Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Life on Jobs-less Earth

Some people have already forgotten about just how important Steve Jobs was, not only to Apple, but to all of technology

As soon as Steve Jobs announced that he was stepping down as Apple's CEO, a swarm of stories appeared singing his praises. Fair enough. Other stories pointed out that Jobs made mistakes. OK, I can see that too. What I don't get is all the people who are saying that Jobs wasn't that important. That is wrong. If we could step into a parallel world without Jobs, I doubt you'd recognize it.

It's true that Jobs was never a great developer or engineer. He hired great developers and engineers. He also wasn't that original. Jobs' gifts were fourfold: He could recognize great technology when he saw it; he had a great design aesthetic; once he had a vision, he stuck with it and made it work; and he could persuade others to back it.

Doesn't sound like much? It was everything. Let's visit Jobs-less Earth, shall we?

First, we'll look in on Apple. Oh wait, what Apple? In this world, only tech geeks of a certain age (like me) even remember Apple and those other 1980s computer companies, such as Coleco, Sinclair and Kaypro. Some tech nostalgists recall the Apple IIe with the same kind of fondness that, in our world, is felt for the Commodore 64.

The Mac? Without Jobs to push it, there is no Mac. And no Lisa, the first business computer with a GUI and mouse. Well, you say, even Jobs-less Earth still has Xerox PARC, and therefore the GUI and mouse. Yes, but, without Jobs, years go by before they go mainstream.

Which means that over at Microsoft, DOS and the command-line interface survive many years longer. In our world, Bill Gates and friends got to know the WIMP (windows, icon, mouse, pointer) interface because of the work they did in the early '80s for Mac applications. Without Jobs, I estimate we're at least a decade behind in desktop design.

As a result, PCs are business tools. Consumers interested in computing tend to buy hobbyist kits. There is no mass market for PCs. For most people, they just aren't that useful. Lately, some people who have grown accustomed to using PCs at work have coughed up a couple of thousand dollars so they can have one in their home offices. But nobody's grandmother uses them to post pictures of her grandchildren, and no teenagers spend hours on Facebook. Oh, yeah, there is no Facebook.

In other words, computing technology has not yet gone popular. But let's assume that somewhere down the road we do get widespread GUIs and PCs in nearly every home. That opens the door to things like MP3 players. But they are the sort that we had around the turn of the century. Junk. Without Jobs, there is no iPod, and the entire digital music revolution is delayed for years. On Jobs-less Earth, you probably do have a smartphone. But it's unlikely to be exactly the smartphone you have here. That's because touch technology has permeated our world to a remarkable degree. On Jobs-less Earth, where there was no iPod, there was no iPod Touch, and therefore no iPhone. Without Jobs, is there anyone else capable of the vision that became the iPhone -- and also of executing that vision? I don't think so.

In this alternative world, once home computing becomes popular, someone will develop the tablet. But hardly anyone will buy one. Without the iPad, there's no such thing as a popular tablet.

The picture I'm painting of Jobs-less Earth is extreme, of course. Others might have filled in for our Jobs in some areas. My point is that Jobs did indeed have a tremendous impact, far beyond the world of Apple fanboys. I, for one, would be less happy in a Jobs-less world, with its Windows 98-style desktops, "luggable" mobile devices and IT-centered computing world. And I'm already missing Steve Jobs in our technology world.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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