Legacies are living things. As the world collectively remembers Steve Jobs, many commentators are already starting to reflect on his impact on global technology and culture. It will take years to fully comprehend what effect Jobs had on the world, and what it all meant. Needless to say, he had an impact. When Jobs passed away, Apple was stronger than ever, its stock near highs, making it one of the largest and most influential companies on Earth.
What was Apple under Jobs? How did he transform Apple from a luxury company to a colossal technology and media institution?
Even five years ago it was hard to imagine Apple becoming the behemoth it is today. Skeptics and enthusiasts have always battled over Apple, and the skeptics have always made good points. From the iPhone to iPad to the Macbook Air to iTunes, as popular as they now are, there’s always been a solid argument against Jobs. Why did people buy these products, especially at the prices Apple commanded? With each successive release a few analysts have consistently projected failure. And, of late, it hasn’t really come.
It seems to me Jobs’ legacy is, in the end, simple. Or rather, simplicity. Jobs knew that in a global, postindustrial world, people wanted simplicity. The other tech companies had great hardware but clunky software and clunkier design.
Jobs turned this feeling, a feeling many consumers had but could only express in gripes about the newest version of Windows or the difficulty finding MP3s, into a cohesive aesthetic and ethos. From those minimalist ads promising a life free of buttons to the monochrome design of the Apple stores, from the seamless interoperability of Apple products and their spartan designs, Jobs gave middle class consumers a refuge from the ever-intensifying confusion, violence and political instability of the globalized world. This feeling is manifested most pointedly in the bright, light elegance of Apple’s advertisements, which showed us a world where life is easy and manageable, where loved ones, books, movies, music and office work are no more than two clicks away. But it was in everything Jobs touched, even Pixar, whose timeless narratives and perfect images have made it among the most successful studios in history.
At first many people dismissed this as hipsterism. Perhaps early adopters were hip, but maybe they were just paying attention.
Because they weren’t alone, ultimately. The outpouring of emotion today on Twitter, Facebook, etc. indicates Jobs touched a nerve. What else could it be? After all, he wasn’t a rock star or a celebrity. He wasn’t a politician. He was a businessman, and businessmen only become icons after they create desires consumers never knew they had.
I wouldn’t necessarily say all this was a good thing. After all, at a time when most Americans should have been tightening their belts, Jobs managed to entice people to spend exorbitant amounts of money for this fantasy of a clean and connected world. And there were numerous controversies, from the environmental effects of all these smart devices (for which many companies, not just Apple, were culpable) to the labor disputes the company had in Asia.
But it’s remarkable when a person can touch so many people by making objects, not music, or art or films. It’s cause for deep recognition and a tremendous amount of respect.