There are few people who have the influence to transform society. When historians of the future look back at the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, there’s little doubt that they will credit Steve Jobs with doing just that.
Jobs, the founder of Apple and the company’s former CEO — and more importantly, its touchstone — died Wednesday at the relatively young age of 56.
His death wasn’t a surprise. He had battled cancer seven years ago and underwent a liver transplant two years ago. This past August, he resigned from Apple amid speculation about his health, which had caused him to take a leave of absence this past January.
But while his life was cut short, his vision was transformative of a societal level. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for in many ways marrying people and technology.
In a era in which technology was seen as increasingly complex, he made it look and feel simple. Jobs helped found Apple in 1976 and was forced out 10 years later. Apple floundered and Jobs was called back in 1997 to rescue it. He not only did that, he made it the most valuable technology company on the planet.
Recessions hit, but Apple hardly noticed. The Jobs-led Apple company was rolling out products, with perhaps the biggest impact coming from the iPod — a device that could take a collection of 1,000 songs and squeeze them into a device that fit in the palm of your hand and needed only your thumb to control everything from song selection to volume.
From there, he launched the iPhone six years later, which transformed the cell phone — already a nifty gadget by most people’s reckoning — into a computer device that enabled you to manage your bank account, shoot and edit photos, play games, do social networking and other things that phones had never done before. A new version of the iPhone was introduced to the world just before his passing this week.
Last year, Jobs introduced the biggest advancement yet — the iPad. Those who know the markets said there was no need for a tablet-sized computer that was controlled completely by touch. Those in the marketplace gobbled them up as fast as Apple could churn them out.
But possibly even more impressive than his fertile imagination was the sense of drama and anticipation he helped generate for all things Apple. He casually dropped mentions of the next big Apple innovation as almost an afterthought at news conferences, which he usually showed up at in his trademark faded jeans, mock turtleneck shirt and tennis shoes. The image he projected wasn’t a multimillionaire technology magnate out to make more money. It was the unassuming computer geek down the street that had an amazing new toy he was willing to share.
He kept the development of new products secret, which whetted the appetites of Apple users who have an almost cultlike allegiance to the company’s products. Whole social communities developed around figuring out what Apple would come up with next as Internet sleuths gathered what information did get out — some have long suspected Apple would leak certain things to prime the pump — and tried to piece the clues together. Sometimes there was disappointment, such as this week when the highly anticipated iPhone 5 turned out to be a new version of the iPhone 4, but there was always buzz.
In the end, Jobs did two things that defy logic — he made technology exciting, and he made it less threatening by making it part of our social lives. The upsides and pitfalls of this marriage will be for a long time. But one thing is not debatable, and that is the massive influence that Jobs has had on all of our lives and the lives of our children.