestrian now, but for a home computer user to be able to do this back then was revolutionary. My friends and I joked that “everyone with a Mac was a ‘desktop publisher’. ” The joke was on us, though: that was the idea all along.
This one’s for the EE (Electrical Engineering) Geeks out there, but no less relevant for all of us. Obviously, Apple didn’t invent the Universal Serial Bus. But they probably inspired it: The Apple Desktop Bus (invented by Steve Wozniak) was simple, inexpensive method for connecting a variety of external devices, including keyboards and mice, to a host computer. ADB had four pins: Data, Power on, +5 VDC, and Ground. Sound familiar? The first system to use ADB was the Apple IIGS in 1986. The USB working group didn’t begin development until 1994.
AppleTalk as a networking protocol has, for all practical purposes, been gone for a long time now, having been deprecated by Ethernet (TCP/IP). The point though, is that AppleTalk shipped with every Macintosh computer beginning in 1984. This meant that all Macs were “networkable” right out of the box. Ever try to network a few IBM “clone” computers together before, say, 1990? I did, and two words come to mind: “expensive”, and “nightmare”. Clearly, Jobs and Apple understood very early on the importance of easily and inexpensively connecting people, by way of their computers, together. After all, that’s what they set out to do.
Anyone remember the Apple Newton? I do. It was generally considered the first commercially-viable Personal Digital Assistant (remember those?) Incidentally, “personal digital assistant” was a term coined by Apple CEO John Sculley to describe the Newton. It didn’t work particularly well, and was later supplanted primarily by the Palm Pilot (and variants). But like a number of other products on this list, it was an industry first – a concept, if not a product, that changed the way we work with information and with each other.
The iPod, iPhone, and iPad aren’t category killers. Like the Newton, they’re category creators. There were no digital music players to speak of before the iPod, no “smartphones” as we define them today before the iPhone, and no tablets (other than in Star Trek) before the iPad. These devices have changed the way we listen to music, read books, watch movies and TV, and connect with our friends and family.
Without a doubt, one of Steve Jobs’ single greatest contributions to the world was convincing the archaic, slow-moving music industry to not only break up its product (overpriced CDs) and sell songs à la carte, but also to stop insisting on useless, annoying, and fair use-infringing copy-protection schemes. He was still working on applying the same concepts to movies and TV shows.
A quick nod to the powerful, intuitive, aesthetically-brilliant software that powers Apple’s computers and mobile devices.
The Personal Computer
“PC” became a hardware, software, and ideological “them” to Jobs’ “us” at Apple, but of course it always really stood for “Personal Computer”. Jobs didn’t invent computers, or even personally-owned computers – I remember seeing ads for Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80 “PC” for $999 in 1977. I used an IBM “PC Jr. ” in 1985. But Steve Wozniak and Apple, through the vision of Steve Jobs, made computers personal.
In the end, Steve Jobs’ legacy is so much more than a vast laundry list of cool inventions and fun gadgets: Steve Jobs set out to change the world. He succeeded.