It is so often said that Steve Jobs was a visionary that this sentence is both muscle memory and cliché. Nevertheless, clichés are rooted in truth and Jobs’ legacy was never more apparent than when Apple’s market capitalisation made them the most valuable company in the world.
Having changed the face of home computing in the 1980s and ushered in the post-PC age at the turn of the millenium, The Needlemouse takes a look at the ten most important products and decisions that occurred at Apple under Steve Jobs’ tenure. Let us know what you think of the selection (presented in no particular order) in the comments.
10: Attacking the clones
Upon Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997, one of his first moves was to end the Apple-sanctioned clone market. Whilst previously it had been thought that these would expand market share for Apple, the reality was that cannibalization of already meagre sales was taking place. The move to end the clone market may seem like a small, yet obvious, decision, however, it was the first step on the road to the company’s vertical integration we see today that has allowed Apple to dictate the markets it now dominates.
9: MacBook Air
The modern technology market is characterized by fragmentation, be it between corporate and consumer markets, or devices designed either for content creation or content consumption. Against this backdrop, the MacBook Air represents the future of convergence. Light and portable enough to be the ‘second screen’ companion and social networking go-to product, yet with power and expansion to form a genuine workhorse, there are few machines which have the flexibility of the 2011 MacBook Air.
Without a product like the Air, a large gap in Apple’s line-up would have appeared. That it has been filled even before it emerged speaks to Apple’s prescience.
8: Power Mac G4 Cube
Widely considered a rare miss-step in the otherwise hugely successful G4-era, the Cube’s display in the MOMA shows that sometimes style is as important as substance. Its silent, fanless design and beautiful aesthestics aside, the Cube was fundamentally too expensive and too niche to be a sales success. Nevertheless, Apple’s iterative approach would eventually see the Mac Mini resuscitate the form factor, with this entry-level machine owing its design to what was once intended as a computing powerhouse of Apple’s lineup. Almost ten years later, the prose was finally married to the poetry.
7: Mac App Store
Representing the latest in a line of aggressive technological euthanasia, the Mac App Store, in tandem with the newest Mac Minis and MacBook Airs, aims to do for optical media what the iMac did for the floppy disk drive. In pushing digital downloads not only do Apple gain a head start in yet another area of content consumption – simply look at the plethora of apps available – but they also drive down software prices by removing the consumer’s subsidy of packaging and distribution. A rare case of win-win, made all the more palatable by its separation from the bloated iTunes software.
Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 saw a design team sidelined by a company playing it safe in the beige box market. Against the might of Microsoft and the vast ‘IBM PC compatible’ market, Apple was on its knees. The iMac, colourful, powerful for its price point, and above all unlike anything else on the market, showed that Apple’s industrial design team, free of constraint, was one of the finest in the world. Here was a machine designed from the up for the internet age, and executed with such style that it immediately made geek, chic. Style plus substance gave the late-90s an unlikely icon.
5: Windows software
Perhaps an unexpected choice, but the triumvirate of Safari, iTunes and Quicktime on Microsoft’s platform is hugely important. Safari’s presence provides an active eco-system for development of add-ons and plug-ins. Whilst this seems meagre, given the importance placed by Apple on pushing HTML 5, vitality on the platform agnostic web is vital. Do not underestimate the power of positive experiences: how many people are converted to Apple products through using their software? Whilst iTunes’ bloat in its current state may turn people off, it was not always the case.
At the dawn of the Millennium, the de facto standard software for ripping CDs and organizing your music was the then-excellent iTunes. Without its existence on Windows, the iPod would have been horribly limited in potential sales. Without this success, the digital landscape would have been markedly different. iTunes has made millions of people comfortable with digital content, and created a huge market for Apple to exploit as part of its ecosystem. In combination with Office’s continued presence on the OSX platform, Apple’s current success owes much to Microsoft’s.
4: PowerBook 100
Apple’s 2005 move away from the Power PC hardware to Intel made temperature a serious talking point. Against a backdrop of expanding laptop sales, Power PC processor’s, perfect for the desktop and currently driving millions of Xbox 360s, chewed through batteries and, perhaps apocryphally, scorched the odd knee. In short, they were no good for the mobile market.
This market was one that Apple had defined with the Powerbook 100. Its keyboard layout, central trackball, back hinged design, genuine portability and desktop-matching price point created the template for almost every subsequent laptop on the market.
Perhaps the second true cliché of this article, the 1984 Macintosh spearheaded the very concept of ‘consumer’ computing. Even looking at the promotional materials, which chose to highlight the mouse and interface rather than its technical specifications (‘post-PC’ is not just a 21st century buzz-phrase, it would seem) show how groundbreaking a computer for consumers, and not big business, really was.
Its form factor, whilst conservative now, meant that it and its derivatives could be marketed as fitting anywhere around the home, and the software was sold as liberating, not enervating. The Macintosh was as much a triumph of marketing as it was technology, but its legacy stretches through to the modern day with the ubiquity of the home PC.
And it is this ubiquity that is now being challenged by touchscreen, tablet devices. Grouped together, the iPod, iPhone and iPad have been Apple’s biggest selling products. Each one, however, has slowly changed the way people use computers. The original iPod, a reinvention rather than the creation of the MP3 player, was not only fantastically well marketed with its iconic looks and colour, but provided a content ecosystem through iTunes software and the iTunes Music Store that made it a must have product. No longer did people have to manually rip and upload their songs.
The style of the product combined with its ease of use was perhaps as great an advertising tool for Apple’s computer products as all its print and TV campaigns combined. The iPhone made mobile internet truly viable and, more importantly, created an app ecosystem that placed user experience central to the device, a key building block in the ‘post-PC’ age. Finally the iPad became the ultimate device for the consumption of content: streamlined, focussed and doing exactly what it was intended to do in the smoothest, easiest manner possible.
Each of these devices has tip-toed towards the convergence of content and technology, signalling Apple’s transformation from a company that provides computers to a trans-media corporation.
The regularity with which the word ‘ecosystem’ is used in technology merely reflects its importance. Apple’s ecosystem involves full control over all aspects of its products. Its software is built from the ground up to seamlessly integrate with bespoke – or at least specially selected – hardware. OSX is the centrepiece of Apple’s products, it is the rock-solid, virtually virus free advertisement of slick design and user friendliness.
Derived from Jobs’ hiatus from Apple, where he founded NeXT and developed the NeXTStep OS, OSX’s teething troubles were cast aside with the maturity of Tiger and the platform has continued to impress with a range of features that have altered the way in which people use computers. ‘Quick Look‘ is the thin end of the wedge of program agnosticism; ‘Time Machine‘ provided an ease of backup that shamed dedicated 3rd party applications and UI innovations like ‘Dashboard‘ and multitouch have made customization and ease of use central to the OSX experience.
Perhaps more importantly, OSX’s development led to iOS and all the innovations that have come from powering the iDevices. That these are now set to reunite as developments cross-pollinate shows the importance of OSX to almost all aspects Apple’s business. Steve Jobs always understood that ease of interaction was the most important aspect – not gigahertz or terabytes. With OSX and its iOS derivative, this golden rule has lit the path of Apple’s success.