The future after Jobs

The first and only time I met Steve Jobs was late in the summer of 1976 at a Southern California Computer Society meeting. Among the exhibits there was a table with two hirsute young men behind it. On the table was a circuit board, a power supply, a 9 inch black-and-white monitor, a keyboard, and ribbon cables connecting them together. The two young men, both of them called Steve, demonstrated the power of their scattered–component computer on the 9 inch monitor. They said they were about to begin production of the system. I ask them what they called it. They said it was the Apple I. I told him that they would have to package the parts in a more attractive case if they wanted to sell very many of them.

The rest, as they say, is history. From that humble beginning, in a garage in Northern California, arose one of the world’s most dominant technology firms. Also, that Computer Society meeting inspired me to take a close look at the future of personal computers. A year later I had secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to perform a technology assessment of the personal computer. That assessment, completed in 1978, forecast a rapid expansion of acceptance of personal computers and a concomitant, pervasive impact on almost every aspect of modern society (although with some hitches, as in education).

This was also the beginning of the contest between open and closed personal computer systems. Steve Jobs was among the foremost proponents of closed systems—where the hardware and software were intimately interconnected and designed as a single entity. “It just works.” Bill Gates was the main proponent of open systems, at least in terms of the hardware–software interface. Microsoft’s Windows could be adapted to run on almost any set of hardware. Eventually. That battle has continued to the present day, further diversified by the growth of Linux as a contender to the Microsoft and Apple operating systems. Although Microsoft’s Windows operating system soon became the dominant one in the early 1980s its hegemony is increasingly being challenged both by Apple’s OS X and its mobile operating system iOS.

Much of the shift in influence over the past decade has directly been the result of Steve Jobs highly focused and integrated approach to development. One of his frequently repeated statements recently was that he doesn’t care about what customers say they want–he provides what they are going to want.

And he has. He has shifted the focus from the desktop to the cloud.

The question now that Steve has gone is: what next? Will Apple continue in its upward trajectory? Will the Jobs momentum continue or will Apple’s growth slow to the point where it becomes just another high-tech company? What will be the next major trends in intelligent boxes?

One clue to the future is exposed in an article in the 7 October 2011 Los Angeles Times about the Apple University. This, too, is the result of jobs desire to inculcate Apple’s management core with the principles and attitudes that powered its growth. Whether this is ultimately successful remains to be seen but this is an approach that is taken by far too few large organizations (and Business Schools) around the world.

We are also at the point now, substantially influenced by Apple’s designs, where the world is becoming even more interconnected. The emphasis in technology is moving from the computer to the smart communications device–the iPhone being the leading example. Here, too, the contest between open and controlled system designs continues. Google’s Android operating system, found in a large variety of smart phones, provides an important option to Apple’s iOS. But, whichever of these systems and their variants becomes dominant, the overall result is that substantial computing and communication power will become available to anyone, regardless of their economic standing.

One of the most important recent examples of this ubiquity is the so-called Arab Spring, resulting from the ability of smart phones, telecommunications, the Internet, and social software to focus and activate the frustrations of millions of people with the inequities of repressive governments. More is yet to come. At the same time these technologies are enabling people in developing countries to receive educations that they would otherwise have no hope of getting.

It has been a long time since that chance meeting with Steve in Southern California. There have been many ups and downs since then. Steve Jobs has persisted; he and his coworkers have indeed caused the world to change. The world will continue to change, unfortunately without Steve’s presence, but his influence will be a positive one for generations to come.

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