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How Steve Jobs changed everything, and what we’ll miss without him

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As the entire technology industry remembers Steve Jobs fondly, I can’t help but fear for its future. Without Steve Jobs, the the tech and entertainment industries would be no where near as vibrant as they are today. And without his unique ability to execute new ideas and push the tech industry where it needs to go, we’ll all be a little worse off. 

 The Onion may have been joking around in its story: “Last American Who Knew What The F**k He Was Doing Dies,” but there’s a scary aura of truth to the paper’s words: “Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas — attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen.” This is satire, but it might be a little bit true. 

To look forward, it’s sometimes best to take a look back. Here are some of the ways Jobs changed the world in the last 35 years, and some thoughts on how the the future will be different, perhaps worse, without him.

Inventing the PC

steve wozniak steve jobsIn 1976, Jobs, along with Steve Wozniak, invented the personal computer with the Apple I, and in 1977 they introduced the Apple II, which has been hailed as one of the first true PCs. There were other computers, but he alone envisioned a future where everybody could afford a PC and used them on a regular basis. He always imagined an easy-to-use computer for the everyday person.

With the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh, Jobs and Apple were among the first to see the value in the mouse and graphical user interface. Without his vision, I would not be typing this article on a Windows machine today. Users of all computer operating systems owe something to Jobs. Without him, we might not have had the PC revolution at all, and assuming it did happen, who knows what the tech world would look like for ordinary people today.

Rethinking the movie industry

In the 90s, Jobs was instrumental in revolutionizing the use of computer graphics in film. Through his work at Pixar, he set new standards for CGI, helped save Disney’s animation department, set new standards for what a family film could be, and created the most consistently critically acclaimed and high-grossing film studio ever.

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend, and the guiding light of the Pixar family,” said Lasseter and Catmull after hearing news of Jobs’ passing. “He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer-animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity, and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA.”

As Daniel Terdiman of Cnet notes in an excellent retrospective look at Jobs’ work at Pixar, the studio wasn’t the first to work on CGI, but it was the company that got it right and taught everybody else how to do it. Pixars movies continue to set the standard today. Though he partnered with Disney, Jobs saw that Pixar could one day become bigger than Disney. With hit films like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc., in many ways it did.

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“Steve’s major impact was on the strategic direction of the company,” said David Price, author of The Pixar Touch. “He had the crucial insight that Pixar could one day be the equal of the Walt Disney Company in animation. He made this vision a reality by overseeing the IPO of Pixar stock in 1995, a week after Toy Story was released. He foresaw that if they had that capital, it would give them the independence to create a body of work and to become a brand that would become as powerful in entertainment as Disney. He was very explicit about this.”

When Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion, Pixar chiefs John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took over the entire Disney animation department and have significant sway over a large portion of Disney properties now, including the design of theme-park rides. At the time of the buyout, Steve Jobs’ only warning to Disney was that it shouldn’t turn Pixar into a house of sequels, and instead keep the focus on quality over quantity. In the five years since, Disney has doubled Pixar’s output to two films a year (still in the process of happening) and the studio is working on more sequels than original movies. Cars 2 was it’s lowest rated film ever, from a critical standpoint. Without Steve, will Pixar change Disney, or Disney change Pixar?

The digital store

Even with Steve Jobs’ influence, the music industry continues to doggedly stick with physical distribution and fight new types of digital distribution, but without him, who knows where we’d be. Back in 2001, after a sea of litigation over Napster and file sharing, Jobs unveiled the Apple iPod, a completely rethought MP3 player with a new type of interface. Two years later, when the industry still had no good solution for downloading music, Jobs introduced the iTunes music store, which let users connect their iPods directly with their computers and access a library of more than a million songs. It was the combination of unique hardware and software that finally gave consumers a way to purchase and own thousands of albums without having to carry thousands of physical CDs around with them.

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“If you look at the reason that the iPod exists and why Apple is in that marketplace, it’s because these really great Japanese consumer electronics companies that invented and owned the portable music market couldn’t conceive of and implement the appropriate software,” said Jobs at an AllThingsD conference in 2007. “Because an iPod is really just software: software for the iPod itself, software on the PC or Mac, and its software in the cloud for the store. And it’s in a beautiful box, but it’s software.”

Without the vision of Apple, an outsider to the music market, it’s quite likely that the industry would be in far worse shape than it is today, and consumers might still be stuck with a fragmented digital market where no one store has access to a significant library of music. Worse, though the industry may have failed to provide easy, legal ways to purchase digital music, the RIAA may have sued even more illegal music downloaders than it did. With iTunes and the iPod, Apple set the standard, and without it, we might still be on the digital equivalent of the 8-track. 

iTunes continues to set the standard for digital distribution today. With the introduction of the iPhone 4S and iOS 5, Apple will be launching a new service called iCloud, which lets users store all of their music in the cloud, freeing them from having to worry about copying or having music on each device they own. It’s a great idea, and one that Steve Jobs undoubtedly conceived. What great idea will music fans miss out on now that he’s gone? There are a host of issues facing digital content in the years ahead and now the industry is missing the one man who might be able to make sense of it all. 

