Tech Smart: A bite from the Apple

March 21, 2012
Noah Levine
Noah Levine

Issue 10

Today Apple launched its latest generation of the iPhone, and as always seems to be the case when this company is launching something new, the media and general public are rapt in anticipation. However, this launch was the company’s first big move since founder and technology icon Steve Jobs stepped down from an active roll in running things and the press event seemed a bit lackluster without his smirking boasts about the wonderful things the company's latest can do.

Today Apple launched its latest generation of the iPhone, and as always seems to be the case when this company is launching something new, the media and general public are rapt in anticipation. However, this launch was the company’s first big move since founder and technology icon Steve Jobs stepped down from an active roll in running things and the press event seemed a bit lackluster without his smirking boasts about the wonderful things the company's latest can do.

Sure this isn’t the first time Jobs has left his position with Apple. Back in the mid-’80s he was famously forced out from the company he helped create a decade earlier. But that led to the darkest era in Apple’s history and his return to the company in the mid-90s is considered the start of the company’s rise to its current position as the largest public company on the planet.

Even with Jobs now out of the day-to-day work at Apple, the company seems set up to be a technology leader for years to come. But Jobs decision to turn over the CEO position to Tim Cook due to his own declining health certainly marks the end of an era for the company, and the perfect time to take a look back at the legacy he and his inventions have left on the technology landscape.

Personal computers

It all started in the late ’70s as Apple released its first PC. While those hand-built machines are certainly left in the dust by the powerful computers in today’s phones, (even the not-smart variety) it was the precursor to the company’s computing portfolio and was quickly upgraded to become the Apple II. This open-architecture PC set a new standard with color graphics.

The company’s biggest PC revolution came along a few years later with the graphical user interface that powered the ill-fated Apple Lisa and the now iconic Macintosh. It was Jobs who led the push to create graphics-based computer interfaces rather than the text commands used to operate computers previously. Both computers shipped with a mouse and offered users the chance to “point and click” for the first time.

It was after these revolutions that infighting at Apple led to Jobs leaving the company. During his decade away Apple made some influential advancements such as the PowerBook laptop computers, but also failed with projects like the Newton PDA.

When Jobs returned to the company he brought a new software basis for the company’s operating system and helped position Apple as a retailer of high-end computers preferred by artists and designers. That spirit permeated the products as well, with the 1998 launch of the iMac line of computers that got rid of the computer tower, combining the monitor and all the internal components in one box.

All of these steps have led to the computers people see today, and while Apple’s design esthetic has continued to set trends followed by other manufacturers, it remains ahead of the pack in most cases. The ultrathin MacBook Air laptops have set new standards in portable computers while just about every computer maker now has an all-in-one computer that looks a lot like the latest generation of iMac.

Digital music

While once primarily a computer maker, Jobs’ vision has taken Apple into a range of other electronics arenas, and none has been more greatly changed by the company than the world of music. In 2001 the company began selling its first iPod digital music player. This marked the beginning of the end of the Compact Disc, which itself had only recently toppled the cassette tape.

The iPod was a wonder in its early generations and sold well even before the company launched its iTunes online music store. That store is now among the biggest music retailers in the world and has changed the way most people acquire music.

On top of changing the format on which people get their music, the iPod and digital music downloading also changed how artists interact with their audiences, making record labels and music stores less significant in the marketplace.

Smartphones

Not satisfied with just changing people’s music habits, Jobs and Apple next revolutionized the way people interact with their computers, their phones and each other when they launched the iPhone in 2007. While it wasn’t the first phone to handle e-mail, it quickly set the standard for pocket computing.

Intuitive to use and easy to customize with lots of software titles available, the iPhone was a runaway success. It combined the best of the company’s previous successes by presenting a user-friendly computer with high-quality graphics in a stylish, pocket-friendly package. Jokes about its poor phone service abounded, but millions of the phones have been sold and just about every smartphone since has had similarities to the iPhone in both form and function.

Tablet computers

The company’s most recent success is the iPad, which while certainly not the first tablet computer, is most definitely the first commercially successful one. Priced at a reasonable level and capable of doing a lot in small package, the iPad falls short of being a full computer, and instead settles in nicely as compact, affordable media machine.

It works because it can do what most people who use computers these days need a computer to do. People raised on the Internet need a machine to visit websites, play audio and video, and other basic tasks. The iPad does all that in an attractive and portable package.

Impact on industry

Through his up and down years at the helm of Apple, Jobs’ career has been marked by several traits. He’s shown a willingness to take chances on his vision of what people will want next from their electronics, a dedication to creating products that set new standard in style and design, a determination to make sure they work as crisply as the look, and a ruthless approach to the business side of the industry.

Apple has set trends in more than just the software and hardware design. What the company has left out of its products has been as important as what its introduced. Under Jobs Apple moved data storage from tapes to large floppy discs before abandoning those for smaller floppies. Those were dropped for CDs and eventually the company started releasing computers with no disc drives at all.

These moves have been made unilaterally ahead of the curve and have basically dared the rest of the industry not to follow along. No such move was as bold as the company’s total abandonment of Adobe’s Flash language when the iPhone was launched. Jobs famously criticized Flash as causing computers to run slow and crash and decided that even with many websites built on a Flash platform, if enough users couldn’t access those sites, they would have to redesign. Now with the advent of HTML5 providing the animations and videos that were once powered by Flash, it seems like this is another case of Jobs and Apple imposing their will on the computing world.

Steve Jobs may not have been the most likeable computer tycoon, but it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been revolutionarily effective. In his time running Apple, the company shifted from a rag-tag group of outsiders dedicated to an open-source approach to a corporate titan producing closed-architecture products from one of the most tightly connected and controlled supply chains around.

It’s easy to poke fun at Jobs for his trademark jeans and turtleneck style, his no-nonsense approach and the fact that his company often makes and sells products at a higher price than his competitors. But as Apple takes its first steps into the second post-Jobs era, it’s clear his impact on technology is being felt by everyone who uses a computer, downloads a mp3 or uses their phone to check e-mail while following turn-by-turn GPS directions to the next meeting.