On Steve Jobs and the Future

Tonight I got home from a long day at work, still a little befuddled about the news of Steve Job's passing, put some music on and started writing this post. Let me explain why this is significant. To begin writing, I picked up a MacBook Air off the couch, opened it up, and within about 5 seconds I was clicking around in Blogger. 5 seconds and it's ready to go! To put on music, I slipped my iPad out of my bag and fired up some tunes. The album was purchased from an iPhone via the iTunes store, the largest music store in the world. iCloud pushed these purchased songs to my PC and added them to my iTunes library without any intervention on my part. This iPad controls iTunes on the PC, pushing the music to various Airport Expresses and an Apple TV. For the simple act of relaxing at the end of the day to do some writing and kick back to some tunes, Steve managed to make this complicated scenario happen so easily I didn't even need to think about it. This may not seem like a big deal, but the enabling technologies for this have had a profound impact on our daily lives, and not just for music.

I never was an Apple guy. I've been building and over clocking my own PCs for about 7 years and have never even owned an iPod. Now look at me, nearly my entire personal digital life is run by Apple devices. Is this because of rabid fanboyism? Nope. I liken my rabid adoption of Apple products to the reason I drive a Prius. I don't think I'm saving the environment; far from it, that thing has a super nasty battery that's going to need disposing of. I drive it because that's the way I think a car should be designed. It looks like it does primarily for low drag and has nearly the lowest drag coefficient on the road. Regenerative braking makes sense; why are you other morons just throwing all that kinetic energy away?! Turning the engine off when stopped makes sense. All these other cars are boring (well, at least the ones that I can afford); I prefer to have one that is interesting from an engineering standpoint. That said, I don't like Apple products blindly, I like them because they're extremely innovative. They define and create markets for things we didn't even know we wanted. They simplify and greatly enrich many aspects of my life. And as an electronics engineer, I can't get enough of that kind of technology. This is why most everyone else loves these things; they improve the quality of your life by making things simpler and more enjoyable.

Famously, Steve was presented with the enabling technologies for for a touchscreen display with their ubiquitous scrolling features. 

"I thought, 'My God we can build a phone out of this'"
                                                                         - Steve Jobs

They did, and it changed everything. You can thank the original iPhone for the slew of Android smartphones on the market today. Smartphones existed before iPhone, but nobody cared. They were bulky, hot, and had crappy UIs. Apple's new phone was minimalistic and focused on the most important aspect of these devices that is frustratingly still overlooked today by their competitors: the user experience. Until this device, everyone else had gotten it wrong. The original iPhone looked good, the graphics were buttery smooth, it was shockingly responsive to touch in a way no other device was, and it was stupid simple to use. It completely redefined the smartphone market and spurred tons of innovation in the marketplace as other manufacturers scrambled to compete. Without Steve's vision for the iPhone, where the heck would we be? What would have made these other companies finally stop making Razr's and try to make something awesome? Where else would this innovation spark have come from? Who knows.

Then there was the iPad. Today, over a year and a half after it launched, people don't want tablets; They want iPads. Here is a market that was completely dead. Before the original iPad, manufacturer after manufacturer would try to cram a desktop OS on a big, bulky tablet with a horrible resistive touch screen. They were terrible, luckily the irritating experience was cut short by battery life of only a few hours. And just like what happened in the smartphone market, suddenly the rest of the industry starts getting 'innovative'. The first CES after the iPad was announced was LOADED with new tablets. And guess what, nobody has been able to touch the iPad in either user experience or hardware. The only one that comes close is by Samsung, but it's already too late. Over 70% of the market is swallowed up by iPad sales, the rest get to play catch-up in that remaining 30%. The market is now flooded with tablets, but nobody can differentiate themselves from the iPad. It'll be interesting to see how the newly announced Amazon Kindle Fire will do, due to it's extreme price differentiation (only $199!) and brand reputation. But even that device can only compete on price, nobody else can touch Apple's hardware and user experience.

Two year ago people didn't even know why they wanted a tablet. Even the tech community was skeptical when the original iPad was announced. Steve made this case for needing a third device between your smartphone and your computer. Nobody got it, why would you need that? The answer: Instant on, portability, and usability. Nobody understood the convenience of having this little slate that's always on and ready to go. And now, you can reach over, pull this thing out of the couch cushions and browse the web, watch a movie, or video chat with someone all in the blink of an eye. It's really quite amazing when you think about it. Apple saw that. Steve saw that. Nobody else saw that.

Although right now this appears a little under the radar, the MacBook Air is changing the laptop market. Several years ago, people stopped buying desktops and started buying laptops instead. Then there was this horrible race to the bottom where they became cheap piece of junk. Netbooks popped up then, as a laptop alternative for just a couple hundred bucks. Sounds good right? Well netbooks died out because as it turns out, people don't want a slow, tiny, piece of junk. The MacBook Air hits a $999 sweet spot in the market, right in between where the super cheap netbooks were at and where the $1500 mainstream laptops of a couple years ago live. They're super light, super fast, and easily the nicest pieces of laptop hardware I've ever used. Take a look at all the laptops that will be released soon by other manufacturers. They're all 'ultra books', aka super light and fast laptops. Intel is pushing new chips for them as well. Just like iPhone and iPad, here come the flood of MacBook air wannabes.

Now think about how smartphones have affected our lives. In my particular demographic, most everyone has a smartphone and they're on these things all the time. It's to the point where folk's dumbphones become novelties and topics of conversation. Through these devices we stay extremely connected via direct communications and via social networks. Check-ins, photo uploads, status updates - They all enrich our social lives. How many times have you checked in somewhere only to be notified that another friend happens to be down the street? It happens to me all the time, and it's great. These technologies allow us to passively keep up with far more people than we could actively, and I think that's very valuable. They let us share much our lives in an extremely fast and convenient way and keep us connected.

So where does this leave us? It's not just the products that have been developed, it's the way that they've affected our lives that's important. We need more new things like this to keep marching forward. Apple, under Steve's vision and guidance, has been dropping game changer after game changer into the consumer electronics industry. All the other manufacturers seem to be playing catch up. While still important, all these competing products still aren't getting us closer to the game changers, they're just more of the same trying desperately to differentiate themselves. 

Who leads us from here? There are so many companies out there that make beautiful hardware, and many that can write great software, but which company or individual is going to be able to point the entire industry down the path of progress and innovation? Who's going to see past trying to cram more RAM in a smartphone and come up with something that truly improves our day to day lives? It's tiring to watch the continuous parade of Android phones being released every week. They're all basically the same. There's nothing wrong with that, but that's not the future. That's the present, and Apple brought us here. 

Thanks for taking us here Steve, you truly changed everything. You once said,

"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."     
                                                                                           ...Who's going to show us now?