Oct 062011

Today was the day we learned that Steve Jobs died. This is of course massive news within the technology industry as Steve Jobs has been such an important player in the industry since the beginning of the personal computer revolution (long before the iPod and all the other iThingies). As with everyone who dies, my sympathy goes out to anyone who knew him.

The reaction has been … interesting. Amongst the other compliments he has been called a great innovator, which to those who observe the industry closely seems a touch inaccurate. There are plenty of things that Steve Jobs was – he was a great businessman who not only built up Apple in the first place, but returned to rescue it from obscurity (and possibly saving it).

He had the ability to take innovations and introduce them to the mass market – he could somehow lead his engineers into producing usable mass-market products. But without meaning to criticise he was not as much of an innovator as is sometimes made out to be.

Looking through the history of the products he brought to the mass-market …

Apple I & Apple II

Neither of these were truly original. The Apple I was one of the first personal computers that were available fully assembled, but it was not the first. The basic concept of the personal computer released as a product can be traced to the IBM 5100 (1975) or the HP 9830 (1972). These may have been a lot more expensive but were probably more successful than the Apple I which only sold about 200.

The Apple II was a good deal more successful – probably the closest to a dominant personal computer around before the original IBM PC took off, but was no more truly original. For instance amongst the hordes of similar personal computers around at the time, there was the quite close Commodore PET (which was admittedly somewhat less expandable).

And the least said about the Apple III, the better!

The Macintosh

Most people assume that the Macintosh was the first computer with a graphical user interface, but it was not even the first from Apple themselves! They brought out the somewhat less successful (and very expensive) Lisa first. The first GUI computer was the Xerox Alto first built in 1973 – before Apple even existed! Admittedly this was never a commercial product, but Xerox did eventually launch a commercial workstation based on this early experiment – the Xerox Star, in 1981. That’s still 2 years before the Macintosh.

The Macintosh did however bring the graphical user interface to a mass audience even if the first Macintosh computers were more than a little constrained by lack of memory (128Kbytes anyone?).

The iPod

After a few successful years with the Macintosh (and having ditched Steve Jobs in 1985), Apple started to go downhill. Until Steve Jobs returned, and helped to turn the company around with the launch of Macintoshes that were better designed in terms of styling. Although he was probably right to kill it off, he also did something interesting on his return – he killed the Newton product line which although it was not really recognised at the time, was actually Apple’s first slate computer (it was marketted as a PDA but with a much bigger screen than most PDAs).

But the next big thing was the launch of  the music player that nearly everyone has tried at one time or another – the iPod. Again to disappoint the reflex Apple fans, this was not a massive innovation from Apple – there were portable digital music players launched before this. Such as the music player (with a somewhat limited capacity of 3.5 minutes!) envisaged by Kane Kramer way back in 1979 (and patented in the UK in 1981). Apple even hired him when they were facing patent litigation over the iPod.

Altogether there were five different music players launched in the market before Apple took a hand. But of course Apple made it easy enough for the man in the street to use.

The iPhone

The iPhone was an interesting product – a “smartphone” (it might have been more accurate to call it a featurephone) that on the basis of pure feature comparison was weaker than the competition in every way – a less capable data network (no 3G), many missing hardware features that were present on other smartphones (GPS, proper bluetooth support, a slot for memory expansion, etc.). It couldn’t even load additional apps – Steve Jobs tried telling everyone that apps should be on the Internet and not installed on the phone!

It did do two things better than the competition though – firstly the CPU was of reasonable strength to run a smartphone with. At least the pre-iPhone smartphones I used were positively anaemic in performance due to weak CPUs. Secondly, the iPhone made using a smartphone simple. And that was the real reason the iPhone took off – anyone could use it.

The iPad

And yet again Steve Jobs does it – take a product that was pretty much universally unpopular, or at most was popular only in certain vertical markets, and pushes it out to the mass market in a way that everyone can enjoy. Again very little in the way of innovation, but a great product (with some odd weaknesses until the iPad 2).

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