Friday, October 07, 2011

There's a difference between changing the world and selling it toys

Saw a Tweet yesterday which read:
"They're leaving flowers outside the Apple Store. What has happened to us?"
Couldn't help but sympathise. Steven Spielberg described Steve Jobs as "the greatest inventor since Edison", which can't be right. What about the airplane? The rocket to the moon? The technology which enables keyhole surgery? Antibiotics?

More to the point in Steve Jobs' case, he probably wouldn't have claimed to have invented the personal computer or MP3 player, the products with which he's most associated. He was a man who had a genius for perfecting such products and then marketing them. However nobody mourns a brilliant marketeer.

Did he "change the world", as all and sundry were claiming yesterday? You could say that he was a brilliant maker of toys. That's not to diminish him or the sense of loss of those around him. I've got all his toys and I love them.  But I do worry what our possession of these toys may be doing to our sense of proportion.

Another Tweet I saw yesterday came from Richard Coles.
"William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English that ploughboys might be as learned as bishops - burned for his trouble on this day."
Now William Tyndale. There's a man who did change the world. Got no thanks for it either.


  1. I think I tend to disagree. The iPad has definitely changed my children's lives for the better. (4 and 2). Every morning they have so much fun playing on it together and interacting with it. In contrast they've never been on an aeroplane. It's often the little things that are closer to home that really make a difference.

    People worry the iPad is killing kids' books. They're wrong - it's giving them a better, more interactive and engaging alternative to passive TV watching.

    Graham Barlow,
    Editor-in-Chief MacFormat magazine

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  3. Did children aged 4 and 2 not have fun playing together and interacting in ye olden days before the iPad? Hardly world-changing...

  4. Mr. Hepworth, I feel you misunderstand Steve Job's role at Apple and the company's contribution to cultural and technological change.

    Apple has created transformative tools. Alongside Microsoft and IBM, they are instrumental among the companies responsible for the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society.

    It was not the first company to create a home computer with a graphic interface - but of those pioneers it is the only company still making new machines and selling them in volume. And that's because it consistently made machines that innovated - and that changed the way we work.

    Apple's contributions to technological change are legion. Some are small, some large. But to pick one you'll have a great deal of experience with, it began the revolution that has completely transformed the way magazines are produced and published.

    In the early 90s, it was the combination of Aldus Pagemaker and Mac OS and personal computers with colour screens (when PCs were still running DOS) that changed desktop publishing, then changed your industry.

    I would argue that the era of digital publishing is as democratising as the publication of Tyndale's bible.

    You are right to say Jobs was not an inventor. These changes may have happened without him - but they would have happened more slowly and with less elegance. He was a brilliant facilitator at Apple. He made the right deals and decisions. He was their quality assurance. He was their vision. The praise is both proportionate and well deserved. He did change the world.

    Karl Hodge,
    Journalist and Lecturer

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  6. Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the world to the idea that we could take home a personal computer. To suggest the world hasn't been changed by the impetus that generated is implausible.

    Further, Jobs' creations have bookended the personal computer era. Not only did he introduce the personal computer to us, he introduced us to a whole new category of devices that make it no longer necessary to have a general purpose computer in the home to benefit from all its promise.

    Richard D Jordan

  7. Jobs presided over three computing revolutions over three decades - the personal computer, the graphical interface, and the touch screen. Without his vision, each of those would have taken many more years to come to fruition.

    And he also found time to turn an obscure computer graphics company into a Hollywood giant.

    An amazing life.

  8. I am slightly worried that the editor in chief of tech magazine thinks you have to physically use a technology for it to change your life. How the heck did your iPad get to your housee most likely by air freight, as did the some of the food etc your kids munch while staring at the thing.
    Outside the bubble of precious western media types and their well off audience cheap mobile phones and computers are changing the world although most of them won't be made by Apple

  9. Dear David,

    The technology side of your argument is, to an extent, debatable. Personally I'd say that the way Jobs helped instigate not only the industry but also its commercialisation fundamentally changed the game. After Jobs people didn't just know they COULD get a personal computer, mp3 player or smartphone - they actively desired them. As a result of that, what we have now is a technology industry that is constantly innovating in markets that previously it might never have considered. Take the iPad for example; before its launch tablets were a barely viable product, now Apple are onto the iPad2 and everyone else is still trying to catch up. Jobs helped create consumer appetites that people didn't even know they had and in turn, changed the way they consumed technology.

    However, that wasn't intended to be the substance of my argument. What I'd say was without question an unprecedented innovation was Apple's development of iTunes and the company's ability to target consumers of media products. With iTunes, Apple completely altered the way most of us store, listen and ultimately aquired music, films or tv. The effect it's had on the way companies both produce and market their artists and products has been massive and, whether for better or worse (a completely separate debate) is now irreversible. With a programme like iTunes now able to market products directly targeted to your previous acquisitions, form playlists based on your preferences and subsequently communicate them over a social media network like facebook, Apple irrevocably and simultaneously transformed the ideas of what and how technology and multimedia should do.

