How Steve Jobs changed mobility

The Apple leader's influence on technology is clear; but he also altered forever our expectations about when and where we use our gadgets

It's no dispute that Steve Jobs' influence on technology has been far and wide. However, in reflection, one could say he single-handedly transformed and redefined mobility in the 21st century, in a way no other technology company or individual has done.

In this regard, mobility refers to more than just computing, and more than just cell phones; it goes beyond that the devices we carry every day, to include both what they're designed to do and how we use them.

Jobs had the vision to push through the kinds of mobile products that had long been conceived of in futuristic settings--the "PADD" and communicators seen in the classic Star Trek, for example--or were until recently limited to "Japan-only" as opposed to the worldwide mass market.

A Mobile World -- Jobs-style

His vision for mobile, and for a mobile ecosystem, helped fuel the first iPhone five years ago, and later products like the App Store and the MacBook Air. These are products that, before Jobs put his touch on it, all but floundered in the mainstream--or never surfaced at all.

Think, for a moment, about life before the iPhone. I know I took a moment to reflect on this, after news spread about Jobs' passing. I remember well the early touchscreen phones, with proprietary and obtuse interfaces and a lack of complementary software to run on the phone. Most everything -- including acquiring content like music or videos, or using GPS navigation -- was controlled through the mobile carriers. It was an unfortunate situation for consumers, to be sure.

The mobile phone market was simply a messy cacophony of devices until the iPhone debuted in all of its touchscreen wonder in 2007. Competitors were light years behind Jobs' creation -- and even with the debut of the first Android phone more than a year later, it took a long time for the competition to catch up. It took both vision and the fearless ability to follow through on that vision to make the iPhone happen, and when it did -- instantly -- the rest of the market had to play catch-up.

Fast forward to today. The iPhone is ubiquitous -- I see it everywhere I travel, and Tokyo, where I'm writing this, is no exception. But more than that, it's about how I can use my iPhone seamlessly around the world, no differently than if I were in the States (save for the exorbitant international roaming -- which is why I'm using the Wi-Fi instead). I can access Google Maps pedestrian directions to destinations, based on exactly where I am; and I can browse the Web for store hours on-the-fly from a street corner on the Ginza, or for finding a metro map.

The iPhone and its competitors have transformed how we can stay connected while on the go, no matter where we are or what we're doing.  When considering where we came from, connectivity-wise, it's hard not to wonder just where we'd be if Jobs hadn't pursued the iPhone, which in turn led to Google's Android response.

Mobile for Everyone

Jobs performed a similar transformation for laptops after honing his initial MacBook Air design. The Air was Jobs' admitted pet project. But he knew a market was waiting to be tapped; all it took to release the floodgates was the right combination of design, components, and price. When the MacBook Air first came out, I wasn't completely floored by it, conceptually: After all, on previous visits to Japan, I routinely saw slim, ultramobile designs that were available in the Japanese market only. As a fan of sub-three-pound laptops, I coveted such a machine, but when I'd ask manufacturers why we never see such machines in the U.S., they said the same thing: There wasn't a market for them.

By having the conviction to push through his vision, Jobs once again single-handedly created a market -- and proved those companies wrong. Hit the right marks, and the audience will find you. It wasn't that consumers weren't interested in thin, lightweight laptops; they weren't interested in them at the outrageous business-centric premiums manufacturers used to charge for ultralight systems. Meanwhile, as the MacBook Air  got better with age,  the pricing got more attractive, too, particularly as Apple commandeered component supply to achieve more favorable market pricing. Now, three years after the first MacBook Air appeared, look what we have: An entire PC subcategory of Ultrabooks (as Intel calls them), and more ultralight designs based on ARM processors coming next year.

The iPad is a third -- and perhaps Jobs' crowning -- contribution to changing our definition of what was possible in mobile. "Tablet" and "slate" PCs had been in the market for years, but no one had ever pushed through the vision of how to scale it in a way that made the concept of the tablet the mass-market product consumers craved.

Jobs did that with the first iPad in 2010. And yes, Jobs really meant it when he said the iPad was magical and revolutionary. The operating system may have been the same as on iPhone, but the iPad stands out for its physical design; it is curved, not a boxy brick, and it has a responsive touchscreen that works. And it had the power to replace a laptop for all but the most processor intensive tasks (Technologizer's Harry McCracken used his iPad 2 as his only computing device while in Tokyo, for example). All of this is available at a starting price that mere mortals can afford.

In these ways, and so many more, we have Steve Jobs to thank for the extreme mobility we enjoy today. The void he leaves behind is a big one; it's now up to someone else to push beyond where Jobs left off. The question is, who in tech is a leader with the vision and direction to reinvent how we do things once more?