Reimagining the phone and freeing the app

As often seems to be the case, when I first heard about the iPhone, it didn’t seem revolutionary at all. “It’s just an iPod Touch with a cellular signal,” I thought. My view was shortsighted, and I quickly snapped in line. With the iPhone, Apple debuted the first truly user-friendly smartphone, and with the App Store, it unshackled the process of buying content from the hands of the wireless carriers, which were abusing both consumers and developers of content. Before the iPhone, feature phones and smartphones had app stores that reached only 200 to 500 apps deep. Users had a difficult time finding, installing, and using apps because wireless carriers controlled distribution on their own Internet portals.

Wireless carriers controlled everything:

  • Carriers took between 40 to 60 percent of revenue from developers up front
  • Carriers overcharged for apps ($5.99  to $12.99 was regular)
  • Carriers made apps into subscriptions (charging users $2.99-$4.99 per month without any plan to add new content)
  • Carriers controlled the placement of apps (no app could sell unless it was in the “Featured” category of a store)
  • Carriers would reject apps from developers after they had spent thousands on developing and porting to hundreds of handsets
  • Carriers would cut apps from the store quickly if sales weren’t up to par
  • Carriers would reject apps that didn’t have brand potential
  • Porting companies would charge tens of thousands of dollars to port an app to thousands of handsets 

I saw this ugly system work up close when I worked as an app evaluator at a company that mediated between carriers and app developers. The carriers saw us as a place to put smaller developers that they didn’t want to work with directly, and developers saw us as a hinderence to reaching the carriers. Life isn’t always great as a middle man. Thanks to the iPhone, the mobile content industry doesn’t need middle men anymore. Anyone with an idea can develop and publish an app on the App Store or on any of the blossoming competing stores like the Android Market. And because Apple pushed apps, the number of people who download apps has gone from about 5 percent to 95 percent (or more). 

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This all downplays Apple’s success with hardware design. Thanks to the iPhone, every competitive smartphone on the market now has a large touchscreen and user-friendly interface. Even Microsoft, which coasted on its crappy Windows Mobile platform for years, has completely reinvented its software in response to the iPhone and the competitor it spawned: Google’s Android. Without Steve Jobs, I’m convinced that the phone industry would still be a complete mess right now, with big companies like Nokia and RIM sitting on their profits and no one to put the developer or consumer first. What future innovations will be left untapped now that Jobs is gone? What ideas were in Steve’s head? Maybe a holographic phone? An iPhone nano that you can wear as a watch? Did Jobs already know what might come after the touch revolution? 

Putting games everywhere

I have always been a fan of Nintendo, but Steve Jobs is ripping its business model apart as well. Thanks to the enormous accessibility of the App Store, smartphone users have become big gamers. The iPhone is a capable gaming device and has bred a marketplace where games can cost 40 to 60 times less than they do on video game consoles and handhelds, like Nintendo’s Wii and 3DS systems. Hell, some games are completely free. Nintendo, which has made its living selling premium software on its proprietary hardware (much like Apple), is now struggling to compete. I want Nintendo to succeed, but to succeed it is going to have to adapt and innovate to counter Apple’s side attack. This struggle is good for everyone. The video game industry will thrive from its expanded reach and expanded palette of game types. Software makers benefit from the App Store concept as well, but nobody benefits as much as consumers. Without him, could a game like Angry Birds ever become as popular as Tetris?

Rewiring the PC

With the iPhone a success and users familiar with it, Jobs launched his biggest gamble yet with the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Eliminating the keyboard and introducing the touchscreen, the iPad took its cues from smartphones instead of PCs. Microsoft had tried to introduce touchscreen tablets for more than a decade, but had failed on execution every time (try to use Windows 7 on a touchscreen — it’s terrible). Apple created an entirely new market where there was none before. This year alone, it has sold more than 40 million iPad 2s. Augmenting its MacBook laptop sales, also up due to the success of the MacBook Air, Apple is now the number one PC manufacturer in the world this year. The effects on the PC market have only begun to be felt, but will be widespread. Some are calling the effects “Apple Shock.” Competing manufacturers are being forced to completely redesign, rethink, and re-engineer everything they make.

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Thanks to the iPad and iPhone, PCs will soon all have touchscreens, will run on faster solid-state drives, will get much better battery life, will run on more operating systems (Google’s Android is stepping up quickly), will be more connected and have services like GPS, and will look nicer too. You can read about this in an article I wrote back in August about how smartphones and tablets are shaping your next PC. Everything about the PC is about to take a dramatic leap forward, whether you’r running Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, or anything else, and it’s because of the work Steve Jobs has done and the ideas he’s executed on in OS X and iOS devices. Thanks to him, computers are set to change and improve a great deal over the next few years. But what happens after that? Did Steve plan to merge iOS with OS X? Did he have a Post-Post-PC plan?

Life after Steve

I’ve never been a huge Apple user. I grew up on PCs, I still don’t care for iTunes, and I have an Android phone, but without Steve Jobs, the tech world would be a lot worse, and a lot more boring. In the last 35 years, Steve Jobs has completely reinvented and improved almost all of my favorite things. Without him, the way we experience computers, phones, video games, music, movies, and almost everything else would be nowhere near as good as it is today. He’s left us with some clear paths forward, but without a commanding visionary like Steve Jobs, there is no way that the next 35 years will be anywhere near as great as they could be if he were still with us. I never met you, but I will miss you, Mr. Jobs.