CEO and publisher of Honolulu Civil Beat, Founder of eBay
When I was an eighth-grader in 1980, living here in Honolulu, I used to beg my mother to let me spend Saturdays at a neighborhood computer store, so I could play with (and learn about) the Apple II computers they were selling.
When VisiCalc came out, one of the original spreadsheet programs, I taught myself how to use it and demonstrated its features and usefulness to the occasional customer. Frankly, most seemed more curious about what the heck a boy was doing with a computer that was supposed to be an office tool than what the Apple could actually do.
Four years later, now in high school in Washington, D.C., I attended an Apple Users’ Group meeting featuring members of the original Macintosh team, demonstrating an entirely new home computer. I remember being in awe of the ease with which a mouse click changed the margins on a word-processing document which then reflowed instantly. The designers talked about having built a computer that they themselves wanted to use, rather than what customers were telling them they wanted. I didn’t understand it then, but what they were talking about was how you create a new market, rather than limit yourself to the definition of an existing market. It requires a leap of faith, thinking differently. The Mac’s screen was white, not black, so it would look and feel more natural, like paper. It was “user-friendly,” and it had a unique “look and feel.” Even the vocabulary used to describe this tool was new.
With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple always went its own way. He built products that he thought “the rest of us” would want to use, and he built them with utter confidence that we would. Steve was comfortable with leaps of faith. He urged us to “think different,” and in the process he fundamentally changed the way we thought about technology.
Before Steve, computer technology was considered by most people to be an office tool: nothing more than the next generation of adding machines. Or maybe a hobbyists’ plaything, something to tinker around with in the garage. With his historic George Orwell “1984″ Super Bowl ad, he challenged us to reject the status quo, and embrace a new vision. With the design of the Macintosh, he understood that the aesthetics of a tool were as important as — or more than — its functionality.
A decade or so later, Steve made a crucial breakthrough with the iPod and the beginning of the digital revolution in media. The iPod and the iTunes Store began to change the computer from a tool into something personal, something that we became attached to because it reflected who we were, or wanted to be.
And then, he changed the world again with the iPhone. Instead of simply being a phone, he envisioned a tool with no buttons, and a natural user interface that we would interact with using our fingers on smooth glass, as if we were directly touching whatever was displayed on the screen. A phone with no buttons — another leap of faith. He taught us to stretch and rotate photos with our fingers. He also taught us the Zen of touch-screen auto-correction typing, something which admittedly some of us do better than others.
In hindsight, the iPad seems a natural evolution from the iPhone, but at the time it was another leap. There is a sense of contact and physicalness that its apps provide, and in the process the iPad has become much more than a simple tool.
From the very beginning of Apple, Steve had a vision of the positive impact technology could have on people’s lives. He was unique among most technologists, because he constantly innovated on both the hardware and the software, humanizing technology more and more with each new product. And in the process, the technology he created went from being just an occasional tool to being a constant companion.
With Steve’s passing, we’ve lost someone who had a historic impact not only on how we use technology, but on how we think about it. Losing him at such a young age makes me wonder what other breakthroughs and leaps of faith he would have made in the coming decades.
For me, Steve’s legacy won’t be limited to these breakthrough products, however. More important than the products themselves, he changed the way we think — and how we think about something is often the hardest thing to change. This makes Steve’s successes all that much more remarkable.
Steve challenged the world to “think different,” and he didn’t limit that to his company’s products. In a very real sense, thinking differently has the effect of expanding our world and our reach — our view of what we can accomplish.
Steve expanded our world with technology, but he also showed us that thinking differently is indeed how we can change the world. And for that, I am truly thankful for his passion, his example and his inspiration.
This post first appeared at CivilBeat.com.