Steve Jobs’ abrupt resignation from Apple is of course plastered all over the news and social network feeds, so let’s consider instead the legacy Jobs has left over the decades for creative technology. The highlights for artists and musicians begin far before the iPhone. Jobs’ sometimes-obsessive dedication to design, to uncompromising capabilities particularly in regards to multimedia, and to stewarding the creative teams that built these computers has shaped the development of computing for music and visuals. Now, what happens next – including the important role computers continue to have in creation – could be no less compelling. Here are just a few landmark contributions:
The Apple II, product of the company Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded, was for many of us our first experience in computing. Jobs was an impresario and ambassador to the Apple II as it aggressively took on education and widespread popular computing. With those roots, the makers of electronic music and electronic music software to come found fertile soil.
The Lisa and Macintosh brought what were once experimental ideas in computing interaction to the masses. Jobs was not a perfect manager in his early years by any stretch – with Apple II and Mac divisions turned against one another and difficulties with Jobs’ sometimes-hostile management style, there were reasons behind the ouster of Jobs from the company he founded. But he also, as he was to do later at Pixar, managed to protect a team of innovators in design unlike any that’s been assembled since, the group of people who defined computing interaction and the expressive computer for us today. And the Macintosh, while best known popularly as becoming the engine of the desktop publishing revolution, was also a platform for changing musical performance and creation. Laurie Spiegel’s Music Mouse on the Mac would be one of the first software synths and audiovisual instruments (perhaps the first, depending on the definition). The Mac also would come to lead the way with technologies like MIDI and sequencers like Performer and Vision, taking a key role in shaping music to come. Moreover, the design and philosophy Jobs had helped guide, even to the very notion of the computer as a “bicycle for the mind,” was what convinced so many in our community that computing had a place in music and art.
And then there’s Pixar. Jobs literally saved the company from a near-certain demise, and with it a group of artists and engineers who defined both the potential of computer animation as a feature medium and the techniques used to make it look visually appealing. By all accounts, it was Jobs’ ability to protect this group of creative people and allow them to do what they did best that allowed them to remake animation. It’s a sign of the times that Pixar executives effectively took over the Disney animation department and not the other way around. Today’s real-time, 2D and 3D visuals, visual media as performance, visual media interactively responding to music, are all possible because of the technologies and modes of expression pioneered by the team at Pixar.
The NeXT, while a business failure, had a vital role in music and creative technology. Aside from producing the basic operating system that would become Mac OS X, the NeXT machine, with its unusually-powerful DSP capabilities, was the box on which real-time Max audio processing and many other key achievements in early computer DSP became possible. I hear there are even a few of these black boxes haunting labs and facilities around the world now, still in working order. And this design is all Jobs: flaunting convention or, arguably, even business realities, Jobs built the machine of the future. NeXT may have been Jobs’ Ford Edsel, but like the Edsel itself, it keeps looking better in hindsight, and it really did represent the technologies to come.
The revitalization of Apple will be what most pundits observe. But I think it’s tough to overstate its importance for the computer industry. I’d actually been preparing in my head an editorial prior to the announcement. The gist went something like this: we’re not living in the post-PC age. We’re living in the Apple age. Sure, computer maker executives point clumsily to a perceived shift to “tablets” that’s hurting their PC business. But mostly what they’re saying is that PC profit margins are falling, and they can’t make netbooks or tablets or anything else new people want to make up the difference. Look at Apple, by comparison: the “tablet” market is almost exclusively the “iPad” market for now, and at the same time, Mac sales are up, Mac market share is up, and Mac enthusiasm is generally up (the odd misstep with video editing and OS design oddities notwithstanding). Love them or hate them, Apple are the benchmark for computing, whether that computing experience is on a tablet, a phone, a laptop, or a desktop. That’s what a competitive company does. And it’s a combination of Mac OS X (now also a mobile OS) and Apple’s systems integration that makes it possible. (Like their competitors, Apple pulls together components from many, many other makers – but that makes the integration more impressive, not less.)
The Mac as musical instrument. Regular readers (or anyone who talks to me) know that I pull no punches when it comes to being critical of Apple. I think that’s my job. I also believe competition is important. But I think it’d be a mistake to dismiss musician Mac fans as being simply charmed by pretty computers. Apple’s OS is, of the three major desktop operating systems, the most able to make music with minimal user intervention. Their hardware is, generally speaking, reliable and enjoyable to use. For many musicians, comfort with the PowerBook and MacBook lines – from industrial design to operating system – is what allowed them to feel able to go out and produce and perform with a laptop. “Design” is more than skin deep. It runs to the very kernel of an operating system, literally, and in music it means design and engineering that can perform in tiny fractions of a second. Apple is not the only company capable of such engineering, but the work they’ve done in areas you can see and can’t see alike is all work you experience when you use their product.
When Jobs took over Apple, the entire music market was potentially on the chopping block. The idea of native creative software was no longer a sure thing. Jobs managed to build a platform ecosystem and an organization that supported continued leadership in the industry. In the grand scheme of the history of creative computing, that’s no small feat.
