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Steve Jobs' Greatest Legacy May Be Impact On Design

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 7, 2011 9:45 am

Steve Jobs, who died Wednesday at the age of 56, was obsessed with computers from an early age. In 1975, when he was 20, Jobs was part of the Homebrew Computer Club — a group of early computer enthusiasts obsessed with making computers more popular.

"People [would be] all together in a room, jostling, bubbling with ideas, bringing in new technology, new chips, new displays, new networks, new software, everything new," says John Gage, a former member of the club.

Gage says from the beginning, Jobs' talent was to see all that clutter and cut through it, "with the result, an elegant, simple, human usable device."

"That was Steve's genius," Gage says. "He saw clearly how to take this enormous complexity and make something a human being could use."

In 1984, Jobs introduced the first MacIntosh computer at the first MacWorld in front of an audience of thousands. Jobs lifted a cover and revealed a boxy computer with easy-to-read graphics.

The computer voice identified itself, said, "It sure is great to get out of that bag," and went on to poke fun at IBM computers.

"Never trust a computer you can't lift," it said. The MacIntosh had a mouse and graphical user interface — not the first computer to have them — but it was the first computer with those features that was commercially successful. The Mac made the computer a creative device for the average person.

"He brought music and art," Gage says. "He brought visual sensation. He brought capabilities to the computer that were not dreamed of by those that were at the lower levels of putting together the chips that would do the fast computation or store all the bits of a picture."

In 1985, Jobs was pushed out of Apple in a boardroom coup. But after he left, the company floundered. He returned in 1997 and stripped down the company the way he stripped down design — cutting out product lines.

Robert Brenner was at Apple during the time Jobs was gone. When he returned, Brenner says, he unleashed the power of the company's designers.

"There obviously is a culture and an environment there as a designer if you're good that will ... support you in doing great things," Brenner says.

In 1998, Apple introduced the iMac. It was one piece and a smash hit. In 2001, the iPod reshaped the idea of an MP3 player, with a simple user interface that had a wheel in the front that you could turn to scroll through all your songs in a little window.

Then in 2007, Apple entered the smartphone market. Jobs poked fun at the other phones and smartphones, and then he introduced the iPhone.

"What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been and super easy to use," Jobs said at the time. "This is what iPhone is."

Brenner says Jobs was obsessed with making his products just right and using the best materials — not plated plastic, but real machined metal; not black plastic but glass. Brenner says Apple would build a new factory if that's what it took to make the product right.

"Very few companies would do that, say, 'Here's an object we believe needs to be made this way; let's go out and create an entire infrastructure to do it,' " Brenner says.

Brenner says Jobs raised the profile of design. Brenner, who now has his own firm, says there's a dark side to that: Everybody wants products to look just like Apple's.

"If it's not a machined piece of aluminum with black glass and one button it's not good," Brenner says.

Still, Brenner says the world of computers is a better place because Jobs and Apple took care to make high-quality, accessible products that have transformed everything from the way we listen to music to watching movies and communicating.

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Now, Steve Jobs did not invent the computer or the mouse or the smart phone or MP3 players, but his vision made them accessible, user-friendly and enormously popular. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, one of Steve Jobs' greatest legacies is his impact on design.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It's true, Steve Jobs didn't invent computers, though he was obsessed with them from an early age. In 1975, at the age of 20, Jobs was part of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer enthusiasts obsessed with making computers more popular.

JOHN GAGE: People all together in a room, jostling, bubbling with ideas, bringing in new technology, new chips, new displays, new networks, new software, everything new.

SYDELL: At least, it was new back then, says John Gage, who was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club. Gage says from the get-go, Jobs' talent was to take all those different pieces of technology and incorporate them into one design.

GAGE: With the result - an elegant, simple, human, usable device. That was Steve's genius. He saw clearly how to take this enormous complexity and make something a human being could use.

SYDELL: The first Apple II computer, which came out in 1977, was designed to be more like a home appliance. Up until then, you had to know how to put them together yourself. But it was the design of the MacIntosh that set the public on fire. In 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the first Mac in front of an audience of thousands.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER VOICE)

SYDELL: The computer voice went on to poke fun at IBM computers. Never trust a computer you can't lift, it said. It had a mouse and the graphical user interface - not the first computer to have them, but it was the first time a computer with those features was commercially successful. The Mac made the computer a creative device for the average person. Again, John Gage.

GAGE: He brought music and art. He brought visual sensation. He brought capabilities to the computer that were not dreamed of by those that were at the lower levels of putting together the chips that would do the fast computation or store all the bits of a picture.

SYDELL: In 1985, Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple in a boardroom coup. The company floundered. He returned in 1997. He stripped down the company the way he stripped down design, cutting out product lines. Robert Brenner was at Apple during the time Jobs was gone. When he returned, Brenner says he unleashed the power of the company's designers.

ROBERT BRENNER: There obviously is a culture and an environment there as a designer if you're good that will allow you - to support you in doing great things.

SYDELL: The iMac, released in 1998, looked unlike any other personal computer. Up until then, computers were little ugly plastic boxes. The iMac was cute and curvy. In 2001, the iPod reshaped the idea of an MP3 player. It had a simple user interface with a wheel on the front that you could turn to scroll through all your songs in a little window. Then, in 2007, Apple entered the smart phone market. Jobs poked fun at the other smart phones and then he introduced the iPhone.

STEVE JOBS: What we want to do is make a leap frog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been and super easy to use. This is what iPhone is, okay?

SYDELL: Brenner says Jobs was obsessed with the best materials, not plated plastic, but real machined metal; not black plastic, but glass. Brenner says Apple would build a new factory if that's what it took to make the product just right.

BRENNER: Very few companies would do that, say, here's an object we believe needs to be made this way, let's go out and create an entire infrastructure to do it.

SYDELL: Brenner says Steve Jobs raised the profile of design. Brenner, who now has his own firm, says there's a dark side to that. Everybody wants their products to look just like Apple's.

BRENNER: If it's not a machined piece of aluminum with black glass and one button, it's not good.

SYDELL: Still, Brenner says the world of computers is a better place because of Steve Jobs. The design was friendly and that made computers more than machines, it made them objects that customers could love. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.