Why has the death of Steve Jobs caused such a huge outpouring of grief? Mainly, I think, because Jobs had an ability to make very human connections with people. He could do it in a commencement speech which barely mentions technology — but his greatest achievement was to do it with technology itself.
In the speech, Jobs talks about how and why the Macintosh shipped with multiple proportionally spaced fonts. From his perspective, that was a matter of good design — part and parcel with his obsession over power buttons and USB ports. But something unprecedented happened when Apple’s (AAPL) beautifully-designed technology fell into the hands of humans: the humans loved it. Literally.
Other companies, once in a blue moon, make a much-admired piece of technology — the HP 12c, say, or the Nokia 3310. But from the day that Apple decided to literally put a smiley face on its computers every time they booted up, real people started treating its products as they would loved ones.
If you look at Steve’s introduction of the iMac, in 1998, he quite explicitly compares the sultry curves of his gorgeous new computer to the unlovable beige boxes being sold by the competition. In many ways, the original iMac and the original iPod are the true iconic Apple products — built at human scale, with human curves, and displaying what can only be called personality.
These products came out after Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to take the helm as CEO for the second time. In the interim, he founded Pixar — probably the ultimate marriage of technology, humanity, and emotion. And I can’t help but look at the iMac and the iPhone and see something very Pixar in both of them.
In recent years, Apple products have become silvery, and harder-edged; the colorful logo has given way to a simple white one, and the iPhone 4, in particular, is quite a forbidding slab. I don’t think anybody loves their iPhone 4 in the way that people loved that original iPod; Apple is more successful than ever, but I do fear that it has lost some of its humanity along the way. In any event, it was Steve Jobs who, almost single-handedly, turned personal technology into personal technology. Which is a truly astonishing legacy to leave.