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The revolutionary and his revolutions

October 5, 2011

We are moving creatures. Our eyes move, our bodies move – we shift around, we walk, we climb, we make sandwiches, we collect into groups and then disperse. Fixed objects are a strain to use – they affix an unwanted anchor to all our natural movements.

This morning it occurred to me that when you use a desktop computer, and to almost the same extent when you use a laptop, you orient your body to the computer. It is more or less fixed in space and your movements and focus belong to it. But when you use a tablet, you orient the computer to your body. This is the reason smartphones are so popular, but they simply aren’t big enough to handle tougher information-handling jobs. The iPad is, by design, just right.

The announcement

I didn’t believe him back in April of 2010. It sounded like sales hype:

After months of rampant speculation, Apple Wednesday announced a touchscreen tablet computer, the “iPad” for consumers who want to take their movies, TV shows, music, games and reading with them, be it around the house or on the go. Pricing starts at $499, and it should be available in 60 to 90 days.”We want to kick off 2010 with a truly revolutionary and magical product,” CEO Steve Jobs told a packed audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Wednesday.

“Revolutionary and magical”? It just looked like a giant iPod to me. But in 15 short months the iPad has gone far beyond “movies, TV shows, music, games and reading.”  It has become an educational tool, a scientific instrument, a portable theater, a communications’ center, and a creative platform. It opened up whole new possibilities in the information handling of practically every industry you can name, from manufacturing to medicine to sales to law enforcement.  It could fill all these needs because it was light enough for a human to carry, easy-to-use enough for a human to master, had enough battery life for a normal human workday, and was cheap enough for a human to buy.

Steve Jobs - image from "Joy Of Tech" comic

Steve Jobs - image from "Joy Of Tech" comic

The individual technological pieces didn’t add up to any device at all.  Yes, we knew how to make fantastic touch-screens with indium-tin oxide coatings. Yes, we had low-power processors and advanced batteries. Yes, we could CAM up heat-dissipating single-piece aluminum bodies. Yes, we could in principle create an operating system optimized for touch instead of retrofitting an old, bloated one created for keyboard entry and then retrofitted for a mouse. But it took Steve Jobs’ vision of a new customer experience to push all these elements to their limits, and then pull them together into the iPad.

The magic

In his lifetime Steve Jobs created a string of iconic products, revolutionizing computers, telephones, the movie industry, the music industry, printing technology, desktop publishing, manufacturing, product development, technology integration, and public awareness of the importance of design in the technology we use. In doing these things he popularized high-power creative tools for millions of people.  His secret?  Focus on the user:

“You can’t start with the technology and figure out how to sell it. You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” – Steve Jobs at WWDC 1997

The only Apple computer I have ever owned is an iPod touch. But every single computer I have ever owned was shaped by competition with a revolutionary genius.  RIP, Steve Jobs.  You actually did change the world.


  • Hard to believe that announcement was only 15 months ago.
  • Other companies may never catch up. I read about Jobs’ death on my new Lenovo Android-based tablet, which has been shipping now for all of one week. Today I used it in a meeting full of iPad owners, and they were like iron filings to a magnet.  But my new tablet would not exist at all  - or not for several years – if Jobs had not created the iPad.
  • Early tablets were just laptops with touch-screens.  They weighed 7 or 8 pounds, had 2.5-hour battery life, ran Windows, and cost over two grand. Lot of unusability thresholds there.
  • Amazon builds on the iPad with its amazing new Silk browser.
  • The concept of a tablet does not originate with Apple or Steve Jobs; It has appeared in fiction for decades.  Creating the reality, that’s something else again.
  • Insights into the usability of the iPhone from a phone-support professional: Steve was all right
  • Jobs at 2005 Stanford graduation, explaining…
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 6, 2011 at 02:27 | #1

    I’ll be linking this post in Los Links, front and center. Gorgeous tribute to a brilliant mind.

    Just spent some time writing a farewell post to a man I used to curse. I’d come to respect him when the iPhone 3gs came out. No denying he’s changed the world, and in so many ways for the better. I hope the company stays true to him, and continues to innovate rather than getting all hidebound.

  2. October 7, 2011 at 11:08 | #2

    Mary Schmich’s column in the 07 October 2011 Chicago Tribune short, successful life. Only 5 comments there as of my writing this, but looks like there is shifting of perspective

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