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Pondering Steve Jobs' legacy

Computer scientist Eugene Fiume weighs in

The late Steve Jobs helped revolutionize the computer industry. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

The death of Steve Jobs left many people reflecting on the history of computing—and wondering about its future. Writer Jenny Hall spoke to Eugene Fiume on the legacy Jobs left. Fiume is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and co-director of the Dynamic Graphics Project. In addition to numerous research accomplishments, he has long been active in the digital media industry in the U.S. and Canada.

What is the legacy of Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs can be seen as a guy who, sometimes through sheer willpower, put things together. He’s an integrator. He can be thought of as the ultimate proxy for the everyday consumer, or at least the “cool” consumer. At Apple he drove the company toward a synthesis of form and function in all its products, including mice and keyboards, that changed the industry.

It’s really hard to put together what otherwise could come out as clunky, feature-rich technology or beautiful but unusable gadgets. He made the case to people for extremely well-engineered products that would fit in their hands, their homes and their lives. If I were to focus on one thing, it would be that he brought usability to the forefront in the design of products, and he was able to recruit an outstanding designer, Jonathan Ive, to explore the forms that have become the look of Apple products.

Do we credit him with bringing the concept of a personal computer to the fore?

I wouldn’t go that far, as that would understate the huge impact of Radio Shack, Atari and Commodore in early days. However, he created a culture of industrial design for computers that allowed them to be prominent in our homes. He also helped to create a culture for the creative use of computers. But if you think of the PCs in the 1980s, the early Apple products were truly innovative. The Apple II was legendary. It never had a huge market share, but it changed things and everyone had to react to it. Likewise, the Lisa and subsequently the Macintosh synthesized the graphical user interface and high-resolution display. These technologies were introduced by Xerox PARC, but Jobs and made them the cornerstone of a mass-market computer, especially with the Mac.

People think of Steve Jobs as synonymous with Apple. What was his impact through Pixar?

I see Pixar as one of the more enduring examples of the deep effect Jobs has had on our culture. Pixar existed before Steve Jobs, but it was largely a hardware company. It was in the business of designing computers for the special effects and computer graphics industry. When Jobs bought it they had already started moving toward software development and creative content for movies. They had just entered the business of doing computer animation, and Jobs saw a great opportunity, just as he had when he visited Xerox PARC.  He did what he’s always done. At Apple he created a playground for outstanding industrial designers and technical people to develop electronic devices. At Pixar, with the leadership of Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, it was about bringing together incredibly creative people and techies to do films. He let Catmull and Lasseter create a synthesis of art and technology while Jobs cut the deals with Hollywod. He pushed Disney for a long term film contract, which secured the future of Pixar.  American culture has been deeply changed by Jobs’s influence through Pixar.

What about when Jobs came back to Apple after his time away? This was the era of the iPod, iPhone, and iTunes, wasn’t it?

People often use the word visionary in describing Jobs. In the sense that he seized great opportunities, he was indeed a great visionary. He saw where things had to be. He saw that it was one thing merely to use a clunky device, but for a device to become an integral part of a person’s life, it had to look better, feel better and be more usable. People have very much underestimated this contribution. Before the appearance of these devices it was very difficult to convince companies that usability was important in the business model and life cycle of a product. Along came Steve Jobs, who pushed on usability to an extreme, then ensured that he got the right people to do the work. He didn’t do the designs—he left this to people like Jony Ive. But Jobs nailed it with respect to the promotion of these products once these products were demonstrable. This, by the way, was another innovation of Jobs: he could actually demonstrate his own products in front of thousands if not millions of people.

On the content side, he saw the need, and the opportunity, for a centralized repository for software and media. iTunes has changed the way content is delivered. There have always been many different ways to download software and content—some of them legal, some of them not. What was key to iTunes was the relatively seamless way in which content could be delivered across a wide range of devices. Again, integration is key. So, in addition to “usability” add the word “integration” to a fundamental contribution of Jobs.

I want to go back to something you said earlier, that Jobs was a proxy for everyday consumer. It seemed like he knew what we wanted before we did.

He had a deep conviction about what the “cool consumer” would want. He didn’t have time for focus groups and elicitation of user requirements because he felt that current users would largely prefer reinforcing what already exists rather than what could exist. I cannot help but think that instead he employed a deep well of intuition. Some people attribute it to the 1960s counterculture movement from which he emerged. It’s not entirely clear where it came from, but he seemed to really get this idea of technology with a swagger.

How will Apple fare without his deep well of intuition?

They’ve got huge momentum. I do see a levelling out of the playing field but that’s not because of Jobs; it’s an inevitably of the marketplace. Apple has very rarely been first to market. They’ve usually been second, third or fourth to market, but in the places where they’ve gone, they’ve achieved really good things. It’s hard to even think of a failed Apple product (people often point to the Apple “Newton,” but there likely wouldn’t have been an iPod or iTouch without the Newton). But what happens when there is a clearly perceived leader is that others spring up to the challenge.

The pad market is interesting because it’s not that big yet in terms of the overall PC or laptop market size. It will be interesting to see how much of the laptop market moves to the pad market. The actual penetration of Apple products into the PC and laptop markets is not that big—it’s somewhere in the 10 to 20 per cent range depending on the category. Apple is dominant in the so-far relatively small pad market, though. Other manufacturers are worried about that, not so much in terms of current business but in terms of where things are going for the overall market for electronic devices. Even digital camera manufacturers are concerned. There’s been a groundswell of competition. There aren’t any products that I’ve seen that trump the current iPad just yet, but they’re getting close.

So I see Apple’s influence levelling off, but it’s not about the loss of Steve Jobs.  Apple is a really healthy company with huge cash reserves, and it still has those outstanding people that Jobs pushed so hard. It’s just that the electronic device market inevitably is going to get a lot more interesting. Likewise, several production houses have demonstrated that they can make films that are on par with Pixar. The very imitation that Steve Jobs took advantage of is now serving to level the playing field.