POSSIBLY the most impressive book of last year — the best I read anyway — was about one of the most significant people to have died during 2011.
Steve Jobs of Apple was the subject of a stunning biography by Walter Isaacson, so good that it should be recommended reading for anybody studying business, communications, media or technology, and for just about anybody else beyond because those subjects are so important to our daily lives.
Jobs is possibly the most important non-political global figure of the early 21st century. The products he developed at Apple during the last years of his life were remarkable: The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad in the past decade alone, and related services such as iTunes, the App store and iCloud. Let’s also remember his revolutionary work in the 1980s in developing the Mac, which made home computing far more accessible and therefore popular.
It is hard to know where to start in detailing Jobs’ achievements. Previous MP3 players allowed for the use of digital music — but the iPod popularised this means of collecting and playing music like no other digital product before or since. Its link to the specially constructed iTunes story has arguably saved the music industry.
The iPod was a stepping stone toward the iPhone which — in addition to performing the basic function of making and taking phone calls — offers text, e-mail, photography, video, web services and a music player. Many say there are better smartphones — particularly those using the Android operating system as opposed to Apple’s — and that now they are as physically attractive and almost as easy to use as the iPhone. But that misses the point somewhat. As with almost all other Jobs products, he brought it to market in a highly user-friendly set-up, something that is intuitively easy to use, that almost any fool can feel comfortable with, technology that does not intimidate.
The iPad is a transformational device to which I admit I have become addicted. I am rarely without, even though I’ve also had use of rival tablets, such as a beautiful Sony device, that are equally impressive to use. The iPad “tablet” is an easily carried lightweight device which fills a gap between the iPhone and a laptop computer (although it does not make conventional phonecalls). Some would say that there is no gap, that there is no need for such a product, but it does almost everything else the iPhone can and performs almost every function of a laptop computer.
It is possible that the iPad, once it becomes as common as the iPhone, (which may happen when the prices drop, as they always do with technology) may save the publishing industry in the same way as iTunes has saved the music industry.
One of the big problems for newspapers and magazines has been the way people have started getting their news for free on the internet. But iPad editions of these publications are much closer in their look to newspapers and have lots of added features. I’m happy to pay subscriptions for a number of foreign newspapers to download them to my iPad each morning. I’m now reading papers that I had stopped buying in hard copy and restrict my printed purchases to this and other Irish newspapers.
And then there is the App store. Apps are highly popular for smartphones too, and are available from other manufacturers, but Apple has stolen a march completely on the availability of hundreds of thousands of apps that can be downloaded, offering games, information and services too numerous to mention, both free and paid-for. A whole new industry has developed for people making and selling these apps.
Non-users of these products may say “so what?” but they have contributed to a revolution in information transmission and communication. They have been transformative in the way the invention of the printing press was. Jobs may not have invented the 21st-century wheel, but he has developed all sorts of applications for it and made it easy and accessible to all.
Jobs was not alone in developing those products and the book is generous in detailing the others at Apple who were so important to the creation and manufacture of these things. But Jobs had a vision and a drive that was central not just to the invention process but to the dedication to making things as well as possible from an engineering standpoint and to looking as good as they could be from an artistic viewpoint.
Jobs was interested in making profit but mainly to provide money to make other new things rather than providing excessive material comfort for himself. His driving motivation — and this is something that so many other businesspeople would do well to remember in their greed, when they take shortcuts merely to maximise profit — was to make the best products possible, to provide the very best services for users.
He also made products for which there was no obvious public demand but which, when available, many people wanted. This is a remarkable skill. Without it, the world would be a much duller place. It is one of the greatest examples of why command economies do not function properly: They stifle innovation and they lack vision.
He also had an artistic and aesthetic vision. That was evident in the dedication he had to make his products as attractive sensually as they could be. But it went further in his other great success outside Apple. Jobs was central to the artistic genius that is Pixar Animation Studios, which has produced such creative gems as Toy Story. That on its own would be a fitting legacy for someone to have. For it to be an add-on to the Apple story is extraordinary.
JOBS was not without his personal faults, however. He had many dreadful and unacceptable flaws as a person and as a business manager, and he learnt only partially from his mistakes. He was something of a tyrant at Apple, a psychological bully who terrorised many of his staff. He was cruel in the way he almost ignored his first daughter, although he was somewhat better in how he interacted with his second family.
Others have problems with the way Jobs kept Apple products sealed from interference in contrast the open source approach used by other firms. There are good arguments either way on this. Jobs though had the satisfaction of knowing at the time of his death that he had built Apple to being the most valuable technological company in the world, bigger than Microsoft (his old enemy) and vying with Google to be the predominant 21st-century company.
Jobs was well aware that constant innovation will be required for his legacy to be maintained. The scale of technological development in consumer products over the last 30 years has been extraordinary. (If you are of a certain age, try to remember what computers were like 20 or 30 years, or compare your Sony Walkman to what an iPod can do today). The brilliant products Jobs made will be surpassed. It is as he would have expected and wanted.
Yet some things will remain for many years to come. There is something reassuring about the fact that an old-fashioned book, brought to readers on a technology that is centuries old, tells Steve Jobs’ story. Despite the increasing popularity of iPads and Kindles as a means of reading books the hardback print edition of Jobs biography was one of the most popular Christmas gifts in this and other counties this year.
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