The outpouring of appreciation for Apple cofounder Steven Jobs, who passed away this week, has surpassed levels typically reserved for presidents or popes.
Millions of lives have been touched by his sense of design and engineering acumen.
Desktop computers with dark green screens and commands entered at the keyboard gave way to mice and a point-and-click graphical screen better adapted to humans than cyborgs.
IN PICTURES: Remembering Steve Jobs
IPods packed centuries of music into a simple-to-use device not much bigger than few credit cards.
And the lowly cell phone – once a brick with shoulder straps, antenna, and handset – became a slender pocket-size phone/camera/computer that would make Star Trek’s Captain Kirk chuck his tricorder in the trash. Need to analyze the mineral composition of a rock you’ve just picked up? Yep, there’s an app for that – or soon will be.
Not one to conduct market surveys in advance of a new product, Jobs and cofounder Steve Wozniak consistently designed hardware to please themselves. And it worked.
“The richest vein for tech startups is creating the product that you want to use – that’s what Steve and Woz did,” writes Guy Kawasaki in an appreciation on CNET.com.
Mr. Kawasaki served as a self-describe “evangelist” at Apple in the heyday of the Macintosh computer, targeting hardware and software developers as the company tried to loosen IBM’s grip on the early desktop computer market.
But even as the remembrances and kudos came this week, others were cautioning against overstating Jobs’s contributions. They noted that while his genius was unquestionable, it’s unclear that he will be seen in the same light as a Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, or Henry Ford.
Apple’s innovations made personal computers fun and easier to use, writes Rick Newman, chief business correspondent with US News and World Report.
But it’s unlikely the company’s products have had the socially far-reaching effects of automobiles, light bulbs, and aircraft. Edison’s novel bulbs, he writes, “ushered in sweeping second- and third-order changes” that included safer homes (fewer fires from candles, oil, or gas lamps) and improved working conditions in factories. With the cheap automobile came suburbs and interstate highways. Aircraft literally shrank the world.
Jobs’s influence, Newman suggests, was in “showing his utilitarian competitors how to devise an artful user interface, which usually trickles down to cheaper generic devices once Apple has moved on to version 4 or 5.”
The accolades and cautions highlight the fuzzy line between inventor and innovator. The invention – a light bulb – can be immediately transformative. Or it might languish, its potential unrealized, until the innovator comes along with the vision to see that potential, and the imagination and marketing savvy to modify it and popularize it.
Some ask at what cost.
Writing in the New York Times, author Michael Daisey holds that the young rebels Jobs and Wozniak of the mid-1970s would likely be taken aback by the Apple of 2011.
“Users cannot install programs themselves; they are downloaded from Apple’s servers, which Apple controls and curates, choosing at its whim what can and can’t be distributed, and where anything can be censored with little or no explanation,” he writes.
And while Apple computers once were manufactured in the US, he continues, the company’s products are made in China “under appalling labor conditions.”
Still, Jobs pulled off something rare in the history of business, US News’s Newman suggests: producing products, proffering ideas, and presenting a persona that people actually loved.
“He leaves a vast army of Apple acolytes who may propel his ideas to heights beyond Jobs’s own reach,” he writes.