    As Karl Hodge has already observed, Steve Jobs may not have been the only man of effecting thses changes but he was certainly the man who did. What's more he managed them with what Karl quite rightly termed 'elegance'. I'm not an apple fanatic by the by, I own one macbook it's served me for 3years and that's about it. However, the changes Jobs initiated set him apart as a leader of an industry that could not be ignored. Whether those changes would have taken place with or without him is a moot point; the lightbulb might have been invented without Edison and the bible translated without Tyndale but ultimately those were the people who did do it. It may be that Steve Jobs' overall impact will only become clear in the focus of hindsight but what is certain is that even now his impact has been unique. Even allowing for the fanatics, the sheer number of those mourning his passing should be evidence of this enough.


  10. Anyone who doubts that Jobs was a visionary should watch this video of him at Q&A session for Apple developers in 1997. They're worrying about the problems of the day - he's offering a vision of tomorrow. You can see everything Apple has done over the last decade prefigured in his answers.

  11. I don't think the music industry is entirely happy with what Apple did with the ipod. The effect of it seems to be keep the price of music low while charging a high price for the equipment.

    Steve Jobs and Apple was certainly pioneers of the personal computer and influenced subsequent pcs. To stay at the forefront of computer technology since then is quite an achievement.

  12. Jobs (and those who worked for him) changed the world. That much seems unarguable. Whether or not it was for the better depends on your point of view. I happen to think it was; I've been a happy user of all kinds of Apple kit for nearly 20 years, and I've never been remotely tempted to go for any of the (frequently substandard) alternatives. More to the point, it's hard to imagine a worlds without iPods, Pads, Phones etc etc.

    Having said which, leaving flowers outside shops is idiotic and people who do it should be given a sharp smack. Then again, it's worth asking why it's happening. I dare say nobody would leave flowers outside Tesco if the CEO suddenly popped his clogs. Clearly these people feel a sense of loss (that we have to presume is genuine) of someone who matters to them.

  13. I think most people agree with the general sentiment towards what Steve Jobs accomplished, and his influence over how we regard/view/consume all manner of things in our daily lives. But I think what's more interesting, and maybe more pertinent, is what people consider 'changing the world' to be.

    It seems to me that changing the world changes with the zeitgeist, and what people feel is important in their lives, which, as we all know, has tended towards more material objects. I'm not much different (I just ordered a new iPhone only yesterday), but I think the outpouring towards Steve Jobs says as much about what we value as it does about what he did, and also the modern tendency towards charismatic personalities.

    Changed THE world, I don't think so. Changed OUR world, most certainly. I just think they're two different things.

  14. Given that Edison's entire career was about being first to the patent office, Spielberg's comparison is apt. That a genius like Tesla died poor and alone, and that Tyndale burned shows us that world is certainly not a just place.
    The best promoters of themselves and those who know how to commodify ideas (not necessarily their own ideas but ideas in general) are the people our society seems to gravitate towards and put up on a pedestal.
    Loss of life is always, always sad. Yes, Jobs did a lot to contribute to our current culture but I agree with you, we should be careful to conflate this as making the world a better place. Beautiful toys alone do not make a beautiful world.

  15. @Giulia Forsythe: 'Beautiful toys alone do not make a beautiful world'

    Given the number of airline pilots now using iPads in the cockpit (officially, I mean, not to play Angry Birds on), it's probably a bit wide of the mark to describe them as beautiful toys!

  16. Tee hee the lengths we go to to justify our toys " yep this the same iPad as used by airline pilots you know, yes generally I use it to watch treme while our lass and the kids are watching xfactor but if I chose to I could do the prefight checks on an airbus on it..."
    The light bulb means most of the world aren't tied to the daily patterns of the sun, the ipod made carrying music around which the walkman had already pionnered a little bit easier and more elegant.

  17. So you think that toys never change the world? Interesting. The Internet started on one of his machines. Is that a toy too? You're writing this on a machine that has his dna all over it. Shall we consider that toylike too? The 'He didn't do anything really' comments were obvious to all that they would come. 'There goes a bandwagon, let's jump'.

  18. I liked this account which places Jobs in the context of a sixties America, and how much it has changed now:

  19. Jobs was an entrepreneur with drive and vision who produced some innovative products which enabled a lot of people to do a lot of things differently. That may not add up to changing the world but it's a bigger impact than 99.9% of people make.

  20. Here is my "trivial" homage to Steve Jobs:

  21. Apple invented the first computer user interface with windows, icons, menus and pointers (known as WIMP). When Microsoft released Windows 3/.1 a couple of years later it resulted in a lawsuit that lasted some 20-odd years and an out-of-court settlement somewhere in the hundred-million mark.
    And you still think Jobs had no effect on the world?

  22. Apple did not invent the first computer interface!

    Everything is a remix.