Rise of the Olympians: The Passing of Steve Jobs

I had originally intended to make a post in the next day or two about some of the most egregious and frustrating things that I hear about statistics (a topic of interest to me as an analyst and designated “stats guy” at my job). But last night, as I was mulling over an outline of what to say in my head, I popped open Facebook and saw…

…that Steve Jobs was dead.

When that came up, I knew that I’d be shelving the statistics post, at least for a day or two. Not because I was deep in mourning, per se, but rather because I knew I had to say something about the passing of Jobs, one of the titans of the tech industry.

Any of you who know me in person know that I am, in no way, an Apple fan. In fact, I regularly criticize Apple products, and the sometimes-slavish devotion shown toward Apple by some users. I also regularly praise Apple for what it is good at: delivering an excellent user experience, creating aesthetically pleasing hardware and interfaces, and providing top-notch customer service. But all of that is laid aside on this day, as I pause and reflect on Steve Jobs.

We all have our opinions about Steve Jobs: his management, his personality, his leadership style, the “cult of personality” that followed him. These things will be the subject of debate for years to come, as they are for so many public figures. But whether you believe Apple products to be the greatest thing in the world, or believe them to be generally overpriced, although elegant and functional, we can all agree on one thing:

Apple has transformed our expectations of technology – and Steve Jobs was the one whose vision led this transformation.

Think about it. We all know, intellectually, that titles like iPod, iPhone, and iPad are just brands. They’re fancy ways of saying “MP3 player”, “smartphone”, or “tablet”. But it was these terms that catapulted these technologies into the mainstream. MP3 players existed before the iPod, but Apple succeeded in making the brand of iPod into a household name. The product is nice, of course, and well-made. But what is significant about it is not the quality. It is the fact that it has penetrated so deeply into our lives.

Consider, for instance, that the initial iPhone was, in essence, an iPod Touch wedded to a cell phone. It was an MP3 player that could make phone calls. (When said that way, it sounds somewhat less impressive, huh?) And yet, that phone changed the cellular industry. Sure, smartphones existed before the iPhone. Jobs and the crew at Apple did not invent the idea; they did it right and marketed it well.

The iPhone took smartphones from being a niche product into being something accessible to all. This high-tech device wasn’t just a tool for “geeks”. It was for everyone. Apple took an existing concept, packaged it with an elegant user interface, put it into a sleek form factor, and marketed it to everyone. This is the same pattern they have followed with numerous other products in recent years.

Some may criticize them as being derivative, and in some ways they are. But this pattern – taking a complex, technical product, making it accessible to people who aren’t very technical, and then convincing them that the product was for them – has driven an enormous amount of technical innovation over the past 10 years. And make no mistake: it was the uncompromising vision of Steve Jobs that led Apple in that pattern.

There are downsides to this, of course. Apple has large swaths of adherents who have “bought” the message of Mac, so to speak. Sometimes, I think these people are too enamored with their iWhatever, unwilling to even acknowledge that there might be other options that could have equal utility. This cultivated air of Mac “elitism” tends to have a polarizing effect, in my experience: either you think Macs are the best thing ever, or you have a considerable amount of disdain for the whole Mac “culture”.

Even so, it is impossible to ignore the immeasurable importance of Steve Jobs. I do not use any Apple products, and I’m unlikely to ever buy an Apple product. I have my reasons, which aren’t relevant here; the point remains, though, that you might construe me as anything from “neutral” to “actively hostile” toward Apple products. And yet, I am still sitting here, writing about the importance of Steve Jobs. I cannot help but find his life impressive, his vision prescient, and his leadership compelling.

We might imagine that the current world of technology was built by a group of titans, the elder gods of Greek mythology: people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners-Lee, Richard Stallman, and others (of course, such a list is incomplete). But just as in Greek mythology, eventually a new group of gods, the Olympians, rose and replaced the titans as masters. These new leaders are already rising in our day and age. Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Bram Cohen, Matt Mullenweg, and others (again, an incomplete list) make up this new group, who have built on the foundation laid by the original titans and are presently remaking the Internet (and with it, society).

Today, we bid farewell to Steve Jobs, a towering figure among the titans of the tech world. He has shaped the technology that penetrates all of our lives and paved the way for the next generation. As he becomes the first titan to pass into history (or perhaps legend), we bear witness to the start of a changing of the guard: to the ascent of the next generation, the rise of the Olympians.

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