Malcolm Garrett is a much-honoured British designer credited, from the late ’70s, with bringing graphic design to the music-conscious through his iconic record sleeves for Buzzcocks and Duran Duran amongst many others. He saw the possibilities of digital early on and his company AMX were responsible for many early websites and enhanced-CDs for artists as diverse as Orbital, Spice Girls, Iron Maiden and Pulp. He is currently creative director at communications company 53k.
I bought my first Apple computer (an Apple IIe) in 1983, and my first Macintosh (a Mac Plus) in 1986. It seems hardly credible how much has changed since then, or taken another way, it is amazing to think how primitive those computers now seem, and what we now take for granted. They were such remarkable advances at the time, and in one sense all feel so recent yet that time is so far away already.
In a little over two decades the world has not so much changed as transformed into one which I could only half dream of when growing up though the ’60s. For me the future has happened. Back then I was fascinated by the fictional gadgetry of Gerry Anderson and James Bond, as well as real world technology such as the Post Office Tower and Concorde, yet what seemed incredible then is primitive now.
Steve Jobs led Apple through a remarkable transitional period, from hardware company to where it is today re-shaping the music and media industries. Yet this was not so much a transitional period for the company, as a transitional period for the world; a world that the products made by his company have helped to define. It is not too rich to say that he both foresaw the future and created a space in which that future could be played out.
He has always realised the importance of technology, but that it is not really the technology that is important. This is quite refreshing for a technology company, most of whom are all too ready to glorify the technology first and foremost. This subtle distinction is still not fully understood by Apple’s detractors as they continue to miss the obvious influence Apple has had across the media spectrum, and maintain that it is simply style that Apple markets, merely rehashing other company’s technologies in nicer looking boxes.
Where Apple distinguishes itself, however, is that it has spent time placing importance in what people could do with technology, how technology could work for people, rather than making things that just do what’s expected. What Jobs has also understood is that technology should work effortlessly and elegantly first, and without need for instructions or explanation, only then can it look as elegant as the job it is doing. What Apple has done is to introduce clarity into an overly complex technical world.
It has been noted elsewhere that one of the more beautiful features of Apple products is that everyone is limited to the same choice. No-one can buy a ‘better’ iPhone than anyone else, in the same way that no-one can really buy a superior pencil. What you can do is create, or curate, with it in ways which are unique to you.
With this singularly democratic approach to technology, Jobs understood, above all else, that it is in the empowerment of the individual, not the glorification of the powerful individual that Apple distinguishes itself from every would-be ‘luxury’ brand. The only way to attach snob value to your Apple product is to buy an expensive case for it, manufactured by someone else of course.
Jobs was undoubtedly a man with singular vision, always convinced that he knew what was right, and when everyone else was wrong. Writing their obituaries most people have talked about him being a genius, a visionary, a single-minded tyrant even. He was also a populist and a believer in people and their own capabilities.
This emphasis on people rather than products was subtly signalled when the word ‘computer’ was eventually dropped from the company name. By evolving quietly and without fuss to just ‘Apple’ Steve Jobs was telling us that he recognised that any continued focus on the word ‘computer’ was no longer necessary nor appropriate. He was telling us what the world knew instinctively, but had not quite realised, that it is who people are and what people are able to do with Apple products that actually matters, and that the technology itself should no longer take centre stage.
As a an ex-punk, I have been consistently bemused by the way in which this “fruit company’” has taken on the music industry by stealth. It is almost comical how consistently inept the music industry has been at recognising which way the digital wind was blowing (to paraphrase Dylan). It wasn’t the Sex Pistols who destroyed EMI after all.
I’m convinced that Steve Jobs has known from the start that his products should sit at the natural centre of a new digital media world, and that providing the best possible platform for creating, enjoying and sharing ideas, whether they be music, books, film, or all kinds of new interactive media, would be the key challenge for any company. To do this effortlessly, seamlessly and democratically was his goal.
One of sounds to be heard on the very first Macs sold in 1984, the first built in to any desktop computer in fact, was the defiantly named ‘sosumi’. Every alert sound had a name, and this one made direct reference to an (empty) legal promise made to The Beatles’ Apple Corp that Apple Computer would never compete in the same field, namely music. “So Sue Me”, geddit? Yeah, right!
As a music lover, and avid collector, I bought the first generation iPod as soon as it was available in the UK, back in 2001. Soon after I found myself in a recording studio in Toronto, where I was trying to identify the right music for a film soundtrack. I suggested plugging this unassuming little box directly into the mixing desk to listen to some possible tunes I’d brought along. The producers and engineers were at first bemused, then completely blown away that something as big as a cigarette box could be so full of fantastic sounding music. No one had seen or heard anything like it before. “How much music is on that thing?” I was asked in disbelief. “All of it”, I said with a smile. How right I was.
So, will we miss Steve Jobs? No, he’s too deeply embedded in our lives already.