Steve Jobs passed away on Wednesday.
Steve’s contributions to the technology world can be seen on every personal computing device in the world. The device you’re reading this article from, whether it be on a PC, Mac, or on a Smartphone, has been greatly influenced by Steve’s work.
I won’t attempt to articulate or summarize his vision, passion, or his vast list of accomplishments. Many have already done so, far better than I ever could. Here are a list of my favourite:
I will, however, describe what his work has meant to me on a personal level.
First, there was Pixar Animation Studios. Steve founded Pixar in 1986 after buying The Graphics Group, with his personal funds, from Lucasfilm. Dr. Ed Catmull and Steve saw the potential in 3D movies and animation before anyone else did. Steve was Pixar’s CEO from day one up until the company was acquired by Disney.
I fell in love with Pixar at a young age. Movie after movie, they challenged traditional animation and shaped modern day cinematic story telling. I was taken back by watching how both children and parents genuinely enjoyed their films. Pixar masterfully used animation as a means to tell the stories they believed needed sharing. It wasn’t just about the box office, it wasn’t just about making the next generation of loveable characters that children adore. It was first and foremost about telling great stories. The box office numbers and loyalty from fans came from that dedication. I just needed to work for this company. I did research and found that a graduate from the University of Waterloo (I believe it was Dr. William Reeves) worked at Pixar and played a key role in its technical success. I told my parents I needed to attend UW to have a shot at Pixar. They agreed.
The following 5 years at UW I was blessed with opportunities at Nuance, RIM, and Amazon, I met some of the best friends of my life, and I was introduced to the woman that I soon after married.
If I wasn’t so deeply inspired by the Pixar that Steve helped build, I don’t know if my path would have ever lead to Waterloo and the opportunities and people that surrounded it.
Something else happened while at UW; I fell in love with Steve’s other company.
I had always known about Apple but I was late to understand how remarkable the company really was. It was only during Steve’s 2005 keynote, where the iPod Nano was introduced, that I realized how special Apple was. At the time, the iPod Mini was Apple’s best selling iPod. Everyone had one. I really wanted one too. Then, in what seemed like a split second, Apple ended it. Steve spoke proudly on stage as he replaced the iPod Mini with the impossibly small iPod Nano. Looking back, it seems like the obvious thing to do but at the time it was very risky. It seems so clear now that casual music listeners want an ultra portable slim MP3 player, but at the time, no other company invested as much R&D in developing such a device. What impressed me more was the decision to end the iPod Mini. Why not release the Nano and have the Mini available at a lower price point? The Mini would have still outsold every other MP3 player in the market while the Nano could have widened Apple’s lead in the market even further. Every other company I knew wouldn’t just end their best selling product. Steve ended the Mini because he stuck to his goal with the iPod : to make the best portable MP3 player possible. The Nano was that for him, the Mini wasn’t. It was as simple as that and I was amazed by his conviction to bet on the Nano.
That moment was the start of my admiration and appreciation for Apple. Many product launches later, there was the iPhone. It blew me away. Then, soon after, the iPad. It changed my perspective on personal computing forever. I’m now dedicated to developing products for these devices.
Steve lead both Pixar and Apple to what they’ve become. These companies have been and will continue to be huge sources of inspiration in my life and I have Steve to thank for shaping them.
Aside from the companies that Steve has built, his leadership and ideologies related to product design are things that have changed my perspective on developing products. He wasn’t perfect, nor did he do everything correct, but his beliefs in how products should be ideated is worth admiring.
For me, what illustrates this best is his Q&A session during the 1997 Apple WWDC. This was an uncensored question period that Steve had not prepared for, he gave natural on-the-spot responses. At the time, he had just sold NeXT to Apple. It was before the iPad, before the iPhone, before the MacBook, before the iPod, and even before the iMac. At the time he wasn’t even CEO yet but his interview shows his vision for product design. I’ve cut out the parts that I have stuck with me the most below.
“The Sum Of The Parts”
Steve explains why Apple decided to stop supporting a specific technology. He says that there are products where “the total is less than the sum of the parts” and that Apple needed to focus. This is true for so many products today. Companies add features and increase the power of specs but the total of these features often don’t add up to being a better product.
“I Want To Be Better, I Don’t Care About Being Different”
This at first seems contradictory to Apple’s “Think Different” campaign but if you listen closely, it’s not. Steve says: “I want to be much better, I don’t care about being different. We’ll have to be different in some ways to be much better but (being much better) that’s the prize.” To illustrate what Steve meant, take Apple’s decision to support MP3s on the iPod as an example. Sounds like the obvious choice now, but what was the leading audio player manufacture at the time doing? Sony, maker of the popular Walkman, developed their own propriety audio format and didn’t support MP3s until much later. What Steve says in this clip is that the challenge for a product developer is to figure out which aspects need to be different/innovated and which aspects need to be emulated. It’s about perfecting the wheel, not reinventing it.
“Making Something Wonderful That They And Their Friends Wanted”
This is one of my favourite videos of Steve and I think one of the best things I’ve learned from him.
Do what you love. Do what you believe in. Care deeply about making something wonderful that you yourself would use.
That’s what Steve did and so many others before him who made great products. It’s what I pray I can do too.