The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs passed away yesterday. There are probably few people in at least the western world who don’t know that. Like many thousand of other bloggers, I’m left pondering the Jobs legacy.

Like many of those thousands of bloggers, much of what has happened in my career (at least the good parts), may not have happened if it weren’t for Apple and the philosophy of the Macintosh and subsequent products. Note that I said the philosophy. It wasn’t really about the machines per se. Although they are a fitting tribute to Jobs’ creativity and approach to life, that isn’t where his real legacy lies.

In the mid 90’s, the San Diego biotech world underwent a dramatic shift. What had been a predominantly Macintosh world was lured into the Novell/Lotus/Microsoft realm. While short term hardware costs were reduced, to this day I’m not convinced that the loss in productivity that accompanied this change was ever offset by the short term cost savings. Such is life in the modern business era. Shortsightedness is the mantra, even if it’s not intentionally so. I, unfortunately, had to go along for the ride. At least part of the ride. I kept a Mac for a number of years, as the core systems of the department I had created were running on an Apple server. The tool I used, 4D provided what was, I believe, the first truly, and easily cross-platform development environments. You could host the solution on a PC or a Mac, and serve it to either platform. 4D, of course, was significantly influenced by Apple back in the day – even hoping to become the database standard for the platform. It was that influence, I think, that allowed 4D to be such a powerful tool in the hands of entrepreneurs. With little budget, and no full time developers, you could put in place extremely powerful solutions.

So that brings me back to the philosophy thing. Apple has long been about aesthetics. Steve, in his commencement address to Stanford, told the story of how his “dropping in” on a calligraphy class ultimately led to the beautiful typography we have on personal computers and other devices today. As any of those who lived in the command line world of DOS, the switch to a pleasing interface, especially for the non-techie folks, had a massive impact on how people worked. For the first time it felt as if the computer was a tool meant to empower the user – not a task master under who’s control we slaved. That is where the real legacy comes. The entire mindset that computers must truly benefit us in order to be valuable. That means that they must be intuitive, in the words of Steve Jobs, they should “just work.” In the words of a book on interface design I’m reading, “don’t make me think.” My job is primarily not about computers per se. In the early years of my career, my job technically had nothing to do with computers. My brain power needed to be focused on solving business challenges. Every second spent trying to figure out how to make the &@!*& computer work was a waste of time.

This same is true of most business people. To the degree that developers of software and hardware follow this philosophy, their customers benefit, and they will succeed. To the degree that they don’t… This has been true of Apple, as well as others. In the field that I’ve predominantly been involved with for the past 10 years or so, that of LIMS, I’ve seen many shifts in the top product. The previous front runner didn’t go away, they just failed to follow this basic philosophy, and fell to the back of the pack. Ultimately they end up acquired by someone else. It will happen again, and again, until somebody finally gets it.

The legacy that Steve leaves us, and the challenge as well, is to continue to make computer technology a thing that benefits mankind. It serves no purpose on it’s own, and that is something Steve, I think, would want us to remember.

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