Has the Sun set on Apple?

Late in 1984, as a spotty year 10 student, I found myself in a city computer store fooling around with a computer unlike any other. I’d already had a few years cutting my teeth on Sinclair’s ZX81, and my local high school’s solitary green-screen Apple IIe. But in front of me was the combination of three amazing concepts: a graphical user interface, an integrated, non-computer-like box, and the weirdest thing of all: a mouse. That computer was the first Apple Mac. It was intoxicating. Apple’s pricing precluded ownership, but it was clear that the accessibility and function of this little box was going to allow us to intuitively work on tasks, rather than having to remember keyed-in mantras. That experience firmed my resolve to be a part of the IT industry, and so it came to be.

IBM’s personal computing – very much focussed on business functions rather than the artistic user, would take 4 more years until Microsoft’s Windows 2.1 would bring the natural interface benefits of GUI and mouse to its users – and herald the PC – and Windows’ – meteoric rise.

Meanwhile, times were dark at Apple. Still believing it had something truly unique in its intuitive, natural interface, its small scale meant the computer maker had to cut a lot of corners to get its hardware to a competitive price point with IBM PC clones – and they were still at a huge premium. The board decided Steve had to go: in 1985 he resigned to continue influencing ground-breaking, if not popular computers at NeXT. Working at Mitsubishi Electric’s Human Interface labs in Japan, I spent much time working on the NeXT cube, with display postscript and 8″ WORM disks. It was truly unusual and ground-breaking, if under-appreciated.

It wasn’t until Steve returned to Apple in 1997, with the buyout of NeXT, that the tide began to turn for the beleaguered Apple, itself having gone through a few professional, if not visionary, CEOs. Reading about Apple’s new jellybean interface styling and embracing Unix as a basis for a new Operating System, I felt that greatness could return.

But it was Steve Jobs’ master stroke of focussing on an untapped market – portable music players – that allowed Apple to reach and convert millions of new users to its brand, while the continued refinement of OSX, ported to Intel-based custom hardware with a unique design gave those fed up with Microsoft a truly alternative platform.

It’s clear from looking at the trail of inventions Apple released over the Jobs years, that his influence, perfectionist nature and driving ambition to bring usable computing to the masses drove the company’s product line, strategy, and vision.

I remember buying an iPod in 2004 (coming somewhat late to the party), an iPhone 2G (never released in Australia), 3G, 3GS and 4, MacBooks and an iPad – and never experiencing buyers remorse. Those who don’t get the great leaps in computing interface design and usability this company has made would call the Apple followers fan-boys – but we don’t care. Steve’s often smug attitude, faith in his team’s creations and undying fanaticism for a great product experience focussed on the user remain unique in the landscape.

With the release of the somewhat underwhelming iPhone 4S, albeit with iOS 5 and iCloud, the period of Steve’s influence coming to a close is starting to be evident.

Steve: you were great, you inspired millions and you really did bring computing to the masses without the dagginess. You will be sorely missed. RIP.

We can hope for more, but we have to accept it: the period of huge innovation and vision has gone with the ending of the life of a difficult, driven genius.

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