Steve Jobs: The man who let us feel the future

  • 6 October 2011
  • From the section Business
  • comments

I only met Steve Jobs once, and it was not exactly a meeting. I'd been sent to cover the launch of iTunes Europe and, getting slightly nauseous at the scale of fawning over the guy and his 99p per track music, I decided to take a quite critical line.

My rationale was that in an age where P2P file sharing was taking down the walled garden of intellectual property rights, only a bunch of oldsters would go on paying for their music.

As luck would have it a rival music service was launching that day - emusic.com, based on subscription and DRM-free - and I reported the story as a tale of two business models.

Jobs, of course, was not giving interviews. So I lurched towards him with a microphone as he glad-handed out of the auditorium at the old Billingsgate Market and asked the question one or two tech analysts were also asking: what do you do if it doesn't work? The iMac at the time was looking a sorry machine and some were wondering if the whole PC space would become low-value and commoditised.

"He's not answering that question," said the bodyguard who politely deflected me with some kind of hippy qi-gong force field. To which I added, in the track of the report: "but the markets will".

Well they did.

Apple, on some days, is now the most valuable company on the planet. When I went on holiday this year I took an iPad (for reading books on my Kindle App); my iPhone (for recording an impromptu story for Broadcasting House and getting my e-mail on); and my MacBook Pro, which has all the work I have done since the day Lehman Brothers fell stored on it. Ah yes, and a 160gb iPod.

Jobs, who died last night, was probably the greatest innovator of the age we have lived through: inventing and commercialising the first "cool" personal computer, launching Pixar, the pioneer of digital animation, then coming back to turn Apple into a zeitgeist-owning monster personal electronics company.

Today, as the obits are written, there will rightly be a lot of focus on the revolutionary new things Jobs helped create. They will focus, rightly also, on his mistakes, not least of which was dismissing 12 suicides by production line workers at the Foxconn iPad plant as troubling but "well below the China average".

But the story of iTunes itself is, while prosaic, instructive of what Jobs excelled in.

iTunes stepped into a gap created by the slow, collapsing hubristic record companies and the kids with Napster accounts and no moral commitment to paying for music. Its business model was simply to steal the revenue of the flesh-world retailers, which was dying (how wistfully do you remember your first flick through the vinyl LPs at your local record shop, just wishing that you could find that record you'd heard about from your friends?)

iTunes creamed off 35p of every 99p, with the rest going to the music company and the credit card company, the artist eventually getting about 11p.

It worked for three reasons: a) it massively expanded choice and availability b) it worked seamlessly across all Apple devices and above all with the iPod, which although just a dumb MP3 player, was seamless to use, making the act of listening "unconscious" and untroubled by loads of clicking and finding; and c) because of the "fat tail" of content that could then be brought back to market.

Because Jobs created a very holistically satisfying user experience, human consciousness did the rest. The user's deep emotional attachment to their music collection rubbed off onto the little device itself, not to mention the cool white ear buds, or their various DIY headphone replacements, which instantly denoted your personal style.

This understanding of the emotional bond between man and machine has been the unspoken thing at the heart of nearly all great innovation cycles. The men who tinkered around to invent the Spinning Jenny and the Steam Engine were obsessive garden shed amateurs; ditto the men and women who invented the mouse, the pointer, the pixel.

In 1984, in Leicester, I used to pass the Macintosh shop on London Road in a state of awe. There, blinking at me, was this object of desire. A Macintosh 512. I could not afford one so bought a Spectrum ZX, graduating to an Atari and then an Amstrad before finally saving enough money (this on the salary of a teacher and university lecturer) to buy a SECOND HAND Macintosh SE around about 1988. (I still have the next model in the series, a Macintosh SE30 and I may go into my loft and fire it up today in Steve's honour).

What these machines opened up was the world of glissando-smooth computing: the mouse and pointer world that was still so clunky on a Microsoft PC. And graphic design. Page design, vector drawings and word processing were a joy on an early Mac, in a way that future generations will find impossible to understand unless they are made to sit in front of an Atari or an Amstrad and type long postmodernist articles to the sound of Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You playing out of an analogue, yes analogue, Walkman tape deck.

When I was a sub-editor in the magazine business we jealously defended our Macs against the constant attempt by management to replace them with PCs, which were clunky and broke down. And then it all went wrong: the Macs kept breaking down, they were expensive, PCs got better and along came games.

I have to confess my 10 year divorce from Apple Inc started when I discovered TacOps, got really serious because of Operation Flashpoint and only really finished because I got so sick of my Asus laptop crashing during Medieval Total War II that I decided to give up games altogether. Luckily this was five days before Lehman Brothers went bust and I had bought a MacBook at Heathrow Airport, frantically sawing the box open in Garfunkel's with a plastic knife to get started there and then.

Jobs did not just create cool technologies: he defined them throughout his whole life. He was part of that generation that understood, intuitively, what Stuart Brand put into words: "information wants to be free." But he also understood we were in a period of transition: between information monopolies and information freedom. He made his and Apple's fortune by inserting himself into the gap between aspiration and reality.

Jobs' products let us experience what it will be like when information really is free; when man and machine inter-operate, when human consciousness can combine across seamless networks, creating what science writer Margaret Wertheim has called "the leaky self".

When I saw that first Mac in the shop window I grasped, intuitively, the stunning thought: that is the future. What genius it must have taken to imagine it from scratch.

** Standard disclaimer: other products are available!