physical

Let’s Get Physical

What changed was that people who buy consumer electronics have a very different mindset from computer hackers. No one buys a desktop computer to attract girls, but wearing an iPod on your bicep during your gym workout earned you the admiring glances of the girls who looked good in lycra. An iPhone with its beautiful touch interface and lickable icons made someone holding a flip phone look as up-to-date as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street holding that brick-sized analog cell unit with the vertical antenna. And everyone knows it’s the CEO who’s holding the iPad, while the guy in glasses behind her stumbling along with some generic laptop is an admin, or maybe a geek from IT.

And people who buy phones, tablets, and iPods don’t expect them to be hackable. They expect them to work, look cool, and openly proclaim that the owner is crazy sexy wonderful. The public didn’t just accept Jobs’ Walled Garden of Unearthly Technology Delights. They paid premium prices to flock into it.

At last, after a quarter century, the technology, the man, and the market had finally met.

What about the Macintosh? Oh, it’s still there, but every year its importance to Apple diminishes. The Mac accounts for about 10% of Apple’s revenue and the percentage is expected to continue to decline. Goosed by sales of its consumer electronics business, the Mac now accounts for about 8% of the computer market, but Microsoft and Windows own the other 92% and that’s not going to change much. The Get a Mac ads stopped running in 2009 and have never been replaced. Apple is not worried about the future of the Mac—it will hold its own for some time to come, but laptops and desktops do not represent technology’s future. The Cloud, and portable computing workspaces that are cutting themselves off from device independence, do. One day Wozniak’s A1 will fade away.

This brings us to another question. How did Steve Jobs do it? Yes, the media made much of his 313 patents, but people also know that in most cases, it wasn’t Jobs who actually did the breakthrough work. Corporate politics and the fact that he was the man writing the checks ensured he received the lead role. Jobs’ name may be on the patent for Apple’s glass staircase, but the person who actually designed it was a real engineer who understood load distribution, shearing forces, and the physical properties of glass. Jobs didn’t.

steve and ivey work on new interface design

Steve Jobs and Jony Ive critique an Apple designer’s new UI paradigm

The answer is that Steve Jobs was the greatest technology critic the world has ever seen. As he himself once observed, he had taste. And he used that taste to critique (and sometimes torture), cajole, prod, and inspire the creators with whom he surrounded himself to build consumer electronic products that felt, looked, and functioned better than their competitors. The effect was labeled the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field and after 25 years, it finally worked the way it was supposed to.

It was a unique and rare gift used in a unique way. Critics don’t often ascend to the apex of an industry.

And now, finally, we can speculate about how Steve Jobs could have been a good movie. It could have told the story of two men named Steve who over the course of 40 years founded and created two great companies called Apple. It could have explored the fundamental philosophies of the two Steves, who possessed very different skills, technology visions, and personalities. It might have provided insights into what led each of them to create their respective companies. It should have dug into how A2 transcended A1 and the impact this had on both men. And perhaps it might have explored how the eternal struggle between the switch masters and the hobbyists will change the world in the future.

It’s a narrative that has a natural beginning and, with the death of Jobs, a natural closing act. And you could even throw in some actual facts to make it at least a bit credible.

The production I describe can be made, but some time must pass before anyone can take a crack at it. Right now, I suspect the market for Steve Jobs and Wozniak movies is played out. But if someone does decide to film this saga, I suggest the mini-series format. It takes time to tell a tale that spans 40 years.

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