Magic from a Man: Steve Jobs
As I walked back to my room alone on the night of Oct. 5, my iPhone’s tiny screen, clutched between my hands, lit up the darkness. It was through that screen Steve Jobs had invented that I learned of his death. As a technology geek who has followed Apple almost religiously (and bought their products in a similar fashion), I knew that the world had lost one of its greatest flames.
I was more surprised, however, that so many the world-over also felt such loss at Jobs’s death. Roommates who never cared about technology shared their sorrow with me; sad blog posts and Facebook statuses filled the Internet; flowers and notes of condolence were pasted to the glass walls of Apple stores from Manhattan to Shanghai. In a way that no other head of state, celebrity, or CEO could do, the man that few people really knew seemed to touch the lives of nearly everyone.
Although everyone has his or her own reason for admiring Jobs, the biggest reason for his widespread popularity and influence was that he was the ultimate advocate for the modern consumer. In a time when many companies emphasize profits and not customers, by focusing on aesthetics, affordable price points, and perfection in accessibility, Jobs changed the technology industry to fit what consumers—not executives or engineers—wanted. That is why we loved him.
From the beginning of Silicon Valley, when computers were ugly and “designed strictly by engineers,” as former Apple vice-president Donald Norman remembers, “the Apple II had some charm to it. It was the first personal computer that had professional industrial designers.” With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple continued that legacy of making products that were not just functional, but beautiful: products that consumers want to use and to be seen using. Unlike those of other technology companies, 25 percent of Apple products were inducted into the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the museum, recalls that the beauty of her first Mac made it special and more than just a computer: “I took it out of that brown, padded carrying case with the rainbow-colored Apple logo,” she said. “It wasn’t just something I worked with; it kept me company. It had such personality and such life.”
My fondest memories of Jobs’s keynotes—and the moments that certainly garnered the most applause—were the moments after all the magic of the new product had been revealed. “Now, this product used to cost $X,” Jobs would say. “But we think we can do better than that.” The old price would be smashed away on-screen, revealing the new accessibly low price-point. Most famously, he negotiated a 99-cent-per-song price for iTunes music that forever made it cheaper for consumers to purchase music digitally compared to purchasing entire physical albums, which was the established business model. At his last keynote speech in June 2011, he unveiled iCloud, a no-hassle wireless synching software, explaining that he had decided to make it completely free because he wanted all users to take advantage of it. Jobs made it possible for consumers to share in his magic.
Beyond making his product’s prices accessible, Jobs worked tirelessly to simplify and streamline the user experience. He was famous for the phrase “It just works,” and he was obsessive about making sure there was no hassle for consumers. Perhaps most famously, only six weeks before the original iPhone was to be announced, Jobs ordered engineers to change drastically the design of the phone, converting the screens from plastic to glass. Although from an engineering standpoint plastic was less fragile and easier to make, Job’s “instinct went the other way,” as he insisted that plastic touch screens, prone to scratches, would irritate users and be seen as a design flaw. Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive summed up Jobs’s philosophy: “Never cut corners and make sure the customer gets an experience that is an absolute delight.”
Since his death, some have decided to deify Jobs for his long list of innovations and influences. This is not the reason, however, that he should be remembered. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, he said that “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Steve Jobs was a mortal man who lived every day knowing he would die, and that gave him the courage to challenge the way business was run so that consumers worldwide could share in the magic of cutting-edge technology that he loved. His famous commercials encouraged us to “think differently”—and he ought to be remembered because he did.
Jason A. Gandelman ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.