Oct 06 2011


I bought my first cell phone in 2003. It was a Samsung flip-phone, top of the line according to the sales woman, yet also somehow free with my T-Mobile contract1. The phone was a morass of features buried in menus and submenus. It would be easier to escape one of those death traps from the Saw movies than it was to send a text message. Worse yet, I was paying for features I didn’t understand and couldn’t use. After using that thing for a couple of months I finally built up the courage to call Samsung technical support, which, as expected, was a labrynith of menus, rife with confusing options and emotionally unsettling muzak. Twenty minutes later – approximately four jazz flute solos, if I remember the musak correctly – I got to talk with a delightfully inept Pakistani gentleman named “Christopher,” who repeatedly told me to refer to the manual that came with the phone. Eventually I gave up and decided to just settle for what I got.

If Steve Jobs settled for the way phones were back then, we’d never have the iPhone. The iPhone is brilliant because it solves a problem with nearly all cell phones since they started adding more than just talk to them – how do I use this damn thing? The iPhone presents everything you want to do, clearly marked, right on the home screen.

Obviously, the iPhone does more than just that, but the resistence to settling for a bad status quo is what I think defined Steve Jobs. Before his return to Apple he founded NeXT, which formed the technical foundation for what we know now as Apple. NeXT had a number of great innovations, but the one that strikes me the best is Interface Builder. IB allows developers to quickly and easily build user interfaces and connect the interface to code all in a GUI. Here’s a YouTube video of a young Steve Jobs demoing IB back in 1991. If you’ve ever had to build a user interface in code, you’ll recognize IB as a revelation. It’s something many of us Mac and iOS developers take for granted now, but IB is exactly what Steve Jobs has been all about: it gives people a better way of doing something easily that used to be terrible, but that we were all resigned to as ‘the way it is’.

In other words, Steve Jobs declared war on mediocrity.

It’s easy to recognize when something doesn’t work, but it’s harder to see when something works, but is sort of awful. These are the “unnoticed problems” of the world2. It’s not that we’re unable to see that something is wrong, it’s that most of the time we’re fine settling for what little works right. Maybe it’s optimism, or laziness, or simply a lack of will, but we let these unnoticed problems persist. We tolerate mediocrity because it’s easy.

Steve Jobs was great at solving those types of problems. The success of the iPod didn’t come simply from how nice the devices were, they were the first MP3 players that were integrated with really stellar music management software. Before the iPod we settled with poor music transfer software, and poorer music players. iTunes made everything easy. It made things better.

At the end of the day, that is Steve Jobs’s legacy – he made things better. He made owning a cell phone better. He made listening to music better. He made buying music better. He made making software better. He made selling software better. He made using a computer better. He made managing our data better.

I want to make things better. I don’t want to be the guy that grits his teeth and suffers through using a poorly designed phone. I don’t think I have to be that guy. I don’t think any of us have to be that guy. Steve Jobs sure as hell wasn’t that guy. So the next time I have to deal with something that’s not okay but not great – which will undoubtedly be tomorrow – I’m not just going to put up with it. I’m going to do something about it. In that way, even in death, Steve Jobs is going to make something better: me.

  1. I was sucked into getting a T-Mobile phone because of those Catherine Zeta Jones T-Mobile commercials. I’ve never forgiven her for that.

  2. A great example of this is how for millions of years the peoples of the Earth have been using measuring cups that you can’t read while you fill. Oxo and company finally solved this problem (via Gruber).