They say that most geniuses who achieve incredible things when they’re young spend the rest of their lives struggling to meet that standard. Not Steve Jobs. Even after laying the groundwork for the personal computer in the 1970s, his best work was arguably in the last ten years. Jobs may have passed on, but his influence on technology will be felt for at least another ten, and probably much more.
There are certainly the products—the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were all revolutionary in their own way, and I’ll get to them in a minute—but Jobs’ greatest achievement was more broad. He took the functional, sterile practice of ‘computing’ and made it human. At one of his legendary keynotes, he said Apple wasn’t just technology, that it was ‘tech and humanity.’ Jobs never lost sight of the fact that these devices served no purpose if flesh-and-blood people didn’t want to use them.
‘You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it,’ Jobs said to an irate questioner at his first WWDC appearance as Apple CEO in 1997.
Jobs’ philosophy goes deeper than just an understanding to put customer experience first, though—he also saw that that experience had real bearing on people’s lives. Technology didn’t have to be about people sitting behind a desk doing what’s generally thought of as ‘work’—it was teenagers trying to find new music, grandmothers browsing family photos, or people wandering a strange neighborhood looking for Thai food. Jobs’ insight wasn’t in seeing that technology could help people do these things (which was obvious), but that in doing so the technology needed to get out of the way as much as possible. Tech was a window to content and services, nothing more.
That philosophy has been on display into countless Apple products, but the ones that will continue to have influence in years to come are the iPhone and the iPad. Apple under Jobs didn’t invent the smartphone or the tablet, but there’s no question it popularized the current paradigms behind both. Before iOS products came, who knew so many people wanted to ‘mobile compute?’ Jobs got to those people where others had failed with his experience-first approach. Like Michelangelo finding his sculptures waiting inside the stones he carved them out of, Jobs needed only to chip away the ‘unneeded bits’ of technology (like clunky UIs and lousy mobile browsers) to reach his waiting audience.
It’s a big audience now. To date, Apple has sold more than 100 million iPhones and 30 million iPads worldwide. It has great market share among smartphones and owns the tablet market. More importantly, Apple’s influence is felt throughout the entire industry—from its primary mobile competitor, Android, to the touch-tile approach that perennial rival Microsoft has baked into Windows 8.
Jobs has publicly told the story about how he initially conceived the iPad, then decided to build the iPhone first since the technologies needed were easier to incorporate into a smaller, handheld device. One wonders how today’s world would be different if Steve Jobs hadn’t been there to kick off his vision of what he ended up calling the ‘Post-PC era.’ Sure, others may have stepped up with products, but without Jobs’ passionate pursuit of perfection, there’s a good chance we’d all be walking around with BlackBerry-esque smartphones with full QWERTY keyboards. And just think: the Microsoft Courier might be the leading tablet on the market. Would people be buying them by the millions, though?
Quite simply, the smartphone and the tablet, as we know them today, wouldn’t exist were it not for Steve Jobs. While the world mourns the passing of a technology icon, everyone who’s ever downloaded something from an app store, pinched to zoom on a touch screen, or browsed the Web on a full-featured mobile browser has been touched by his influence. That’s a fitting tribute if there ever was one.