Digital music consumption. iTunes, iPod, downloads, digital music consumption … yeah, that whole thing. Jobs’ personal commitment to music, and perhaps to the romanticized ideas of the relationship with album and artist, may last even when these individual products are long gone. Even as “cloud” music makes music more of a commodity, the feeling of satisfaction you get when you buy an actual album download from Bandcamp is in tune with the vision Jobs had of music listening. (It’s a vision misunderstood by record labels made nervous by that original “Rip. Mix. Burn.” ad campaign from 2001′s iPod launch, though I suppose what that campaign did accurately predict was the rise of the single.)
Digital music creation. Apple under Jobs was also a champion of music making software, acquiring Emagic, bundling GarageBand with every Mac, and developing Logic Studio and now GarageBand on iPad. Even beyond the immediate impact of this software, the focus on music creation apps and the underlying infrastructure with Core Audio and Core MIDI gets unparalled attention. Jobs has led that emphasis and the relationship with artists and industry from creation to consumption in a way that has impacted the entire music software industry. While third-party developers may not always be happy with the immediate results, the long-term benefit of making music instrumental to this generation of computers is hard to overstate. (Thanks to readers pointing this out in comments – and pointing out, as well, that once upon a time this was really more true of Atari than Apple. That history will have to wait for another day, though.)
Popularizing new mobility and interaction. Yes, the iPhone and iPad is what I’m talking about. But if you believe these designs will prove to have an impact in the greater history of computing, you have to assume that impact will be larger than a single product. The ideas behind mobile computing arguably began at Apple in Jobs’ absence, the era of Newton and John Sculley’s Apple, and then at upstart General Magic (a company which employed many of the future movers and shakers of today’s mobile landscape, including the founder of Android). But even those teams at Apple and General Magic had the thumbprints of the Mac team Jobs originally assembled, and their vision wasn’t truly realized until the iPhone and iPad. On the handheld and tablet, respectively, Apple under Jobs brought us new modes of interaction with software, from multi-touch and gestures to single-task focus, computers that began to feel more immersive, computing interaction that for the first time felt freed from the accumulated UI detritus (“chrome”) that had clouded the Mac’s original vision. Musicians and artists predicted (and built) these kinds of designs for years before the iOS revolution, and so it’s little wonder that some of the most ground-breaking software for these platforms comes from those communities. The ability to take a computer into a party, to make something as viscerally expressive as musical sound, is the perfect test for whether ubiquitous computing can be human. It’s the computer as part of culture, and it’s under Jobs’ Apple that we first saw those machines that made it seem like we were living in the future. If they’re not the last, if they do begin to come from other makers, that’s to me an even greater testament to that vision.
Jobs’ next act: Succession. Steve Jobs is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect manager; Apple’s products are hardly unassailably “perfect.” Often, the appealing vision of Apple is the counterpart of a lack of vision by their competitors, an inability to harness design and engineering talent – though that failure will give pause to anyone looking forward to the Jobs-less Apple.
But part of management is succession. Steve Jobs managed to grow as a manager, from the apparently tempestuous youth who was kicked out of Apple to someone who built a mature, wildly-successful global business. He learned from mistakes at Apple, at NeXT, and even at Pixar. He delivered new acts better than the last.
It’s immensely sad to many of us that health would be the reason for Jobs’ departure. I think those of us who work in computing and journalism hope for good health for everyone in this industry. But this is the nature of succession as a reality in any organization.
Jobs’ best days, his best achievements, have all come about as a result of intelligent leadership. Jobs didn’t design any of the products above; leadership is the ability to guide people who do that work. And to me, the best test of leadership is succession: it’s the ability to build an organization you can leave. I’m surprised by the gloom and doom around Apple. Jobs will be sorely missed. But I find it very unlikely that, as David Pogue argues, Apple will now be run “by committee.” This is the Apple Jobs built. Committees likely have nothing to do with it.
Ironically, Apple’s success following Jobs’ first departure – what were then some of the company’s best days – were partly possible because of the organization Jobs had built. Sculley ultimately proved the wrong leader for Apple, but he did helm smart decisions that helped Apple mature as a global business, helped the Mac mature as a platform, and defined how computers would be designed and marketed for years to come. And Sculley was not coincidentally a Jobs recruit. So, too, were many of the managers and engineers who built that healthy Apple, the Macintosh on which a lot of the music tech revolution has happened. They come out of an organizational culture and enthusiasm Jobs had built from the ground up.
Now, a more mature Jobs leaves Apple voluntarily, with a succession plan in place, and with an organization he has more directly molded. He’s staying on with the organization, too, and you can bet his voice will continue to carry enormous weight. If you want to evaluate the future of creative technology on the Mac and iOS, this is the greatest test yet of what Jobs can do as a manager, whether you love the man or not. In Sculley’s accounts of his long walks with Jobs in the early days of Apple, he reveals that Mr. Jobs was constantly aware of his own mortality. All of us will, without exception, be gone someday, someday not very far away. What is a “legacy” if not what you leave when you’re gone?