“You have an iPod?” asks the stranger inquisitively.
“I have an mp3 player, not an iPod. This one is made by Creative, not Apple,” I respond not quite sure where the conversation is going. The year is 2004. I’m on vacation in India for only a few weeks, recuperating from a PhD program in the United States. I don’t have time for long conversations with strangers.
“Achha? But why did you not get the iPod from Apple? Your iPod is better?”
I don’t exactly remember how I answered that question. It may have been a rhetorical one. I still have the unwieldy 40 GB hard-drive from Creative which masqueraded as an mp3 player. It still works. I had my reasons for buying it instead of an Apple iPod. It had a removable battery, so I didn’t need to send it back to the company if it needed replacing. It integrated seamlessly with Windows XP, my Operating System of choice and allowed me to play .wma files I ripped directly from CDs. Most importantly, it was cheaper.
But it was still an iPod. Few companies have created trademarks which have become synonymous with products. In India, it didn’t matter who made the photocopier – you Xeroxed your study notes; it didn’t matter who made the motor oil – you added Mobil to your engine. And just as in my childhood every portable cassette-player was called a Walkman, it didn’t matter who made the mp3 player – it was an iPod. As simple as that.
Apple did not create the ecosystem with the iPod. That came much later. First, it created the distribution channel with iTunes. In 2001, when Steve Jobs announced an insanely cool device with a 5 GB hard drive that put “1,000 songs in your pocket,” not everyone was immediately sold. At that time, the future of record companies was in doubt. For their part they were focused on killing Napster and going after college students (who were quick to discover other peer-to-peer software platforms such as Kazaa and Limewire to share bootleg rips). CD-players which played mp3s were around. These were bulky devices that spit as CDs got scratched. I owned a few of those and even the best of the lot was worse than the solid-state or hard-drive based mp3 players that would make them extinct. With iTunes, Apple gave the vast majority of customers who wanted to legitimately purchase high-quality tracks from the leisure of their own computers, the opportunity to do so. Deprived of a distribution network, record companies became insignificant. Because they could no longer entice customers who were only interested in one or two songs to buy entire CDs, they lost out. Today, with the Kindle, Amazon is replicating the iTunes model with the publishing industry. Steve Jobs taught us that content may be king, but distribution is the entire battlefield.
To go back to the beginning, I have to go back to 1984. That was the first time I ever touched a computer and it was an Apple II, an 8-bit puny contraption by today’s standards. I played an educational game on it called “Oregon Trail”. I printed long banners with ASCII characters on a dot-matrix printer. It was a magical experience. Later, as an ten-year old I’d try to write my own blatant rip-offs of “Oregon Trail” spooling together lines of BASIC on a Tandy-Radio Shack abomination. One of my father’s colleagues got a Mac in 1986 and I remember looking at the mouse that came with it with a sense of wonderment. At that time, of course, I didn’t know who Steve Jobs was.
It is now well known that Bill Gates’ Microsoft had a penchant for replicating many of Apple’s features. As a confirmed PC-user, features such as the graphical user interface worked wonders on installments of Windows. If you remember the hourglass icon that used to be on earlier version of Windows, you’ll know how the rotating blue-circle is inspired from Apple’s OS.
Like Bill Gates and the more recent internet icon Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs was famous for his arrogance. When there were issues with the antenna of the iPhone 4, he quipped “you’re holding it wrong.” In his first stint with Apple, he was described as temperamental. When Apple was an underdog throughout the 90s, his spirit came across as praiseworthy. In recent times, he had been berated for his use of superlatives and dismissal of genuine concerns with products. But he hired and inspired technical geniuses who packed power with Zen simplicity. And technical glitches got fixed with lighting speed.
In 2010, the internet was abuzz with a new tablet which an emaciated Steve Jobs had come on stage to introduce. The “iPad” jokes floated on Twitter for days. Who would want an iPad? How will we get by without Flash-support? How can we live without USB ports and front and rear facing cameras? I have to admit that I was in the camp of naysayers who thought of the iPad as a glorified iPod touch. In a year, I’ve gone from skeptic to believer and now I own not one but two second-generation iPads.
When Steve Jobs came on stage to announce the iPad, he was making a huge gamble. Essentially, he would have to create a need for a product when one didn’t exist (or more accurately, he would have to convince customers that they always needed a product, but they just didn’t know it).
A year is a long time in politics, but I’ll wager that it an even longer time in tech. When Jobs announced the “transformational iPad,” netbooks were the Next Big Thing. The consensus was that Apple would be launching a netbook –essentially a lightweight stripped down version of a laptop computer. Competitors, who scoffed at the iPad abandoned their netbooks to go back to the drawing boards. As is the case with every technological device resulting from a disruptive innovation, they will eventually catch up. It was a bold risk, but by putting his firm belief in a new device and the weight of a technological powerhouse behind it, Jobs killed the netbook. He created the fastest-selling device in history.
This episode epitomized Steve Jobs’ philosophy. In his own words:
There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will.
For better and for worse, the products Steve Jobs has created have influenced my life. I’ll miss him.