Oct. 6, 2011 at 2:13 PM ET
For most people, driving the vanguard of a single revolution would provide enough glory (and exhaustion) to last a lifetime. For Steve Jobs, the first revolution just gave him a taste. It's hard to keep track of all of the upheavals that can be attributed to Jobs — in music, in cellphones, in animated film — but history is already labeling the iPad as the culmination of his life's work.
For someone who helped invent personal computers, Jobs was not entirely comfortable with them. According to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, addressing an engineering conference last April, the iPad was in his mind from the beginning. Yet Jobs was like a painter who must spend decades developing his technique before being able to recreate the visions he sees in his head.
"I think Steve Jobs had that intention from the day we started Apple," said Wozniak, reported by IDG News, "but it was just hard to get there, because we had to go through a lot of steps where you connected to things."
Eventually, he added, "computers grew up to where they could do ... normal consumer appliance things."
The timeline from green-on-black PC screen to glowing touch tablet is dotted with Jobs-influenced creations. You have the early Apple computers, the 1984 Mac, and then, following Jobs' departure from Apple, the NeXT interface that would become Mac OS X. After returning to Apple and launching the iMac, his attention shifted to portable devices.
Could anyone predict that a little music player — with a simple click-wheel interface, a hard-drive and a cute but impractical monochrome screen — would transform computers? Most people, including me, missed it, though a few, such as reviewer Eliot Van Buskirk, boldly predicted what turned out to be true.
"Descendants of the iPod MP3 player will replace the PC as the hub of your digital life," Buskirk wrote in a 2001 article for Cnet, a piece that was dug up this week by Gizmodo and others to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the shiny white music player.
Yes, a decade later — and one week after Steve Jobs died — the mobile operating system that emerged from the iPod, the iOS that now runs both iPhones and iPads, officially becomes "PC free." The newest version, iOS 5, is designed to let devices sync music and movies directly to and from the iTunes service, back-up precious data to Apple's own servers and more, all without ever connecting to another computer.
There are, of course, many people who don't see the iPad as the end-all be-all of computer tablets, and that's okay. None of the inventions Jobs was instrumental in bringing to market got there in a vacuum, and Jobs himself thrived when competition, especially with lifelong frenemy Bill Gates of Microsoft, was heated.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal but that has no bearing on this column.)
But Apple's chief competitors, Microsoft, Google and Amazon among them, have reacted to the iPad in a way that suggests it is the start of a new era. It is the next — and possibly the last — generation of personal computers. When the Financial Times called Jobs the person of the year for 2010, it cited his ability to package high-tech devices as consumer friendly products.
"Extending the iPhone's innovations of a more versatile screen and lightweight 'apps' designed for specific tasks," wrote the FT's Richard Waters and Joseph Menn in December 2010, the iPad "points to a future beyond the computer mouse — and a world without Windows. Sales of cheaper notebook computers are already suffering."
The iPad, now in its second generation, continues to devastate PC sales as would-be rivals trickle onto the market.
Apple itself has subtly acknowledged the change that occurred with the iPad, the transition into the so-called post-PC era. For years, the company's press-release boilerplate began, "Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh."
In June 2010, the note changed. The reference to personal computers was softened, and the blurb ended with a mention of the tablet, mincing no words: "Apple … has recently introduced its magical iPad which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices."
The empty feeling many have this week is not just for that of a lost celebrity, a famous person who we admired and felt a connection to. It's that we're left staring into the future without this guide, this visionary, to tell us what comes next.
Perhaps that's it for personal computers. Perhaps we no longer need a wizard of the computing world, but someone in biotechnology, who can work to bring systems inside our bodies and our minds, or someone in architecture who can merge interfaces with our surroundings. Perhaps Steve Jobs' work really is done, and it's time to evolve past gadgets all together. Perhaps only Jobs would know, but he's no longer here to ask.
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