Few people can legitimately claim to have changed the course of history. Apple's Steve Jobs is one of those people.
The pied piper of the digital revolution and co-founder of Apple Inc., started in his parents' garage in the mid-1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. If Jobs had only co-founded Apple — the technology company with the highest valuation on earth at the moment and the one that taught the world to use a mouse, touch a screen to make a phone call and store a lifetime of music on a pocket-size device — that would be enough.
But Jobs did much more than that. He changed the course of history with a series of science-fiction-like leaps that left his competitors in the dust, scratching their heads at how they went from having him in their rearview mirror to sprinting just to stay 10 steps behind him.
There had been any number of MP3 players on the market in the years before Jobs unveiled the iPod in 2001. But none had the signature elegance and ease of use that Jobs brought to his version of the portable digital-music device. From the iconic rotating wheel, simple scrolling menus and clean design of the first iPod, to later iterations such as the miniature Shuffle and the finger-swiping iPod Touch, Jobs pushed his design team to ever-greater heights of innovation. Like Kleenex, iPod became the shorthand for an MP3 player, a badge of honor that people wore proudly, signified by the 2001-style white earbuds that became ubiquitous on college campuses and subway trains and in gyms.
As the devices got more complex on the inside, like a technological Willy Wonka, Jobs made sure that they got simpler and more elegant on the outside, always counting on intuition to win out over bells and whistles.
And while iPods soon became the category killer when it came to MP3 players, it was Jobs' next brainstorm that took a slumping music industry beset by illegal downloading woes and plummeting album sales and gave it the first ray of hope in years. The launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 took the traditional music-industry model and turned it completely on its head.
For generations, a handful of major record labels had a lock on the distribution of music. They paid to have albums pressed, sent them to stores and dictated the prices. But after making a deal with Jobs to have their music appear on this new virtual platform, the labels quickly learned that they were now partners in their own game with a man whose vision for their business didn't always mesh with their own.
Until just a few years ago, Jobs held firm that downloads on his store should be priced at 99 cents each, beating back efforts by the labels to offer more pricing tiers. There was something about that round-looking number that seemed to appeal to him — and to the millions who gladly plunked down a dollar to get their daily fix. In the interim, the iTunes Store become the #1 destination for legal music downloading, holding between 70 and 80 percent of the market and consistently beating back efforts by retail giants and computer rivals to grab some of the digital gold.
Piracy was (and still is) rampant, but enough people had been convinced by the ease of use and smart interface of the store to turn to the light side of the force and pay for that Black Eyed Peas hit or that Beatles classic.
As of February 2010, the iTunes Store had sold 10 billion songs while revolutionizing the way every new generation buys, interacts with and experiences music. Yes, some claim the store has created a world of musical grazers, fans who pick and choose the hot hits one or two at a time over buying entire albums. But it has also trained a constantly wired generation to legally download music on their iPads, iPhones and a myriad of other devices, providing a rare bright spot for a music industry that has seen record sales, and profits, cut in half since a 1999 peak of $14.6 billion.
With the recent introduction of the iCloud, Jobs did it again, waving his wand and giving his adoring minions the ability to access their music anywhere in the world. Think back to when MP3 players held 100 songs just over a decade ago. Now imagine having thousands, tens of thousands, potentially millions of songs at your fingertips from your backyard to the rainy jungles of Brazil and the mountaintops of Nepal.
We may not have those jetpacks we were promised, but Steve Jobs did his best to ensure that, at least when it came to music (and movies and apps and games), the future was now.