It seems the internet has decreed that all geeks must post some essay or braindropping to commemorate the passing of Steve Jobs. I would be remiss in my geek role if I were to avoid this responsibility, so here goes: a memorial for Steve Jobs from someone who has never owned an Apple product.
I know, my various geek and media brethren, the very idea of not owning an iPod or iPad or iPhone or iWhatever is impossible for some to comprehend. But I come here not to praise Jobs but to bury him. Or something like that, anyway. Regardless of my complete lack of Apple ownership, there is still a great deal of Jobsian influence in my life.
Back in 1980 when I was a protogeek, my father bought the family a Commodore VIC-20. Its massive 3 kilobytes of memory and cassette tape storage device were quite the hit in my family. By “my family” I mean, I loved the thing and it eventually migrated into my bedroom and became my de facto computer. When we moved back to California in 1984, I somehow ended up with a Commodore 64. I don’t really remember if I bought it with proceeds from chores and jobs or if it was a gift, but it was really 100 percent absolutely my computer, and not the family’s computer with which I had absconded.
Although I was definitely a Commodore user from the age of ten until I went to Korea nine years later, I still couldn’t avoid the Apple juggernaut. Back in the 1980s Apple still had a lot of Woz influenced culture, and they sold their computers to schools for far lower than anyone else would. This led to a predominance of Apple II computer labs in high schools and colleges. Mayfair had one of those. I found the Apple computers to be less interesting than my C64, since the school had not sprung for the full-color graphics add-on card and they looked a bit too much like the computer from WarGames. But, there they were, and I had to program stuff on them. Sometimes I programmed things without permission, but such is the life of a geek.
When the Mac first hit the world, I was cleaning offices with our family janitorial company. One of them was an advertising firm, and they had those tiny little boxes all over the place. Sometimes they’d leave them on, and I poked around a little. Monochrome screens weren’t awesome, but the ease of doodling and the WYSIWYG font displays were nifty. In 1986, GEOS was released for the C64 and I started playing with that. The environment was blatantly ripped off from the Mac (which was in turn heavily inspired by Xerox’s PARC designs). I never did get a mouse for the C64, but I was already living in a geek world informed by Steve Jobs.
Of course, Windows has been the most obvious point of contention for the “who invented it first” crowd, but I’ll skip over that particular dead horse. I’ve used Windows since 1992, from neccesity at work and realism at home – 90% market share gets a lot of options for software.
For a while, I used Linux with WindowMaker as my home computer operating environment. WindowMaker was a copy of the NeXT operating system which Steve Jobs had championed with the company he ran after his exile from Apple. So, even using open source software, I was still living in Steve’s world.
Once Jobs returned to Apple, he killed off the pool of mediocrity that had grown in his absence. Some have called Steve Jobs an auteur, and I think that’s a valid summary. Just as with the cinematic auteurs, Jobs had to be in control of everything that mattered in his company. This led to killing off the clone licensing, and it also led to Apple taking other people’s product concepts and making them just right for mass appeal. In 2000, I owned a couple of different MP3 players. Back in those days of overpriced flash memory, the players were either woefully inadequate or ridiculously oversized. We had the original Diamond Rio, which held about six songs in flash, or we had the Creative Nomad Jukebox, which had a massive six gigabyte capacity but was powered by four AA batteries and was the size of a chunky portable CD player. Then came the iPod.
The original iPod used a five gigabyte hard drive, so you’d think it would be inferior to the Jukebox. But, no – Apple went with a tiny hard drive that was uncommon and expensive, in order to produce a simple and capacious device for its time. Most important, in the impact on their competition, was the advent of a decent user interface. MP3 players prior to the iPod were frequently inscrutable devices, where you might be lucky to figure out how the bloody thing worked before its tiny battery died on you. I can see the Apple UI influence in the Sansa players we have at home (besides my old e260′s and Fuze’s wheels), as well as my son’s Philips player. The iTunes program, much-reviled by technorati, remains the standard by which other music management programs are judged. Again, I have given Apple no money in the digital music realm, but I can’t escape Steve’s world.
I still don’t own a smartphone (nor any other cellular telephone), but can anyone deny that they look like Apple devices, no matter who is making them? Who could have predicted that the Palm Treo, the most successful smartphone from 2002 until 2007, would be completely forgotten and the new upstart is being hailed as creating the smartphone market? I’m still not going to buy an iPhone, nor will I likely buy an iPad. I may buy a Mac someday, but I’m not making any promises. It’s ironic that I’m most resistant to buying the things which Apple dominates the market in, but such is life.
Steve Jobs, who was not a programmer or a computer engineer, led the largest technology revolution in the past twenty years. And then he led another one, and another one. Without his influence, we’d still have digital music players but they’d be annoying to use. We’d still have computers, but they might be ugly and difficult. We’d still have smartphones, but they’d look like something we’d hate to operate. Paraphrasing the old BASF slogan, Steve Jobs didn’t invent the things you love, but he made the things you love better.