Today my 20 month old son delivered the perfect epitaph to Steve Jobs. He closed my laptop. Humanity over technology. You’re right Tom. Steve was right too on that.
When we started the Activate Summit at The Guardian it was designed to be all about the people who do, not the people who talk. The people who do the hard thing and ship, not just talk about it. The summit also had to be about the magical place where the technology disappears and you’re just left with what it brings to the user. This is how I’ve thought about Apple devices for a long while now. They’re different.
I first encountered a Mac half way through my Chemistry degree. I was on my industrial placement at SmithKline and French, lucky enough to work with some of the people who’d pioneered Computer Aided Drug Design and had made Tagamet, the anti-ulcer drug. They were people who thought differently. I was hooked. Everywhere around were VT220s, VT420s and the occasional IBM PS1/PS2. It was a VAX world. This was a Mac Classic. Small, tiny screen, perfectly formed. Brilliant. Sadly I was a student, I couldn’t afford one. But I got to play with a Silicon Graphics and a beautiful Evans and Sutherland Picture System so that was cool.
The machine for some reason I always wanted was a Color Classic. They were the real icons for me. Still would love one.
I owned my first Mac part way through my PhD. It was a PowerBook 100. It revolutionised how I wrote and what I did and helped me to think more graphically. It inspired me so much in my research and writing. As I came closer to submitting my thesis I took it everywhere; I clung onto it. It held my world. I was even holding it while in a queue to have Michael Nyman sign a CD. He signed my PowerBook and talked about having one himself and how he couldn’t be without it. After several years (3) the PowerBook 100 had a bad experience falling onto the floor as I tripped and fell off a train. It still boots up behind a cracked screen. I bought a PowerBook 190 and on the commute between Chichester and London I finished writing the first website for the Cass Sculpture Foundation in 1996 that I’d started on the 100 while I was working on the Which Online project for Webmedia. Again the 190 still boots up. Different.
Then there were the Sculley years, the years of beige. Not the best, but the machines were still the best to use from a software perspective. I never stopped buying them though, they were somehow better. They got better after Jobs returned and focussed the line up. I had tricked out G3 machine on which I did the video montages that were used as part of the proposal to get planning permission to put sculpture on the FourthPlinth in Trafalgar Square. Videos that made it onto Channel4 and BBC Breakfast news. I’d never really done much video stuff or photomontages before, but somehow the Mac made it easy to do these things.
I remember where I was when the iMac appeared. I was sitting in NoHo Digital on Regent Street. It was amazing. Not just in the way that Steve often said amazing, but truly amazing. It was a computer that looked like it could be part of a home, part of the family. The post-PC era started there in that teardrop shaped blue and white thing for me. I still have my iMacDV SE, the see through smokey grey one where you can see deep into the workings. It still works just fine. I occasionally still play with it. The slight curvature of the screen now seems so strange, so fascinating, so retro.
Then came the G5. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the audience at WWDC for the keynote when it was announced. I was working on PeoplesArchive, we were building a video on demand archive for the life stories of great scientists. I’d been working closely with some of the QuickTime team at Apple. We were doing some interesting stuff around how you made subscriptions to video services. We also built a production system out of iMovie and using AppleScript to break up videos using chapter markers automatically. It was a large scale edit system for humans who’d never used computers much before. I was hugely touched when they wrote a Pro story about Peoples Archive, more touched when I was flown out to Paris for the MacWorld and my second Stevenote of the year. In between the two events the new G5 had revolutionised our production of an enormous amount of video. The sheer horespower was amazing.
It was in Paris that I was the closest physically to Steve Jobs in my life. I got to meet Phil Schiller and talk to him about what we were doing. While standing outside one of the bars at the Musee D’Orsay where the party was Steve walked up to the door of the bar. This is where I saw the lovely humility I’ve heard about him in action. The doorman told him that bar was over capacity, but there was another one a floor down. He thanked them very politely, smiled and walked to go there, carrying on his conversation with the person he was with. No drama, no fuss, no diva like behaviour. Everyone has a Steve story about his attention to detail and his passion and dictatorial nature. From my perspective that evening he was an inspiration in being humble.
And now we’re in the post-PC era. I have some of the best computers I’ve ever had in terms of design and usability. I can’t see how they can build a better screen than the 27” iMac and how they can make a better laptop than the 11” MacBook Air. Either ends of the spectrum. I also have an iPhone and iPads. I’ve made software for them too, something I’ve never done for a PC apart from in the days of CD-ROM. It never appealed that much before, but the iPad made me want to make something other than a website. They’re inclusive devices. Computers for people who don’t want a computer. They’ve enabled some amazing applications to come into being and they’ve altered the world of interaction forever. My boys swipe things now, not peck them.
I remembered very clearly him saying these words. It was at the iPad2 launch. I was finishing off the coding on Artfinder’s iPad framework. It felt so right. The first time I saw the iPad it made me think of coffee table art books. Now we could make them. There are now over 20 Artfinder iPad apps in the App Store. Most of the time the thinking was about getting the interface out of the way of the art and out of the way of the device.
As I’ve thought more and more about these words they’ve become a mantra. I’ve pondered them more and more since then, often every day. They became more poignant when he stepped down from Apple. They became a lot more poignant today. I wrote the words below into my script for my talk at Shropshire Geek Night to accompany the slide above. I wanted to make sure I said what I really wanted to say when I was likely to be emotional; he’d just stepped down from Apple and we all sadly knew why.
“We should hang onto this phrase as closely and as tangibly as we physically hang onto our shiny Apple gadgets. It’s the touchstone for why we should always try harder to make better things. This is the greatest legacy and the greatest inspiration. We have to make technology human, and to ensure that the things we make fix real needs and problems and have a soul. Most importantly we need to make things so good that we love using them and the technology melts away and the impact is all that’s left.”
We’re in the post-PC era now. It’s all about user centricity, the technology being subservient to the user, the things we make being about their needs, even before thy can articulate them. That is the most incredible legacy for him. We can’t squander that. Ship more things that are bent around the needs and desires of the people who use them. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re doing his memory a disservice.