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Feature-itis combatant: Steve Jobs

The media is full of obits on Steve Jobs and many don’t provide any real insight into his actual role as an entrepreneur. There are a few stories appearing that get past the idolatry and into the reality.

Ryan Whitwam describes How Steve Jobs killed the stylus and made smartphones usable. While most of the effort was towards making small devices with many features, “Steve Jobs realized that existing mobile devices weren’t compelling; they were overly complicated with little focus on usability.”

“Jobs probably approached the creation of the iPhone the way he did everything — as an editor. The things that made sense were emphasized; like multitouch zooming. The things that didn’t work, for instance file system management, were mercilessly cut out. The user interface we were left with in 2007 was completely finger-friendly, and a departure from the information-dense UIs of the past.

The pre-iPhone smartphones from HTC, RIM, and others were trying so hard to be little computers that they missed the mark entirely. Steve Jobs realized that trying to make a resource-constrained mobile device act like a computer was a losing proposition. Instead, he and Apple developed new ways to interact with a phone that inspired virtually all the devices we use now.”

That is not so simple as it sounds. Matters of selection and priority that cross bridges between technical feasibility, human factors engineering, and marketing are not subject to training that anyone can do successfully.

For the irrationality side of things, see Bloomberg where Jensen Walker takes a look at Apple products.

“Before owning my first Mac, I wrote code in BASIC and grudgingly learned DOS commands and keystrokes—which required such awkward finger placements it was like playing a jazz chord progression whenever one backed up a file. Apple was already figuring out the seemingly obvious: Computers are meant to work for us. Apple products were simple, but only a rabid minority seemed to care.”

Choosing the keyboard as a villain is like blasting a hammer because it doesn’t cut wood very well. The fact is that computers manipulate symbols at the base level and that means that keyboards are the optimum means of interface. It is only when you get to collections of symbols such as files and collections of files or links between them, that you can get usability out of a WIMP (windows, icons, mice, pointers) interface. Walker confuses these applications and then makes judgments based on that confusion.

Romain Raynaldy provides an example of the venture capitalist activities in how Steve Jobs helped build Pixar with vision, cash.

“When he bought it [1986] for $10 million, Pixar was more of a computer company than a creative studio.

it took vision and courage to imagine that computer animation could make serious money.

Jobs lacked neither. “He was very good in guiding the company. Because it was all a bunch of scientists and artists who knew nothing about business,” said Sito, professor of film at the University of Southern California (USC).

“They were reading books to find a way to have a place in this very high-stakes billion dollar industry. And Jobs gave them the strategy for running the company,” he added.”

That business leadership role is what Jobs provided to Apple when he rejoined the company. It took Apple from being just a computer business into portable and mobile telecommunications and entertainment. The iTunes effort to support Apple products expanded that new focus and established new business models for the entertainment business.

It wasn’t just cute products; it wasn’t just Apple; there was more — and there was also less to Steve Jobs, I think, than many imagine.

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