feature article
Subscribe Now

Engineering an Experience

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

In 1976, when Apple Computer was launched, I was in high school.  A year later, when the company launched the Apple II – my soul was drawn to the device.  For me, it embodied the promise of a new future, where intelligent machines blended functionally and aesthetically into our lives, changing the very meaning of humanity itself.  For me, the Apple II was not so much a device as a piece of art and inspiration – a window into the future. 

That’s because I was both a hard-core nerd and a sappy teenager at the same time. 

The Apple II didn’t deliver on all that, of course.  It would have taken a lot of vision to make the conceptual leap from the 8-bit 6502-powered machine with a cassette tape storage device and an RF modulator sending NTSC video to the TV on Channel 3 – to the reality of what we know today with the iPhone – a pocket-sized supercomputer, connected to a global information network, that can be operated by an eight-year old – all for the price of a family dinner at an upscale restaurant.

That leap required decades of development from tens of thousands of brilliant engineers – many of whom are reading this article today.  We all know the secret, right?  Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone.

The Apple we know is the product of two creative geniuses – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.  “Woz” has always been easy for us.  Woz is the engineer’s engineer.  He practices hardware design as an art, and, like any artist, he is almost inseparable from that which he creates.  For engineers, Woz is easy to understand and admire.  He is what the nerd-brain inside all of us aspires to – the pure essence of engineering for engineering’s sake – out-of-the-box problem solving extraordinaire. Woz’s incredible ability to find the uncommon solution to the common technical problem positions him as perhaps the greatest minimalist in history in the art of digital design.  Every engineer who has passed on tales of the “Woz Machine” (a disk controller implemented as a state machine with an insanely-optimized gate count, which dramatically reduced the cost of floppy disk control) can connect directly with the genius of Woz.

For most engineers, the genius of Steve Jobs exists on an entirely different plane.

Steve Jobs embodied all that was missing in most engineers.  Jobs and Woz together were the perfect storm of technology creativity.  Steve Jobs was intimately connected to the way ordinary people think about machines.  While legions of engineers were off reducing gate counts, perfecting firmware, attacking power consumption, and optimizing critical paths – Steve Jobs was honing his vision of the object all of that technology would become.  Far beyond what we think of as “marketing”, Jobs delivered something that reached past the gathering and classification of customer requirements.  He had a connection with the imagination of his customer, and he intuitively knew how to fold that imagination into the product his team was creating.

Engineers I’ve known through the years typically don’t understand the “Jobs Factor”. 

“The iPod is just a disk drive with a pair of headphones. Nothing special at all.” 

How, then, did so many companies – both before and after the iPod’s meteoric rise – try and fail to market successful music players?  Even those that blatantly copied the most esoteric details of the iPod – before adding their own special “differentiation” – completely and utterly failed to achieve traction in the market.  Others had online music stores with thousands of popular tracks.  Others had smooth interfaces, simple controls, informative displays, larger storage, better sound quality, and lower prices.  Others were “open.”

They did not have the magic. 

As engineers, we love for things to be reducible to a formula.  We know that if we lower power consumption, battery life will increase.  If we increase clock speed, our device will be faster, snappier, and more responsive.  A set of specifications or requirements becomes a list of problems for us to solve – engaging our engineering brains in just the way we’ve trained ourselves.  Some specifications we will meet without difficulty.  Others may cause us to struggle, and we may deliver slightly less than we hoped.  A very few will lead to some inspiration or burst of creativity that allows us to over-deliver in a big way.  These are the creations that give us a sense of pride in our work.

