For the love of technology

By Felix Salmon
October 6, 2011

Why has the death of Steve Jobs caused such a huge outpouring of grief? Mainly, I think, because Jobs had an ability to make very human connections with people. He could do it in a commencement speech which barely mentions technology — but his greatest achievement was to do it with technology itself.

In the speech, Jobs talks about how and why the Macintosh shipped with multiple proportionally spaced fonts. From his perspective, that was a matter of good design — part and parcel with his obsession over power buttons and USB ports. But something unprecedented happened when Apple’s beautifully-designed technology fell into the hands of humans: the humans loved it. Literally.

Other companies, once in a blue moon, make a much-admired piece of technology — the HP 12c, say, or the Nokia 3310. But from the day that Apple decided to literally put a smiley face on its computers every time they booted up, real people started treating its products as they would loved ones.

If you look at Steve’s introduction of the iMac, in 1998, he quite explicitly compares the sultry curves of his gorgeous new computer to the unlovable beige boxes being sold by the competition. In many ways, the original iMac and the original iPod are the true iconic Apple products — built at human scale, with human curves, and displaying what can only be called personality.

imac-medres.jpg original-ipod.jpg

These products came out after Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to take the helm as CEO for the second time. In the interim, he founded Pixar — probably the ultimate marriage of technology, humanity, and emotion. And I can’t help but look at the iMac and the iPhone and see something very Pixar in both of them.

In recent years, Apple products have become silvery, and harder-edged; the colorful logo has given way to a simple white one, and the iPhone 4, in particular, is quite a forbidding slab. I don’t think anybody loves their iPhone 4 in the way that people loved that original iPod; Apple is more successful than ever, but I do fear that it has lost some of its humanity along the way. In any event, it was Steve Jobs who, almost single-handedly, turned personal technology into personal technology. Which is a truly astonishing legacy to leave.

5 comments

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“but his greatest achievement was to do it with technology itself”

Uh, no. You got it right later–it’s the =design= (“personality”), not the tech, that developed AAPL loyalty and the attendant excessive rents received.

The early Macs look more like a television console (think Zenith) than the Rosie the Robot (Jetsons) appearance of the old Word Processors and early PCs.

While I’m still not crazy about integration of screen and computer, it looks like something that belongs in the household, in the way that a desktop computer never did (or, to be honest, does). They’re closer to toasters than Univacs.

There is a continuing effort to minimize Steve Wozniak’s early contributions. Part of that is deserved; the AAPL tech wasn’t that much different, given the uses to which the machines were/are put. But making them =look= more like appliances than “technology” is what spurred the loyalty.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

Well that and of course the seminal Zoolander scene, and Kubrick 2001 homage, played to perfection by Derek, Hansel and an orange iMac.

Posted by TinyTim1 | Report as abusive

Whoa! I don’t believe I’m the only one who thinks that the original iMac was, and is, an ugly little piece of crap. At best, you might say that it’s retro cute in the same way that a VW Beetle is retro cute, but even that’s a stretch.

And that hockey-puck mouse? What an incredibly bad idea that was obvious the first time you grabbed it and didn’t know which way was “up”. You moved the mouse to the right, and your cursor went down. Or up. Or even to the left. And that was wired. Imagine how bad it would have been had the mouse been wireless?

Steve understood the importance of aesthetics to user experience more than anyone else in the industry. That doesn’t mean he always got the aesthetics right.

Posted by RickSchaut | Report as abusive

Steve jobs was a visionary who challenged orthodoxy and as a result moved the technology world forward a generation or more. Not all people will have bought Apple hardware, but most will have used his ideas as copied by competitors in catch-up mode.

Innovations such as using a mouse with a computer for instance; being used as a template for nearly every version of Windows that has launched; first mass-market use of a colour monitor on a desktop computer; popularising the use of digital music with an easy to use player; putting the computer inside the monitor to save space, wires and clutter; making smartphones easy enough to use that their market share grew exponentially; bringing tablet computing into the mainstream; turning square box computers into products suitable for the lounge.

@RickShaut
When you put an original iMac next to a beige box and monitor it is clear which one is the boring one. Judging old computers against modern kit isn’t helpful – unless like most PCs the old 1995 ATX design is still in use.

Concentrating on any one Apple product misses the point – Steve Jobs oversaw a stream of amazing products that for the first time made technology user friendly, something other system writers seem unable to do quite so well. He will be missed, but will always be remembered.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

@Fifth

“When you put an original iMac next to a beige box and monitor it is clear which one is the boring one.”

True, but we’re talking about beauty, not boring. A striped shirt over checked pants isn’t boring either.

I think there are far better iconic examples of Apple’s aesthetics than the original iMac, including the original Mac itself. More often than not, Steve’s aesthetics were spot on. I just don’t thin the iMac is one of those instances.

Posted by RickSchaut | Report as abusive