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Steve Jobs’ Death and the Future of Innovation

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I found out about Steve Jobs’ death on a device designed by him, as did hundreds of millions of people around the world who were reading about it on their iPods, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and iMacs. Yesterday was a sad day for the techies of the world and possibly an even sadder day for the future of technological innovation.

(Image from Apple.com, Oct. 6, 2011)

"Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."
-Steve Jobs

Mr. Job’s words above, from his 2005 Stanford University commencement address were spoken after his initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. It is hard to write about the future on the day after the death of  a man who was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. It is even more difficult to extract the facts from the myth regarding someone who is being characterized as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, P.T. Barnum, and Willy Wonka all rolled into one. Jobs was not, however, an inventor in the same sense that Edison was. He was an entrepreneur who had an amazing talent for recognizing innovation and bringing it to market in a way that melded aesthetic beauty, functionality, and user experience in a way not previously seen.

Jobs’ Impact on Education
Jobs’ influence on education was primarily a result of marketing rather than direct involvement. Much is made of Steve Job’s contribution to making personal computers personable, and I think that is the greatest contribution he made to education. Prior to the creation of the Apple GUI (graphic user interface), computers were, simply put, not user friendly. In order to even run a program, users had to type obscure programming commands in the DOS prompt. The simplification of a point and click interface led to a massive influx of computers in the classroom, the creation of Windows, and essentially spawned the connected generations we have had since the 1980’s.

Societal Impact
Listening to NPR’s special on Jobs this morning, I was struck by one of the participants in the discussion saying that Jobs’ greatest contribution to American society was his ability to develop unique products that were so innovative that they didn’t need to compete on price. This paradigm-breaking innovation is something that American businesses need more of. The competitive advantage for Americans in a global economy, dominated by countries with cheaper labor pools, is innovative thinking. Jobs represents a perfect model for American business and education as an active innovator whose influence will be greatly missed.

An Insurmountable Loss?                                                 
We have to hope that Steve Jobs was not the last great and visionary innovator in American history. If he was, we will be history. Fortunately, while Jobs had an amazing run in the past 15 years as the leader of Apple, he did not create the products he brought to market in a vacuum. The pace of technological innovation is so rapid that no one individual can be responsible for all of the advances.  The remarkable innovations of Apple are important, but of more importance is the potential for further innovation that they unleashed. Technology builds on itself. Each new creation inspires others to use it in new ways and to develop more new technologies inspired by it. We have a boom in the tablet PC market right now primarily inspired by the iPad. That inspiration does not, however, mean that some of those products are not superior to the iPad or that the next great invention will not be better than all that came before.

Job’s own words from the Stanford commencement give the greatest possible hope for the future of American technological innovation. His death does not mean the end of innovation. It signals the start of a new era that will lead us beyond his vision, while still paying tribute to his legacy as an individual who set the standard for the future of innovation.

Job’s personal history is fascinating and the flood of media attention is well-warranted. I urge all of you to read, watch, or listen to some of what is being said by the media about him. He was a truly fascinating figure and one we should all learn from. If innovation is our final frontier, Jobs’ life and work should be held up as a model for future generations to study in the hopes that, as a society, we can understand and replicate the circumstances that made him the foremost innovator of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.