Since Steve Jobs announced his resignation as Apple CEO on Wednesday, the encomiums have been piling up faster than new iPhone models flying off the shelves. Hey, what's one more? Among his broader achievements revolutionizing consumer technology, he created what has arguable become the world's most important mobile company.
It turned out the groundbreaking combination of hardware and software that had made the Macintosh and iMac iconic desktop computers was especially well suited to the world of handheld devices. In the mobile milieu, where products become miniaturized and the user experience is more intimate, the form factor and ease of use become especially critical.
Guided by Jobs' famously uncompromising vision, Apple managed to extend its computer industry innovations to the emerging consumer mobile space, and with far greater results for the company and the world at large. The iPod, iTunes, the iPhone and most recently, the iPad, turned Apple from a niche, if widely admired, computer maker to what is now the world's most valuable company (along with Exxon Mobil).
As others have noted, new products didn't necessarily spring full-formed from Jobs' head--portable music players, smartphones and tablets had all been around in some form. Nor was every attempt at innovation a smashing success. Remember the Newton? Or Apple's partnership with Motorola and Cingular on the iTunes-enabled ROKR phone, before going on to launch the iPhone in 2007?
But where Apple more typically succeeded it transformed handheld devices to the degree they seemed like wholly original inventions, elegantly crafted yet built for the masses because they were easy to use. The same goes for mobile applications. Sure, wireless carriers had popularized ringtones and some rudimentary gaming or entertainment apps. But within the Apple ecosystem, apps attained an entirely new level of sophistication and popularity, spawning a new app industry in its own right.
Few, if any other companies, whether Microsoft, HP, Nokia or Sony, have been able to bridge the worlds of hardware and software, online and offline, and desktop and mobile, enterprise and consumer, as seamlessly as Apple. And deliver media easily across each technology barrier. With the rapid spread of Android and its recent proposed acquisition of Motorola, Google is the latest to try to beat Apple at its own game.
But the ingenious fusing of hardware and software that defines Apple products from the iMac to the iPod shuffle isn't in Google's DNA. The company's effort to directly sell its own Nexus smartphone was a short-lived bust. Whether Apple can maintain that laser focus on turning out tightly-integrated gadgets that capture the public imagination in the wake of Jobs stepping down as CEO is the big question.
New York Times tech columnist David Pogue pointed out today that the Apple pipeline is still filled with a couple years of Jobs-directed products. But after that, who knows? One arena where Jobs' presence will certainly be missed is in the public unveiling of new products. With his trademark black mock turtleneck and jean, the Apple co-founder and CEO used his showmanship to elevate the announcements into quasi-cultural events.
Will the rollout of the iPhone 5 be his swan song as presenter-in-chief? Apple can only hope that in his new role as chairman, Jobs will continue to provide a vision for charting the realm of connected devices for years to come.