|Thomas Edison, relaxing with his iPod
I’d like to talk a little about Steve Jobs. Not in the sense of an ode to a life tragically cut short – I never met the man and, while I do own a phone which could be considered to a greater or lesser extent a product of his genius or vision, without wishing to sound callous I would not presume that this places me in sufficiently close relation to warrant paroxysms of grief. Suffice it to say that 56 years is no great age in the 21st Century developed world and I am sure that his family, friends and colleagues miss him greatly. What I would like to talk about is Steve Jobs’ embodiment of ideas which resonate strongly with the United States of America a century before his time.
I would summarise these ideas, rather grandiloquently, as the Spirit of Invention. I am not myself a massive devotee of the Apple Corporation. In my life I have owned one iPhone and one iPod, but never a Mac so I would not consider myself particularly well placed to argue the merits of Apple’s products over those of any other company except to say that both the iPhone and iPod have given me good service (at least until I accidentally put the iPod through a washing machine cycle – an experience which it did not survive). That said, there are two aspects of Apple’s work under Steve Jobs’ leadership which I feel should be acknowledged. The first is the role played by the first Macintosh computers of the mid-1980s in pioneering the use of an interface utilising a mouse, a genuinely revolutionary step in the development of personal computers and one which rivals anything done by Microsoft (who, no matter what you might think of them, their products, or their business practices, have played the largest role in creating the modern experience of using a computer). Apple did not invent the concept of the mouse themselves, but they acquired it – legally – and helped make it an entirely normal part of our everyday lives. The second aspect which I feel is worthy of general approbation is the creation and marketing of the iPad. I have only had a very limited opportunity to play with an iPad – people I know who own one seem to be very much enamoured with them – but what little I have seen suggests it is a very neat bit of technology indeed. What I really admire, though, is the fact that it was originally produced without a set purpose, or even a target market (beyond techy people and Apple disciples), in mind. The hope and expectation was that, Apple having put something new into the marketplace, people would find their own uses for it. Given impressive sales, the recent release of an iPad2, and the development of an entire new market of tablet computers I think it’s fair to say that this hope has been fulfilled.
|Edison, with lightbulb
While the computing revolution of the late 20th Century did not profoundly alter the lives of ordinary people to the same extent as electric lighting or some of the other ideas and products created by Edison’s laboratory and others like it a hundred years earlier, it has still had a massive impact on the way in which we live. Steve Jobs played a small, but important, part in that process. More impressive to me, however, is the role which – it is to be hoped – he played in reinvigorating (or at least returning to the limelight) the idea of inventing products without a set purpose in mind. In a world in which it is easy to believe that corporations are satisfied with simply making their next product a smaller version of their last one (perhaps with the addition of a camera or mp3 player) and where governments will withdraw research funding for anything which cannot show an immediate and quantifiable benefit to its work (see the closing of the Tevatron particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois, last month) this is an all too rare concept.