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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Steve Jobs' Rich Legacy

A lot has been said and written about how Apple (AAPL) is likely to carry on without Steve Jobs at the helm. I have my opinions on why I think Apple will do OK, but the health of the company isn't on my mind as much as the health of Steve Jobs himself.

He's a powerful force in business, technology and entertainment, but he's also a person, a husband and a father. In addition to his 33-year old daughter Lisa, who has the same name as the Apple computer that was the predecessor of the Macintosh, Jobs also has two younger daughters from his 1991 marriage to Laurene Powell Jobs.

Steve Jobs and I aren't personal friends, but I have known him for more than 27 years. I first met him when I was writing about the Apple II and then again in early 1984 when he gave me a sneak peek at the Macintosh. I wrote at the time that Apple "has started a fever in Silicon Valley that's hard not to catch." And I observed that "some analysts thought that Apple was a dying company" and that "Apple's young chairman, Steve Jobs, blames his company's relatively poor performance on trying to compete with IBM on its own terms rather than 'getting back to our roots.' "

The irony of that quote is that he could have also said it in 1997 when he returned to Apple after it acquired Jobs' NeXT computer platform. By 1997, Apple was starting to look like yet another PC clone company until Jobs' triumphant return. Despite its unique Mac operating system, its products were becoming drab and ordinary.

Jobs doesn't tolerate ordinary and it didn't take long before he started adding some color to the company -- literally -- by replacing some of those drab Mac desktops with the iMac G3 with its teardrop shape and translucent plastic case. It wasn't the most powerful computer on the market and far from the lowest price, but it sure was the most interesting one to look at.

Jobs also took that occasion to jettison the floppy disk drive -- a staple in all PCs since the very early '80s. I'm reminded of that as I type this column on my MacBook Air, which doesn't come with an optical CD/DVD drive, one more once essential vestige that Apple is trying to send to the dust bin.

Jobs' willingness to part with the old was shown again in June 2010. I was in the audience when he told attendees at Walt Mossberg's and Kara Swisher's All Things Digital Conference that we are entering the "post-PC era." Speaking about his own Macs as well as other PCs, Jobs said, "the day is coming when only one out of every few people will need a traditional computer." He likened PCs to trucks, adding "when we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that's what you needed on the farms."

We're still not at the point where most people can get away with an iPad instead of a PC, but I know some who have done just that. Ironically, Apple -- the very company whose former CEO thinks the PC is becoming gradually extinct -- is a company whose PC sales are growing instead of shrinking.

While Jobs has played a pivotal and pioneering role in the PC industry ever since he and Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple II in 1977, he's also had a major impact on other industries. The iPod and iTunes completely changed the business model of music recording business and the devices we use to play our music.

His work at Pixar, which was acquired by Disney, revolutionized the way animated movies were made and Jobs' baby, the iPhone, completely disrupted the smartphone business. The iPad is poised to do the same to the PC business and some of Apple's Macs, like the MacBook Air, are redefining the way PCs look and work.

I'm one of millions who paid more than twice the going rate for an adequate PC laptop because MacBook Air's slim form, light weight and fast boot up really do make a difference to those of us who carry PCs around a lot.

Apple TV, which Jobs described as a "hobby," hasn't exactly disrupted the TV business yet, but stay tuned. Rumor has it that more TV-related products are in the pipeline, including possibly an Apple branded TV set. It's a good thing for the companies that make toilets that Apple hasn't entered that market. If it did, Apple would be flush with success, leaving the rest of the industry swirling with envy.

As both an icon and a significant force in our local economy, I wish Apple and its new CEO Tim Cook the best. But mostly my thoughts are with Steve and his family. As I said in an earlier column, he's a national treasure who I hope will stick around for as long as possible

Steve Jobs' Rich Legacy

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