Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An epitaph

Truly, Steve Jobs was the perfect media figure for our times.

Telegenic and persuasive in person, with no qualms about spending money and encouraging others to do likewise. And in death, he's attracted ridiculous eulogies from the usual suspects (Stephen Fry, I'm looking at you) and equally ridiculous vitriol from others. So far his death has, if anything, slightly improved his already uncanny ability to sell pageviews.

I have little time for either the Frys or the Stallmans of this world. But I do have considerable respect for the Jobses.

Thanks to my technophile family, I came early to personal computers. The first machine I played with, in 1979, was a clunky toy that took five minutes to boot, and longer to load any program. It seemed improbable to me, back then, that desktop computers would ever be much more than toys. Certainly I never entertained the idea that they would one day make the television obsolete.

In the 1980s I studied engineering, I met people who could, more or less literally, make computers sing. But most of them, like me, suffered from a chronic inability to finish what they started: once you've solved the "interesting" part of the problem, they'd sneer, the rest is "merely packaging".

And that's where Jobs excelled. He recognised that there's nothing "mere" about packaging; on the contrary, it's the hardest and most important single step in product creation. You can spend decades developing and refining your product, but as long as you treat usability as "mere", you're still going to be stuck with the rump of users who are motivated to learn how your product works.

But Apple products, now... people actually want to learn them.

It seems to me that, when all is said and done, what Jobs did was to focus attention on the user: on what we want to do with computers, and helping us to do that. Jobs showed that you could design technology that people would use and enjoy using - and you could make money doing it.

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