Why Steve Jobs mattered

They said he had a Messiah complex. He was decried as an erratic manager and a control freak. He was pushed out of the company he founded. Seems the only thing Steve Jobs could get right was to be right. Every time.

In the event you've been under a rock, or haven't read a newspaper – for it was on the front page of every newspaper of national or international significance – Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs passed away on Oct. 5 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. The tributes from the industry and the business world were unequivocal, despite the rumblings of resentment that dogged him much of his professional career. We have lost a genius, a visionary (and, according to satirical news source The Onion, “The only man in America who knew what the f— he was doing”).

He spent less than a semester at university. He reputedly screwed soon-to-be-business-partner Steve Wozniak out of the better part of a bonus for reducing the footprint of circuit boards for video game maker Atari. I don't believe it, myself, but if it's true, the fact that he and Wozniak launched a business selling computer kits together speaks volumes.

He changed the face of computing numerous times – the Macintosh in 1984, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad – and his products were so dominant in their markets that they often became synonymous with the markets they dominated. How many people called their MP3 players “iPods,” regardless of make or model? When Research in Motion Ltd. launched its PlayBook, it was described as “an iPad-like device” in the press.

How? Why, when he passed at 56, did, as one wag put it, every Apple user act like his father had died?

One crucial clue: When he announced the feverishly awaited iPhone in 2007, he also announce that Apple Computer Inc. was dropping the word “Computer” from its name. In the 80s, he aspired to making the computer an appliance, no more intimidating than a toaster. His later work – though designers and engineers also deserve the credit – were masterpieces of usability, created in ecosystems like iTunes and the App Store, that put intuitiveness and ease-of-use first. He was adamant that elegance was necessary, and that there was elegance in simplicity. (And perfection. An imperfect product was going nowhere under his watch.)

This is the challenge that faces the industry, from software and hardware vendors to developers working on an in-house application. Make it work for the user, don't make the user work for the technology. Innovation is not about pulling something off; it's about pulling something off that makes the experience easier for the user, that's seamless, that's part of the work day, not a portion set aside for “computer work.”

His philosophy, really, was simple. Put the user first. Be epic. Make it right. Follow your instincts. It's better, he once famously said, to be a pirate than to join the navy.

We've lost an invaluable pirate. Let's take up the Jolly Roger.

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