Steve Jobs showed us that there is no formula for creating products that inspire our customers.  Some may say that Apple’s secret is industrial design, yet there are thousands of companies with world-class industrial designers on staff that fail to deliver Apple’s magic.  Some say that Apple gets an unfair advantage because of legions of loyal fans who eagerly slurp up every new piece of plastic, metal, and glass to emerge from Cupertino. This, however, is the effect and not the cause.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the genius that Steve Jobs brought to our industry is to think about movies.  Like technology products, movies are massively collaborative efforts that are the product of hundreds of creative minds working together.  There is no formula for a great movie.  Countless times, studios will start with enormous budgets, choose great scripts, hire talented actors, grab the best wardrobe designers, cinematographers, editors, and art directors – only to produce movies that completely flop.  Other times, the magic inspiration will flow from a talented director’s vision, giving us a timeless masterpiece that far transcends the sum of its parts.  One could never compare and judge two movies by lining up their spec sheets.  This is because movies are art.

Jobs showed us that electronic products are works of art too. 

With Steve Jobs passing, an enormous hole is left in our industry.  Whether we fill that hole and retain the lessons of Jobs is largely up to us as engineers.  We need to learn to engineer experiences, rather than devices and systems.  Like movies, Apple’s products are all experiences – carefully choreographed from the opening of the box to the initial assembly to the software environment that supports them.  We must put the humanity of our customer first and strive to create experiences that they will “love” and not just “use.”  We need to put our own values aside and empathize with the average person – who is our customer – because the average person does not think like an engineer. 

I have high hopes and expectations for Apple without Jobs.  In my experience, company culture is something that mysteriously persists – even when most of the people in the company have changed – including the leadership.  If Jobs’s values are infused into the culture of Apple, the collective culture will know how to do what he did – although in a different way. 

Jobs’s lasting influence will extend far beyond Apple, however.  He dared us to think differently about the products we design.  He raised the standard by which all of us do our work – pulling our heads out of the bits and latches and asking us to be in touch with the passions, emotions, and even weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our customers.  If we all do that – even for a moment each day in our work – his legacy will never die.

 

Apple Macintosh icon designed by Susan Kare.

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Jul 22, 2021
The HotFix 019 (QIR 3, indicated as 2021.1 in the application splash screens) update for OrCAD® and Allegro® is now available at Cadence Downloads . This blog post contains important links... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community si...
Jul 21, 2021
It's a funny old thing to find yourself in possession of a USB-C dock when you don't have a host machine that sports a USB-C connector with which to drive it....
Jul 21, 2021
We explain how virtual prototyping eliminates ASIC design bugs before RTL, and how chip architecture design modeling correlates key performance attributes. The post Take the Guesswork Out of Designing Your New Product Architecture appeared first on From Silicon To Software....
Jul 9, 2021
Do you have questions about using the Linux OS with FPGAs? Intel is holding another 'Ask an Expert' session and the topic is 'Using Linux with Intel® SoC FPGAs.' Come and ask our experts about the various Linux OS options available to use with the integrated Arm Cortex proc...

featured video

Adopt a Shift-left Methodology to Accelerate Your Product Development Process

Sponsored by Cadence Design Systems

Validate your most sophisticated SoC designs before silicon and stay on schedule. Balance your workload between simulation, emulation and prototyping for complete system validation. You need the right tool for the right job. Emulation meets prototyping -- Cadence Palladium and Protium Dynamic Duo for IP/SoC verification, hardware and software regressions, and early software development.

More information about Emulation and Prototyping

featured paper

Carmakers charge ahead with electric vehicle powertrain integration

Sponsored by Texas Instruments

Advancements to electric vehicle (EV) powertrain architectures help customers cut system-design costs in half while maximizing power density, increasing efficiency, improving reliability, and making EVs more affordable for more people.

Click to read more

featured chalk talk

How Trinamic's Stepper Motor Technologies Improve Your Application

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and Maxim Integrated

Stepper motor control has come a long way in the past few years. New techniques can give greater control, smoother operation, greater torque, and better efficiency. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Lars Jaskulski about Trinamic stepper solutions and how to take advantage of micro stepping, load measurement, and more.

Click here for more information about Trinamic TMCM-6110 6-Axis Stepper Motor Driver Board