Jobs' unexpected mobile legacy

07 Oct 2011

Steve Jobs has died just a few months after stepping down as CEO of Apple, and everyone’s blogging about it – which in theory means I don't have to. But I’m doing it anyway, because while much has been written (and will continue to be written) about how Jobs saved Apple and changed the consumer electronics industry forever, it can’t be underemphasized how much Jobs has managed to transform the mobile industry as well.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, of course. You don’t need me to point to the iPhone, the App Store and the iPad and how they fundamentally changed the way practically everyone in the value chain thinks about what the mobile Internet ought to be as both a service and an experience.

But it’s worth pointing out what a remarkable achievement that is when remembering the initial mixed receptions each of those devices received upon their unveiling.

The first iPhone was heralded as a triumph in design, but a number of mobile industry experts doubted Apple could make much of an impact in the handset market with just one expensive phone model that didn’t even support 3G.

Similarly, the iPad was first greeted with skepticism and disappointment by pundits and analysts who saw it as an unsatisfactory attempt to replace netbooks as the middle ground between laptops and smartphones.

Even this week’s iPhone 4S was branded a disappointment by people who were so intent on seeing the iPhone 5 that they barely noticed that Apple had added a personal assistant feature running on artificial-intelligence tech from Siri that – provided it works like the demo – could take the smartphone experience past the touchscreen stage into something entirely new.

Naturally we’ll have to wait and see how the 4S and Siri play out. The point is that Apple’s success and impact in the mobile device space has come despite initial expectations that its success would be at best limited.

Apple came into the mobile space as an outsider and a latecomer, made its fair share of mistakes, and weathered plenty of controversy along the way (the locked iPhones, the App Store content restrictions, AntennaGate, Jobs’ refusal to support Adobe Flash, etc). But it’s still emerged as arguably the most influential force in the mobile internet space in the last five years, with only Google running a close second.

That speaks volumes about Jobs’ ability to think about what mobile devices ought to be able to do, and what consumers want them to do – and direct his company to make it a reality – without being distracted by the mobile-sector mindset that was more concerned (and understandably so) with networks, hardware and legacy business models.

We’ll never know for sure how much of that is the result of Jobs being so far ahead of the mobile internet development curve, or the mobile sector being so far behind it. But it probably doesn’t matter. The results speak for themselves – the mobile business as we know it is evolving in its current direction in no small part because Steve Jobs gave it a badly needed push.


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