By Ian Barker, author of Game Changers: Apple's Breakthrough Moments
Thanks to the release this week of the Steve Jobs biopic you'll no doubt be reading and hearing a lot in the coming days about the co-founder of Apple. On his death in 2011 Jobs was described as everything from a visionary to a monster, but there's no doubt that few others have had his impact on the world of consumer technology. What's perhaps more remarkable is that he did this not by inventing new products but by making gadgets cool.
Making an inanimate object cool is more difficult than you might imagine. BMC did it, by accident, with the original Mini. Sony did it with the Walkman. There are plenty of other companies that have never done it. Yet Apple has managed to pull off the trick of making its products cool time and time again. Every time Steve Jobs appeared on stage in that trademark black sweater you knew he'd announce something that would have people queuing around the block to be among the first to own one on launch day.
However, if you look at the devices Apple has made over the years you'll find there are few completely original ideas. What the company has done is to take technologies that already existed and simply do them better. Portable MP3 players existed before the iPod; there were smartphones before the iPhone; there were even tablets before the iPad. But it's Apple that has popularised all of these devices by making them desirable.
Just how has a business that started out making computer kits in a suburban garage managed to have such an impact on the world? Part of the secret is that right from the Apple II that followed those early kits, the company's products have been complete, needing minimal effort to get them up and running. Jobs' vision has always been about enhancing the user experience without letting the technology get in the way. What makes an Apple device work has always been secondary to how well it functions for the consumer.
This is an understanding that Jobs shared with other industrial pioneers. Henry Ford didn't invent the car but he knew how to make it accessible and appealing to the masses. A feat Jobs and Apple have repeated with the personal computer and other devices.
You can argue that this is down to clever marketing more than anything else but you can't deny that it's been phenomenally successful. Much of this is because Apple has positioned itself as a premium brand. In the way that the Mini appealed to a string of '60s celebrities like Paul McCartney and Twiggy, the Macintosh computer was bought by creative types, designers, artists and writers. It has high-profile champions like Stephen Fry and the late Douglas Adams. If you own an Apple product you bask in the glow of that association and it doesn't matter that you could have bought a cheaper alternative to do the same task. In fact even if you do buy the alternative remember to thank Apple for creating the demand.
Apple has succeeded in becoming a cultural icon as well as a successful business, its desirable products and clever advertising set it apart from other technology companies. But it isn't the only enterprise that has been touched by the Jobs halo, remember he's also the man behind the Pixar animation studio.
It's Apple that represents his greatest legacy though. When it comes to changing the gadgets that we have on our desks or hold in our hands there are few individuals that have had as much influence as Steve Jobs. Yes, the Sonys and Samsungs of the world may have teams of researchers working on the latest developments, but it's the influence of Jobs and his mission to make technology more usable that has consistently given Apple products the edge and ultimately made them cool.
Ian Barker is the author of Game Changers: Apple's Breakthrough Moments, published by Endeavour Press