Steve Jobs: The “Consumerizer” of Digital Technology

By Arun Sundararajan, Associate Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences & NEC Faculty Fellow
October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs will be eulogized in many ways: as the enigmatic, focused founder and reviver of Apple; as the creative genius behind some of the most iconic technology products of the last 30 years, from the original Macintosh in 1982, through the iPod in 2001, to the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010; as a modern-day Edison, Picasso or Mozart; and as perhaps the greatest marketing mind of the modern computing era.

To me, however, Jobs’ most enduring legacy will come from his vision of digital technology that was centered on consumers rather than large enterprises. Long before anyone else did, Jobs imagined a future where consumers were at the center of the digital universe. Under his watchful eye, Apple invested heavily into building expertise in usability and industrial design, both signature attributes of their products for the last 30 years. And like many people who are too far ahead of their time, his great successes were preceded by many years of frustration. His unwavering desire to control the user experience for the early Macs led to Apple losing the original platform war to Microsoft’s DOS (and later Windows), despite having what were arguably superior products, and to his subsequent expulsion from the company in the late 1980’s, a time when the computer industry was simply not at a stage of evolution that was ready for his vision.

But over the last decade, Jobs has ushered in what many of us have begun to refer to as the “consumerization of information technology,” where, rather than being driven by the needs of large enterprises, new generations of important technologies are created for and refined by consumers. Home users are no longer an afterthought, or relegated to being content with second-rate versions of business devices imperfectly modified for their needs. Rather, the design, development and emergence of new products are driven by and for consumers, and these consumer products then get modified and integrated into business. This is a massive paradigm shift, one that mobile technologies and social media successfully embody, it’s the future of technology that Jobs foresaw and aimed his company’s trajectory towards. As he famously once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” The artist in Jobs seemed to sense exactly where to draw the line around the capabilities of the hardware, and where to let the software take over. For example, his decision to create the iTunes application rather than integrating library management into the iPod's hardware gave consumers exactly what they wanted (and no more) in their portable device; simultaneously, the iTunes software on their computers became the platform for Apple to later take control of digital retailing.

As we move from the era of business-driven technological innovation to one driven by consumer experience, Jobs’ focus on creating beautiful products that are easily learned and used has paid off in spades: these are the core competencies that have placed Apple far ahead of its competitors and made it rival ExxonMobil as the most valuable company in the world. This melding of business acumen and creative artistry is what makes Jobs a modern-day Edison, someone who didn’t merely catalyze inventing the key technologies of his time, but who took the resulting “art” to the masses by facilitating its commercialization.

Jobs gave us many memorable quotes, from his early 1980’s observation as an outsider that it’s “more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy” to his succinct message in 2006 about the importance of focus: “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” However, the one that keeps coming back to me is from his commencement address to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” In the 1980’s and 1990’s, it seemed like Apple and its brilliant founder always marched to the beat of a different drum, one that was out of sync with the business realities of the technology world. We had to wait for the 21st century to see Jobs take over technology’s helm, steering the computing, mobile and music industries onto their future path, making our digital devices and software beautiful, easy to use, and focused on us – truly putting the “i” into our technologies.