Not About Steve

As you know, Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple and Tim Cook has taken his place. That’s all there is to say about that.

One of the first things I remember reading in the news when Jobs first returned to Apple was that he had the Icon Garden mothballed. At the time, around 1997, Apple had pixelated sculptures of Mac OS icons on the campus grounds. Once Steve returned they had to go — appreciating history is one thing, enshrining it is something else.

Starting in the early mid-nineties and lasting a little over a decade the pace of change in our industry was effectively linear. During the earlier years of the personal computer there was far more variety in platforms. The Amiga, with its dedicated processors for computation, graphics and audio, not to mention its early multitasking, garnered a serious fan base. Atari claimed a portion of the market too. The Mac was iconic when it was introduced, and MS DOS and the Windows Shell were incredibly popular. We had GEOS and BeOS, OS/2 and NeXT. Linux would be on the desktop next year and FreeBSD ran Hotmail. As time has marched on the choices have died out and we were left with a relatively stable set of options, in decreasing order of popularity: the Windows PC, the Macintosh and a home brew running a flavour of Linux. We’d narrowed down our vision of the future to a very small field of view.

And then the iPhone shipped. And then iPod Touch. And eventually iPad. And Android. And webOS. And Kindle. And the PlayBook. And Windows Phone 7. And we’re seeing a new front-facing experience in Windows 8. And Mac OS X 10.7 Lion borrows concepts from iOS and takes the traditional PC into new territory. And it’s clear we’re seeing something new again, something reinvigorated.

The cancelling of the TouchPad and the way HP has handled webOS is saddening. The way RIM botched its shot with QNX is maddening. That they choose the name “Windows Phone 7” is stupefying. What’s great is that all these mighty companies tried to do something new, something unique, and go out on a limb we’d not seen ventured upon for about a decade. I wish they’d worked out better and I hope we continue to see this kind of risk taking in the years to come.

There is no doubt about Mr. Jobs’ contribution to Apple and how it has affected the company and how its products have impacted our lives. Perhaps overlooked in the myopia of our new Apple centric world is just how drastically they’ve bent the entire reality of the industry. The success of his vision for Apple has forced some of the biggest and most established players in their fields to either abdicate entirely or take risks on something drastically different.

Over the past year or so we’ve seen a renaissance in personal computing. We’ve seen different approaches, different aesthetics, and a whole lot of stealing from others. Over the past few months it looks like everyone is packing that in and I think that’s a shame. From a business perspective I understand: Apple clearly has the upper hand so don’t throw good money after bad. From an enthusiast perspective, I sort of feel like we might all end up missing out.

There’s been a lot written about Steve leaving Apple. I’m more concerned about Steve leaving the industry. Apple being the best player on the field is different than Apple being the player every other player wants to be. Steve inspired his competitors.