Editor’s note: ZDNET originally published this article on Oct. 5, 2011 and it’s being republished in memory of the passing of Steve Jobs.
Who is doing the most important work in the tech world and which technologies are going to have the largest long-term impact on humanity? Those are questions I dedicate some brain cycles to thinking about every week. I like to ask, “Which of these things could have ripples that will last for a century or more?”
In tech, the truth is that most of the stuff we fret over, rave about, or argue bitterly will be barely recognizable 100 years from now. In most cases, even the staggering developments in tech over the past decade will morph into other products, be absorbed into new companies, and simply become the tiny seeds of brilliant new ideas championed by future generations of innovators. That’s just the natural order of things.
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What I look for are the exceptions. And, there are always exceptions.
Steve Jobs was one of them.
Since his retirement as Apple CEO on August 24, 2011 and his passing on October 5, 2011, there have been lots of well-written retrospectives about how Jobs helped usher in the personal computer era and transform four different industries — PCs, mobile phones, music, and animated movies — and bring Apple back from economic oblivion to become the most valuable company on the planet.
All of that stuff is fascinating and significant and will be talked about for years to come. However, I’d assert that Jobs’s ultimate legacy will be something else entirely.
It won’t be about money. It won’t be about his famed “reality distortion field.” It won’t be about his brilliance as a marketer. It won’t even be about an Apple product — or, at least not one specific product.
Steve Jobs’s most important contribution will be that he made technology about people and not about technology. The entire thrust of his career was about building useful tools that adapt themselves to the ways people already think and work, rather than asking people to retrain themselves to learn how to use their machines.
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While other tech leaders have given lip service to similar ideas — especially in the past decade following Apple’s recent successes — only Jobs has been able to thoroughly inculcate this concept into a company and all of the products that it produces.
The best example I’ve found of Jobs himself talking about humanizing technology came from Macworld Expo 1997 in a question and answer session. Here’s what he said:
One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody in this room and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it, and I know that it’s the case. As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’ [It’s] not starting with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market that?’
Keep in mind that this whole idea of human-centric technology is a rejection of the foundation of the computer industry, with its codes, keyboard commands, and programming languages.
It’s probably going to take a couple of decades for other technology leaders and companies to fully grasp, internalize, and institutionalize this change. But, make no mistake, they will. Today’s technology companies and the tech companies of the future will embrace human-centric product development as an answer to the current design bankruptcy in tech and as the next stage in tech product design. Lots of companies are already taking baby steps in that direction — take a look at companies like ASUS, HTC, and Microsoft (with Windows Phone 7).
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While Steve Jobs left Apple in good shape and the company will almost certainly continue to be a leader in this area, Jobs’s impact will be even greater outside of Apple as hundreds of tech companies are destined to emulate Apple’s product design approach in the decades ahead. Within 20 years, every tech company is going to be about human-centric product design, and for decades after that I expect they will continue to perfect the idea until its roots at Apple become almost completely obscured. A century from now, it will be historians who will trace the idea back to the Apple co-founder.
For those who don’t want to wait that long and want to start thinking about and paving the way for human-centric product design in tech, I’d recommend not spending a whole lot of time studying Jobs himself and obsessing over all of forthcoming documentaries and studies of his life. Instead, do what Steve did: push yourself to learn, grow, and expand your worldview outside of technology.
In fact, the career of Steve Jobs may be the single greatest impetus for a liberal arts education in modern history. Although Steve never finished his undergraduate degree at Reed College, he spent his time there taking the classes he was passionately interested in, rather than following the standard schedule of courses. For example, he famously took a calligraphy class that deepened his interest in typography and he later used that knowledge to push for the excellent on-screen fonts in the original Macintosh, which of course, greatly influenced the use of fonts in Microsoft Windows as well.
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The point here is that, as much as Steve Jobs loved technology, he was also deeply curious about other aspects of life, such as music, world culture, and philosophy, and his life experiences in those areas had a significant impact on his humanistic approach to technology.
Jobs even traveled to India after he dropped out of Reed College. Although he didn’t find the enlightenment he was looking for, his travels helped solidify some of his ideas about what he wanted to do with his life and the impact he could make back in America. During the trip to India, Jobs reported, “I started to realize that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together.”
All of this, of course, advocates for a liberal arts education and a variety of life experiences in order to help you think bigger, understand life from lots of different perspectives, and discover more things that you’re passionate about.
If you’ve already completed your degree, are in the middle of your career, or simply don’t have the budget or freedom to travel or go back to school, then you can always take the more grassroots approach, as Jobs did. Go to a museum, volunteer for a nonprofit, take Tai Chi, learn another language, do something creative like paint, write a story, or play an instrument. Travel the world, when you get the chance.
As touchy-feely as that might sound, if you want to think creatively and you want to start looking at tech from the standpoint of how humans can approach the tools, then this is the kind of thinking you’ll need to do. There’s no better evidence for it than the life and career of Steve Jobs, and the next 100 years are going to show just how far ahead of his time he was, and how many companies are going to emulate his approach to humanizing technology.