A Matter Of Changing The Game

When Ben asked me to write this post following Steve Jobs’ passing, I accepted the offer somewhat tentatively. I’m pretty far from being a professional writer – in fact, the only qualification that I have for writing this in the first place is that I’m AMOLAG’s resident Apple geek. As such, these are just a few personal ramblings which I hope aren’t too crass or trite.

Firstly, a few historical notes. Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer in 1976 alongside childhood friend and electronics whiz Steve Wozniak. Jobs’ vision for Apple  was already apparent when, after a few years of expansion, he hired John Sculley, then at Pepsi-Cola, to act as Apple’s CEO – asking him “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” This partnership saw the release, in 1984, of the Macintosh – a small, relatively affordable home computer that revolutionised user interaction by featuring a graphical user interface as opposed to the command-line in operating systems like MS-DOS. The Mac was a commercial success but a breakdown in Jobs’ and Sculley’s relationship and an industry-wide sales slump saw Jobs fired from Apple in 1985.

Jobs spent the next eleven years away from Apple; however, these could not be described as wilderness years. He founded NeXT Computer in 1985, creating technologically advanced  workstations with an eye for aesthetic detail – something that was to become an Apple trademark in years to come. In 1986 he bought a company called “The Graphics Group” from Lucasfilm for $10 million. This proved to be a wise investment – the company, relaunched as Pixar, would become a wildly successful animation studio – and later be purchased by Disney in a deal worth over $7 billion.

Then, in 1996, Apple purchased NeXT Computer signalling Jobs’ return – he became interim CEO in 1997, a role that became permanent in 2000. Apple under Jobs would experience unprecedented growth, eventually dropping the “Computer” from their name as they branched out with now-ubiquitous devices like the iPod.

For me, part of Steve Jobs’ genius was his eye for seriously great design combined with his ability to surround himself with people skilled enough to turn his often infuriatingly demanding visions into reality – not least British design guru Jonathan Ive. I’ve owned several PCs in the past, but the Ive-designed “table-lamp” iMac was the first computer that I really wanted to own. However, being a skint student at the time meant that I had to put up with a succession of beige boxes. Once I was earning, however, I rushed out and bought myself a glossy white iBook. It was a great piece of kit, running Apple’s Unix-based OS X operating system (a legacy of Jobs’ NeXT years). While I got a good three or four years use out of it, it did serve as something of an example of Steve Jobs’ skills as a salesman, the so-called “Reality Distortion Field”. It was amazing to use – intuitive, slick, and able to do everything I wanted. However, based around a PowerPC G3 processor running at 900Mhz it was pretty underpowered compared to most PCs on the market, something Mac aficionados brushed off as being part of an Intel / AMD disseminated “Megahertz Myth”. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t be long until Apple would make a transition to using Intel chips. The MacBook Pro that I’m typing this on is a beast that puts comparable Windows laptops to shame – that is, until I have to fire up a Windows partition to play most new games. OS X is still, sadly, somewhat neglected as far as game development natively goes. But hey, I can still play Borderlands…

Aesthetics aside, the other thing that I believe truly demonstrated Steve Jobs’ vision was his conception of hardware and software that pushed the envelope, things that assimilated a variety of technological advances, many of which were considered niche products, and made them accessible and usable to the vast majority of people. For instance, the iPhone touch screen took the finger as an interface device and made the underlying user experience intuitive. Of course, many devices had used touch screen input before such as Windows Mobile smartphones but most had resistive – pressure-sensitive – touchscreens that required pecking at the screen with a stylus. Comparatively, iOS, with it’s big, bold icons and fluid gestures is a joy to use. Now, smartphones with touchscreen input have become ubiquitous to the extent that even RIM, the bastions of keyboard input, introduced a touchscreen BlackBerry to their range.

Similarly, every new Mac comes bundled with a piece of software called GarageBand. This is a fully-featured music sequencer courtesy of Apple’s acquisition of Emagic and their Logic software studio, able to record real instruments and MIDI input. It’s got a decent range of soft-synths, samples and digital effects, along with pretty good editing functions. It’s not necessarily going to replace a professional studio’s Pro-Tools rig but it’s easily good enough to give any garage guitarist or bedroom beatsmith an outlet for their creativity. Entire albums have been recorded using this free piece of software. Hell, even number-one singles have used some of the bundled loops.

It should also be noted that Apple’s mobile platforms have fired a shot across the bows of established gaming behemoths, for good or ill. I’m not convinced that the “race to the bottom”, price-wise, that the App Store has created is a good thing as far as quality goes, but if you have an iOS-capable device you can fill it with any number of really great 69p games that will keep you entertained on your daily commute – as Penny Arcade highlighted so well.

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs could be a hard taskmaster, and gave short shrift to those who didn’t share his exacting standards and drive to create great products. It’s reported that one exchange, during a conference, went as follows:

“I am George Bodenheimer,” he said to Jobs. “I run ESPN.” Jobs just looked at him and said nothing other than “Your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard,” then turned and walked away.Rude to be sure, but indicative of his desire to not create products that were anything less than extraordinary – he once said of great rivals Microsoft, “They’ve earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products.”

Time will tell what the future will bring for Apple – in the short to medium term, the team that Jobs assembled will surely carry on as before, bringing long-planned ideas to fruition. In the long term – who knows? Tim Cook has proved himself to be a trusted and solid Jobs lieutenant, and his elevation to the CEO role is merely a formalisation of what’s been going on at Apple over the last few months. It’s likely that Apple product announcements may be less showy than in the past, but there’s no reason to believe that what Apple put out on the shelves in years to come won’t be as “insanely great” as those demonstrated by Steve Jobs – plenty more “just one more things”, almost certainly bearing Jobs’ imprint.

Thanks for all the cool stuff, Steve…

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” (Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, June 2005)

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