How Steve Jobs Rewired Our Lives-and Raised Our Expectations

What was Steve Jobs’ greatest contribution to society? The amazing thing is that there are so many answers to choose from. Was it the insanely great Mac? Or perhaps the iPod and the MP3 music revolution? Or Pixar and Toy Story and all of the studio’s other animated wonders? Or the iPhone and the iPad and all the innovation they’ve uncorked in the mobile, software, and publishing businesses? Or maybe it’s simply Apple itself—the world’s most valuable company.

I think all of those are fine answers. But to me there’s another answer that encompasses all of them: Steve Jobs taught us to have higher expectations. Of our technology. Of our entertainment. Even of ourselves.

Of course, the expectations Jobs placed on himself, his co-workers, and just about everyone else he dealt with are legendary. We’ve all heard about the killer stares, the angry rants, the foul-mouthed dressing-downs of employees whenever Jobs was unhappy with a policy or a product. This was a man who did not have time for fools, phonies, weaklings, or people who questioned Apple’s mission.

But that same conviction—which seemed to flow, in turn, from a supreme trust in his own instincts—is exactly what enabled Jobs to transform industry after industry. And I think it’s the way Jobs’ beliefs rubbed off on the rest of us—his customers, his colleagues, even his competitors—that will be his real legacy.

In statesmanlike remarks following the announcement of Jobs’ death on Wednesday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said that “for those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor.” I wasn’t lucky enough: I never met Jobs. Like millions of others, I only knew him through Apple’s products (and, of course, through my coverage of the company as a tech journalist). But that felt like a real connection. To a degree achieved by no other company on Earth, Apple bakes its values into its products, and those values come directly from Jobs. So being an Apple customer meant, in some sense, bringing Jobs into your life. That’s how it always seemed to me, anyway.

I first got my hands on a Macintosh in 1985 (ironically, the year Jobs was forced out of the company he co-founded) and I was immediately enchanted by the attention that its designers had given to details like the adjustable fonts, the garbage can, even the funny little dogcow icon that welcomed you to the Print Setup dialog box. As a college freshman, I wrote all of my class papers (and all of my articles for the college newspaper) on a Mac. I also spent quite a few less studious hours honing my MacPaint skills—I still have a graphic I made based on the famous M.C. Escher print Ascending and Descending. Unlike most of the personal computers that preceded it, and even the ones that tried to copy it, the Mac wasn’t just about making you more productive. It was about helping you express yourself.

And that’s how Jobs raised our expectations of technology. Apple products are famously easy to use: the first thing you try is usually the right one, which is a reflection of the company’s deep understanding of the way people think and move. But the even bigger idea that Jobs instilled in Apple from the beginning, and managed to re-instill after his return to the company in 1997, is that hardware and software designers should also pay attention to the way people feel, and that digital devices should, at least occasionally, be fun to use.

After all, by the 1980s and 1990s, Moore’s Law was generating some serious dividends—it was finally becoming possible to devote computing cycles to aesthetics and experiences, not just number-crunching. Jobs saw sooner and deeper than anyone else how, in a world of utilitarian and frequently uncooperative computers, a piece of truly pleasing hardware or software would command great customer loyalty—and often, a premium price.

Apple has more or less conquered the world with this idea. It doesn’t yet dominate in PC sales—even today, three-quarters of the desktop and laptop machines that consumers and businesses buy every year run Windows—but it dominates in style, as every new iteration of Windows seems to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “How Steve Jobs Rewired Our Lives-and Raised Our Expectations”

  1. Steve Jobs was from my generation, yet I learned of Jobs’ death in a text message yesterday from my 22-year-old daughter. By coincidence, I was just talking to another dad who said he got the news from his 14-year-old daughter, who said in all seriousness, “I think this is bigger than the death of Michael Jackson.”

  2. Sharon & Dean Branson says:

    Wade, your writeup about Steve Jobs was amazing, job well done. Our history with Apple and the influence of Steve Jobs on our lives, started mid 80’s when our son returned home from being an exchange student in Sweden, fully licensed to “drive the Mac” at his HS. Shortly thereafter, we replaced our Franklin, with a Mac.

    Each of us enjoyed the company of your parents tonight…your Mom with Sharon at the Lioness Style show while your Dad and the other husbands of the ladies at the style show, had hamburgers at the Dockside.

    Keep us the good work,
    Sharon and Dean

  3. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Wonderful appreciation of the great contributions of Steve Jobs to technology and society at large.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: [email protected]