If you walked into an office in 1976, you’d encounter an environment vastly different from today’s. A bluish haze of cigarette smoke would hang in the air, and ashtrays would dot most desks. Women would be at desks near the front, while men would hold down the bigger, private offices farther back. And on a wing of some of those desks would sit a typewriter, not a personal computer.
That same year, 21-year-old Steve Jobs and 26-year-old Steve Wozniak launched Apple Computer Inc. in Jobs’ family’s garage. The mark Jobs left on the world — he died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer at age 56 — far exceeds the company’s financial success, and even exceeds the way he helped remake the way offices function with the desktop computer he helped develop.
Jobs’ legacy on the human experience is broad and profound. It also is frivolous, in some ways.
Understanding what will make the next Steve Jobs tick, what conditions helped him succeed again and again, and what his success says about consumers, the economy and the relentless progress of technology is important.
The popular image of Jobs and Wozniak is of a couple of techno geeks who liked playing with the nascent binary computing technology. They were much more. Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore., before getting Apple rolling. Reed College is a liberal arts institution, though perhaps more akin then to College of the Atlantic than the University of Maine. That liberal arts education served him well in developing concepts larger than solving mere engineering problems.
Whether it was marketing savvy or a belief that technology should be democratized — or maybe both — what Jobs and Wozniak created and polished brought a world of information to desktops, then laptops and now into the hands of millions upon millions of people. The Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad were technologically dazzling, but more importantly, they let users navigate the universe through words, images and sound.
Thirty years ago, IBM dismissed the Macintosh as a cute toy that posed no threat to its market. But Jobs and Wozniak realized that just like the telephone and automobile, the PC was not the sole domain of businesses. People wanted them, and wanted to integrate them into their everyday, non-work lives.
Jobs brought a flair for design to Apple’s stable of products. Design, it turns out, is more than the way a product looks; it’s how easily it functions, how intuitive its internal logic is, how well it fits in the hand. Apple conceived of the concept we all know: desktop, icon, files and folders.
Apple’s user-friendly approach, which we now take for granted, ran against the grain of early computing technology. Competitors appropriated that and many other Apple sensibilities.
The frivolous nature of the Jobs legacy is that no one needs to listen to music on a portable device or take photos with their phone. In fact, such devices may isolate us and make us more self-absorbed.
But those Apple laptops every Maine middle school student got, thanks to Gov. Angus King, made our geographic isolation less restricting.
Picture today’s college drop-outs hatching businesses in the family garage. Don’t write them off as slackers, losers or geeks. They may just put the next unimagined technology into the hands of millions.