With news of Steve Jobs's change of roles at Apple sweeping the web, it's worth looking back at how the company changed during his reign as CEO.
Apart from taking Apple from its dismal depths to the most valuable company on Earth, under Jobs's leadership Apple also completely transformed several industries while outright inventing others.
This is what Apple's main products looked like in 1997, before Steve Jobs retook charge of Apple for the first time since leaving in 1985:
Did you own any of these? Chances are pretty good that you didn't. Very few people did. I didn't, although both Mike and Steve claim that they still have Newtons sitting on the shelf. Apple was on its deathbed back then, while Microsoft was unassailably ascendant. Apple was considered at best a niche company for niche users; at worst, it was considered a boondoggle. Michael Dell, CEO of the company that bears his name, famously quipped that Apple should be liquidated and the resulting money given back to the shareholders.
A year later, in 1998, this happened:
Steve Jobs killed the beige boxes and introduced the iMac, the genesis of Apple's new focus on style. The iMac stood out in the crowd in the late 90s, its unmistakable silhouette a stark contrast to the sea of anonymous beige/grey/black boxes of its competition. And in a move that would typify Apple's approach over the coming years, the iMac both introduced new technology and mercilessly pruned away the old -- it was the first mass market computer with USB and the first to ditch the floppy drive. Every Mac made since then can trace some part of its design back to this late-90s progenitor, the product that caught the world's attention and made us all think that maybe Apple was in it for the long haul after all.
Then in 2001, this happened:
Whether you thought it was revolutionary or "lame," over the course of the early- to mid-2000s the iPod went on to utterly dominate the portable music player scene. Ten years after its introduction, the iPod (and its descendants, in the form of the iPhone and iPod touch) has effectively killed both the CD player and the CD itself for a large portion of the music-listening crowd. More so even than the iMac, the iPod turned Apple's fortunes completely around and made the company a force to be reckoned with for the first time since the 80s. A well-known "halo effect" ensued, where users enamored of the iPod's interface, craftsmanship, and ease of use started buying up Macs in large numbers. It's no huge stretch to say that without the iPod, Apple as we know it might not exist today.
Then, in 2007, this happened:
Touchscreen smartphones are everywhere now, to the point that many of us take them for granted. But in 2007, the iPhone knocked the entire phone industry on its ear. Looking like something that came straight out of Captain Kirk's belt, the iPhone proved to be every bit as revolutionary as Apple claimed. Naysayers everywhere predicted the iPhone would be Apple's doom, because the company was now dipping its toe into an established market with industry giants who were all too eager to slap this upstart tech company into the dirt.
The pundits were all wrong; the iPhone has single-handedly transformed the smartphone market from the RIM-dominated days of monochrome, button-laden BlackBerrys into the new world of glass-paneled touchscreens that adapt to our needs rather than requiring us to adapt to theirs. The App Store showed the iPhone's true potential; far more than a phone + iPod + internet navigator, thanks to hundreds of thousands of third-party apps the iPhone could become almost anything to almost anyone.
Then, in 2010, this happened:
In the 1980s, Apple called the Macintosh "the computer for the rest of us." Sadly, it never really lived up to its potential as the computer for the masses -- that mantle fell upon Windows, for better or worse. Less technically-inclined users have always wanted a computer that simply gets out of their way and lets them use it, and that desire is likely a major factor in the iPad's tremendous success thus far. Geeks will obsess over what the iPad doesn't have -- ports, menus, windows, a built-in keyboard, an accessible file system, and so forth -- and just like the iPhone, scores of analysts the world over predicted the iPad would fizzle in the marketplace and prove to be Apple's first big misstep in ten years.
Instead, the iPad has done to the tablet market what the iPod did to the portable music player market: upended it, redefined it, dominated it. People may question whether anyone needs the iPad, particularly if they've never used one before. I know -- I was one of them. But perhaps more than any of the products discussed here, the iPad points the way to the future of computing. Instead of intransigent boxes that get in the way of what we want to do half the time (yes, even Macs), the future of computing is computers as an appliance, far more adaptable to our needs than the traditional PC ever was or ever could be.
This is what Apple's main products look like today:
This is what fourteen years of progress looks like. I can only imagine how things will be in 2025.
Over the course of the coming weeks, we will undoubtedly hear from many sources that Steve Jobs's move from CEO to chairman means the doom of Apple. We've already been hearing that for years. Looking back on how Jobs changed Apple, it's not hard to see why so many pundits might think Apple's success is dependent on having Jobs at the helm -- but Apple's success hasn't been due to a single man. No man builds an empire alone, and the best-built empires live on profitably long after their founding fathers have handed over the reigns to someone else.
Apple is a company composed of thousands of talented and visionary individuals. The iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad didn't spring fully-formed from Steve Jobs's forehead. Neither did the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air, OS X, iLife, iTunes, or the App Store. To view Apple as Santa's workshop and Steve Jobs as Mr. Claus is to miss the point entirely.
No one can predict with certainty what the future holds for Apple now that Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO. Many will try, no doubt. But history shows the folly of counting Apple out before the match is truly finished -- if you'd told 1997's tech pundits that Apple would be where it is 14 years later, they'd have laughed you out of the room.
All of us at TUAW want to thank Steve Jobs for turning Apple into a company worth writing about, worth getting excited about, and worth making a daily part of our lives. I'm not known for being an optimist most of the time, but I still don't see any of those things changing anytime soon.