- - Sunday, October 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The genius of Steve Jobs was the genius of a kitchen toaster.

Following his death Wednesday, the Apple co-founder and CEO was lauded as a technological seer, a marketing maestro and a cultural icon - a man who showed us the digital future, then delivered it to our desktops, laps and pockets.

More than once, Jobs was likened to a prophet - or maybe just a magician, albeit one in mom jeans and a black turtleneck - for giving us what we wanted before we knew we wanted it.

Only that assessment isn’t quite accurate.

A small, sleek music player. A cellphone-cum-computer. A touch-screen media tablet. These things were new. But the human needs and desires they answered?

Anything but.

Such was the real genius of Jobs: He never lost sight of what people always have wanted in the first place.

Again, consider the average kitchen toaster.

A toaster could come equipped with a thermometer. It could have a window on the side, the better to see just how brown one’s bread has become at any given moment. It could have a host of different buttons for bagels, wheat bread, English muffins, or built-in butter and jelly dispensers, like the soap shooters in a car wash.

A toaster has none of these things.

A toaster has a single button. You press it. In goes bread. Out comes toast. Because a toaster isn’t about the physical and chemical process of cooking bread. Nor is it about the engineering puzzle of linking household electrical current to a heating element to a spring-loaded timer. A toaster isn’t about being a toaster at all.

A toaster is about eating. About feeling hungry, and then feeling satiated.

This is what Jobs grasped, intuitively. This is what made him a technology savant.

From campfires to toasters to French toast recipes downloaded and displayed on an iPad, technological advances have never been - and will never be, unless Skynet from “The Terminator” becomes self-aware - ends in themselves. The latest, greatest gizmos, the new new things, are still simply tools - instrumental goods that facilitate our wants and needs.

People want results, not process.

They want to benefit from technology, not hands-on vocational training in its use.

They want to eat toast, not spend time thinking about the nuances of toast-making.

The most successful electronic devices shepherded and championed by Jobs invariably embodied this fundamental insight.

Did iPods have great television commercials? Yes. Do iPhones look sleek and shiny? Of course. Under Jobs, Apple masterfully marketed both its intangible brand and tangible goods, pulling off the neat trick of making simple, people-pleasing mass communication products seem hip and individualized. Sexy, even.

Still, slick persuasion isn’t what made the company successful or Jobs revered.

The iPod worked because it, well, worked. Press a button. Move our thumbs. Out comes music. Forget the sophisticated circuitry inside. Never mind the engineering wherewithal it took to design and build them. The iPod was a smash because it allows us to listen to our favorite tracks with an absolute minimum of futzing around.

The same way an iPhone lets us look up a takeout joint, call in a dinner order and map a route there.

The same way an iPad lets us watch television shows on boring cross-country flights.

Go back to Apple’s commercials. What do we see? Silhouettes dancing. Children using iPads to finish homework assignments. The things we can actually do with the company’s products.

As Jobs once said, design isn’t just how a device looks and feels. It’s how the device functions. How quickly and easily it enables our desires.

In 2006, Microsoft released an ill-fated digital music player, the Zune. Meant to be an iPod competitor - if not an outright iPod-killer - the Zune allowed users to wirelessly share songs with each other, a supposed community-building feature the iPod lacked.

Jobs was unimpressed.

“It takes forever,” he told Newsweek. “By the time you’ve gone through all that, the girl’s got up and left! You’re much better off to take one of your earbuds out and put it in her ear. Then you’re connected with about two feet of headphone cable.”

Jobs was right. He was almost always right.

Like the institutions of modern life - for instance, government - modern technology is complex. Dauntingly so. It requires specialized knowledge. Too often, it becomes inaccessible, an end in itself, no longer a convenient means to rectifying the problem it was created to solve.

Jobs understood this. He avoided this trap. He wasn’t a brilliant engineer, a representative of the machines, an oracle from a “Jetsons” future. He was a brilliant student of human nature, a throwback to our unchanging past. And that’s why he’ll be missed. He knew what we wanted. He knew the toaster is really about toast.

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