Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Little Bit of Steve

Update Oct 6 2011: This post was first written on August 30, soon after Steve Jobs resigned from CEO of Apple and before he passed away yesterday. Only the post title and the last paragraph have been modified.

I have never met Steve Jobs in person. The closest I got to him was my roommate in my first year in the US, who later got a job at Apple. I also have a close friend who has the same florist as Steve. I can know a lot about Steve's mind though, when I use some of Apple's devices. They feel properly designed. Apple products are to the rest of tech products what intelligent design is to the theory of evolution. 

Pre-2003, I just knew Apple as a brand name only. I hadn't actually used any of their products yet. When I arrived in the US in the summer of 2003 to begin my PhD, I was impressed by the number of Apple computers in the student offices -- it seemed that almost have half of the computers were these cool iMacs with a rounded base and a swivel monitor. Also, most of the libraries at the university used Macs as terminals. Around 2004, I had a huge problem with my MP3 collection -- it was growing too big. That was the era when bittorent was still being used by a tiny number of people in universities, and most digital downloads were still music files. I wanted to find a good program to manage my MP3 collection, and I tried a number of different programs, before I discovered iTunes. It was simple, it organized my music beautifully, and it made it very easy to search through my entire collection. It forced me to make my group collections pretty -- adding album covers and fixing the filenames properly. Soon after, I ripped all my CDs to iTunes, and I've been using the program ever since. 

For over 3 years I used both a Mac and a PC (on the same desk) to work on my PhD -- my advisor loved Mac laptops and he had purchased the Mac versions of certain academic programs. But I never really got into MacOS. Being a Windows user, it just felt awkward to use, as I couldn't do many tasks as quickly as I was used to doing them in Windows. Then, February 2006 came. That was the date I bought my then-girlfriend a pink iPod Shuffle as a Valentine's Day gift, having inscribed her name on the back. It was the first cool Apple product I had purchased. Although it was only $60, it felt like a precious item. It worked great, it had a long battery life, and it integrated seamlessly with iTunes. I still use it today as my main MP3 player when I go to the gym or on a run. Later that year, I wanted to get a new keyboard for my PC. Apple had just released these cool, flat aluminum keyboards that felt just great when you typed on them. I got the wired version first, and a later, I also got the wireless version. I still use those keyboards today as they have a great feel, they look cool, and they are the easiest keyboards there are to clean. 

I had been following Steve's keynotes addresses at Apple conventions for a couple of years by that time, and in January of 2007 I watched his iPhone presentation. To this day, it remains the prime example for me of how to present a new product to a wide audience, and to my mind it's Steve's best presentation ever. At that time, smartphones barely existed, and swiping to unlock the iPhone using your finger or touching the screen to scroll around your music were the coolest things I had ever seen at the time.

Yet as much as I liked the iPhone, I couldn't have it. It was too expensive ($600 with a 2 year contract!) and I didn't want to enroll in such a long-term plan when I was about to finish my PhD. I was hoping then for an iPhone without the Phone part. In September of 2007 Steve presented the iPod refresh. Back in those days, Apple was at its coolest, delivering awesome product after awesome product. On Apple product launch dates, I would shut down all outside communication, barely talking to people, and switching off my news feeds. I wanted to be surprised. Later that night, I would sit down with my roommate to watch the video the product launch. It felt like watching a football match, waiting for our favorite team to score. I watched presentation after presentation of the various products, hoping for a touch-screen iPod. Thankfully, it was Steve's "one more thing" that night. I remember him presenting it, and I couldn't sit down at all as I waited to hear the price. It felt like the World Cup final. I said "If this thing is less than $400, I am buying it immediately" (iPhone was $500 at the time). When Steve revealed the price at $299, we started screaming and running around the house. Ah, those innocent days. I immediately got onto my laptop and pre-ordered it. It arrived 2 weeks later, and it was bliss to use. I laser-inscribed it on the back: "E=mc^2, Wisdom begins in wonder". I sold it only last month after having bought 2 more iPhones since that day.

I asked my Mac-only advisor then how he liked his new iPhone. He said that it was a great relief for Mac users, as there was no simple way using other smartphones to get their music on their phones. With the iPhone, it was just automatic. Later that year I bought the Apple TV too. I had a big screen projector and some nice speakers I had built myself, and I wanted to play my iTunes music on them. Well, Apple TV offered the easiest interface to do that, as it seamlessly interfaced with my PC. I could also use my iPod Touch as a remote control to play the music. It was at that point that I truly began to admire Apple's consistency and commitment to user friendliness. Here I was, using my iPod to stream music to my Apple TV from iTunes in a simple and efficient manner. It felt simply great. I was completely hooked. It was a matter of time then to get an iPhone as soon as I moved to my new job in London. It just didn't make sense to carry two devices, an MP3 player and a phone, at the same time with me.

My excitement over new Apple products has faded since then. It's not that I don't enjoy using them , or that they're not cool, but Apple is everywhere now and it doesn't feel like I am doing something special anymore. Back then it felt great to own an iPhone or an Apple TV - I was one of the select few.

It may also be that with all this popularity, it's hard to catch consumers off-guard anymore. Everyone was expecting the iPad when it was announced, and it feels almost natural that it has now dominated the tablet market. There is no surprise factor anymore. Maybe this is why I loved Steve's statement that he would quit as CEO of Apple. It was a total surprise. As David Pogue noted in a recent NYT column, we'll probably never see such a successful series of blockbuster tech products released again in our lifetime, let alone  by a single company. It was a golden decade, a tech consumer's Golden Age. And I feel incredibly lucky that after witnessing the birth and growth of the Internet, I also witnessed such a transformation in consumer technology. 

When I walk around Athens and look at the Acropolis, I remind myself of the Golden Age of Athens, led by Pericles. It lasted about 30 years, and all the buildings that can now be seen on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, were build during that age. I feel the same thing will happen with many tech products: we'll be looking at their future editions, always reminding ourselves that it was Steve that set their foundations.

Richard Feynman at some point said that people never really die. Through discussions, friendships, and interactions with other people, the ideas and thoughts in one's mind are transfered to other people's minds, so that each person exists a little bit in other people's consciousness. This is even more true for Steve Jobs:  every one of Apple's products carries elements of his style and his way of thinking, which are then transferred to us when using them. If you've ever used an Apple product, if you've ever watched one of his keynote addresses, if you've watched his Stanford 2005 commencement speech, you've already experienced his ideas.

We all carry a little bit of Steve in us now.