The first computer I ever laid eyes on was an Apple II while at Remuera Intermediate school in Auckland, New Zealand back in the early 80s. I still remember the sense of wonder and awe at how you could interact with a machine, push a button and watch a response on the small green screen. When the lid was opened, I remember being fascinated by how a bunch of black chips with spindly legs set into a green circuit board with thin copper tracks could generate such a marvel. It seemed incredible that a bunch of inanimate components could be assembled into something that, to my young mind, imitated life and intelligence. And so, like millions of others, Steve Jobs captured my imagination.
Over the next couple of decades, Steve Jobs pioneered each major innovation in personal computing. If you haven’t heard Stephen Fry discussing the resignation of Steve Jobs a couple of months ago, it is worth listening to. Fry makes the point that these innovations may not have originated with Steve Jobs but he understood the human element of computing, that we need a sense of emotional attachment not a sterile device. Now, that might sound a bit wishy-washy at first, but think about it. If all we needed in life was something functional, we’d all drive the cheapest cars, wear the cheapest clothing, be content to live in a hovel, etc. The reality is, aesthetics count and, as business has long recognised, aesthetics increase productivity. Jobs made computers sexy.
I remember the first time I saw a colour computer screen on one of the first Macs. “Ha,” I cried, “It’s a gimmick, it’ll never last. Who’s going to pay just to see some pretty colours on a screen?” The answer, of course, is all of us, because aesthetics make the world go around. We’re going to pay for it for the same reason we pay for a nice pair of jeans, or buy a house with a nice façade, because we need to feel good about things before they’re of any real, practical use to us.
And it’s not just about looking pretty, like all good building architects, Steve Jobs realised aesthetics had to lead to usability. Although neither Steve Jobs nor Apple invented concepts like the mouse, a graphical display, laptops, a smart phone or a tablet computer, they understood how to make them aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. And that sparked a revolution in computing, an arms race in putting the customer first, something that Microsoft, Amazon, Google and so many others have also exploited to the consumer’s benefit.
And I love my iPad. Although I’ve got a perfectly good HP laptop running Ubuntu Linux, I write all my books on the iPad. Sure, Pages for the iPad is low on functionality, but I can carry it everywhere, pump out a couple of paragraphs on the train, listen to it being read back to me while walking home, read a book while waiting for someone to arrive at the airport, surf the internet while the wife goes shopping, respond to emails or play a game and all during times that would otherwise be wasted.
Farewell Steve. Thanks for inspiring a generation.