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Steve Jobs: Bringing Technology to the Masses

The last few days have been a whirlwind — of tributes, of thoughts, of emotions — and I’ve started writing this, in my head, a dozen times. As a part-time journalist who has covered Apple and the Mac industry for over two decades, I suppose I could feel “entitled” to write a remembrance on the occasion of Steve Jobs’s death. I’ve even been within a few feet of the man, first when he visited the Cornell University campus to show off his new NeXT computer and again at various Macworld Expos and WWDCs. But on reflection, I’ve realized just how pervasive Steve Jobs and his works have been in my life.

Unlike some of the folks whose thoughts I’ve read lately, my first computer wasn’t an Apple — it was an Atari 400. Before long, though, I was using Apple ][s at school, at friends’ houses, and at camp. I played, I wrote, I programmed, and I fiddled.

My own first Apple product was a 512K Macintosh, purchased freshman year at Cornell when I learned my computer science classes would require programming a Mac. I didn’t remain a computer science major for long, but what was unquestionably the turning point in my life came that winter when a Cornell professor asked me a question one day.

“Can you program the Mac?”

Now, I’m not really a programmer. But even in 1986, programming the Mac to do great things was so rational, so easy, that I could fake it pretty well!

Before long, I’d gone from programming to Mac-focused technical support, and while the details change every few years, my whole career has been about helping people make the most of the world around them using technology. It didn’t take me long to realize after Steve Jobs’s death: so was his.

Right from the beginning, when the Apple ][ was the first viable productivity computer for the masses, the arc of Jobs’s career has been about making technology accessible to the public. (Considering how long we’ve been writing about Macs, it’s a little alarming to realize how few years separated the introductions of the very first Apple ][ and the first Macintosh.)

Over the last few days, we’ve certainly heard from the detractors, who feel Jobs and Apple have corrupted or irreparably damaged any number of industries, though most have been respectfully muted in their criticisms. But music industry insiders who hate the drop-off in compact disc sales are balanced by industry players and performers who love being able to sell 99-cent songs with little overhead. Photo labs struggling in the wake of film’s decline are making money as digital photographers order prints from iPhoto. Software developers grumbling about the increasing control Apple wants over the developer ecosystem are balanced by those discovering an unexpected source of considerable revenue. Magazine publishers who wish subscriber revenue weren’t cannibalized by Web site freeloaders are just beginning to appreciate a new paying audience on the iPad.

The common theme here is that Apple, under the renewed stewardship of a Steve Jobs who returned from NeXT and Pixar with hard-won wisdom and drive, has been successful while simultaneously helping consumers do great things with content and helping an impressive variety of industries profit from it.

Will the grumbling continue? Of course, and while some is certainly warranted, we also must appreciate that every sea change claims victims, whether it’s farriers suffering as horses were replaced by cars, lamp oil companies losing out as everyone moved to electric lighting, or, soon, cellular carriers watching text-message revenues decline as iMessage helps us bypass artificially expensive SMS text messages.

What will Apple accomplish next? We can just barely begin to imagine the evolutionary items in the pipeline that Steve Jobs himself had a hand in, never mind the revolutionary ones that will arise from the environment he fostered.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the computer, the Internet, or the mobile phone. He just helped make them worth using. What’s next? We’ll see.

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