I never met Steve Jobs. I’ve met a couple people who knew him, but his name never came up. Well, his name probably did, but the person behind the name never did. Certainly, the product behind his name came up, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
Next week, Apple will hold its first public event in the Steve Jobs Theater, on the circular campus that Jobs obsessed over, before his death in 2011. The event will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the revolutionary iPhone, which made Apple the most valuable company in the history of the world.
My connection to Apple is more visceral than academic. As newlyweds, my wife and I pooled our savings with our best friends to buy an Apple IIe with an Imagewriter dot-matrix printer. It stayed with us for two weeks, then with our friends who lived on the other end of town, back and forth.
It wasn’t a terribly convenient arrangement, but we couldn’t wait for the future. We bought our first Macintosh not much later. Here’s a list of the models I’ve owned since 1985: MacPlus, MacSE, MacSE30, Powerbooks 100, 140, 145, 170, 5300, various iBooks, iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBooks Air. I’ve had three iPads and five iPhones. In other words, I’m a typical Apple customer.
Good biographies of Steve Jobs have been written and I’ve read most of them. The hagiographies will begin as soon as those who really knew him stop talking or caring. It won’t be long.
Then, “what he was like” will fade and “what he must have been like” will grow. That word “must” betrays the power of the uninformed view. It carries more weight than actual knowledge because it promises more. History thereby gains the sheen of inevitability. What happened, must have happened.
Let’s begin. (I’m no better at waiting for the future than I was in 1985.)
Steve Jobs must have marveled at his first reversible windbreaker. A few pennies of added cost to the zipper and a jacket could be green one day and yellow the next. No more inside-out! There was no “wrong” way to wear it.
Reversibility must have mattered to Steve Jobs. Electronic jacks should be reversible, so there’s no wrong way to plug it in. Not being able to do it “wrong” must have been important to Steve Jobs.
It’s certainly important to all of us. Steve Jobs was meeting a need we had never voiced, but he heard it nevertheless. He must have.
There were other times when he didn’t listen to what people were saying, because he heard something else — something more important; something truer. Laptops before Apple placed the keyboard as close as possible to the user, with no wrist support. Nobody asked for a change before Apple did it, pushing the keyboard closer to the laptop’s screen.
Apple also flipped the glowing logo on the laptop’s case. Steve Jobs must have said. “Why display our logo correctly for the user, who has already bought our product, but upside down for everyone else in the room who may want to buy one?” Once again, the industry followed.
I’ll bet Steve Jobs loved velour towels. And that’s why Apple never made a flip phone. Steve Jobs must have insisted that tools are used for only a few minutes a day. The rest of the time, they are objects that people will look at.
The functionality of the tool cannot be overlooked, but what it looks and feels like when it’s not in use matters more. A towel that feels and looks good 23.9 hours a day is worth more than one that dries your body efficiently for the day’s remaining six minutes.
Mobil phones mostly sit on a desk or table. It reaches the eye much more than the ear. The curvature of human anatomy must have been only a minor concern when Apple was designing the iPhone. It must look good when others admire it, Steve Jobs must have reasoned, because those are all future customers.
He must have been right, because many of those customers no longer wait for the future.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.