One of Steve Jobs’ gifts to consumers has always been creating sophisticated devices that hide incredibly complex technology from them in order to make products that just work. Apple has long made technology for “regular people,” the ones who don’t know or don’t care about processing power, data transfer speeds, or user interfaces. Some of the most important technologies — things we take for granted in our devices these days — were vaulted into the mainstream thanks to Jobs and Apple, mostly because they were implemented so elegantly and simply. Here are five:
1. The mouse. Everyone who has used a computer today has used a mouse. But that wasn’t always the case in the early days of the PC. The mouse was invented as part of a research project aimed at “augmenting human intelligence” at the Stanford Research Institute in the early 1960s. It made its way to personal computers before the original Macintosh, but Jobs’ Macintosh that debuted in 1984 was the first successful commercialization of the technology that became the standard way to interface with any desktop computer with a windows general user interface.
2. Touchscreens. The only interaction method that can give the mouse a run for its money in terms of efficiency is touch. Way before Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft were pushing it for years. It can be argued that the iPhone brought touchscreen technology to the masses. Gates introduced the world to his tablet computing concept in 2000, seven years before the introduction of the Apple smartphone, but the technology that Apple ended up using for the iPhone is very different. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote in 2008:
“Behind the iPhone, Samsung Instinct, LG Secret and several other mobile phones with touch screens lie capacitive sensors. These are semiconductors that require the human body to make them work. For users, it means that fingernails aren’t enough to dial a number and that the resulting screens are clearer instead of filmy. But the capacitive screens used in phones would be prohibitively expensive if they were put in larger devices. They could also could cause usability problem, especially when used for tabletops, where an errant palm could easily flick photos out of sight or drag windows to the wrong locale.”
Jobs chose capacitive touch for the iPhone, which was expensive. But it had a better user interface than the common resistive touch, which required a stylus, or pressure to make it work. It clearly resonated with customers and competitors: Those same touchscreens are ubiquitous on smartphones today.
3. Micro SIM. That tiny card that holds your account information inside GSM phones was already small enough. But digital security company Gemalto developed the even smaller SIM cards, called Micro SIMs. They didn’t become widely adopted, however, until they showed up in the original iPad, which was an instant commercial hit. Micro SIMs make for more space inside small devices, but it’s also used for better security. It’s not entirely clear why Apple embraced Micro SIM, but it has long been assumed Apple went with the smaller format cards because so few carriers were using them, thus allowing the company to limit which prepaid mobile carriers could be used with the device.
4. Thunderbolt. Intel called its new 10 Gbps optical cable interface that’s both a data connector and a high-performance port “Light Peak,” but Apple renamed it Thunderbolt in February when it appeared in the MacBook Pro for the first time. Apple worked with Intel on the idea and eventually added the technology to displays too. Since then, several accessory makers have gotten on board with the new standard that has the potential to be a one-cable solution for connecting computers to external devices and transferring data.
There’s an incredibly technical process taking place with the inclusion of Thunderbolt technology into new computers and accessories. But in true Jobs fashion, his company picked a name that’s nontechnical and very clear in what it does: lightning-fast transfers. It’s very much in keeping the Apple mission of taking a complex technology and carefully hiding it from users.
5. GPS. We had Garmins and TomToms for personal navigation long before the iPhone arrived. But it wasn’t until very neatly packaged GPS capability was added to the iPhone 3G that having a navigation device in your pocket became a reality for mainstream consumers. It wasn’t just the Google Maps app that came standard on the phone, but Apple’s decision to open up the APIs for it to third-party developers so they could offer navigation and location services without contracting with expensive location data providers. That broadened the applications that used location beyond navigation and even made navigation a free service. Through those third-party contributions to the App Store, we got the flowering of location-based services that have long since spread to platforms beyond the iPhone and that we take for granted. It helped give us Foursquare, Where, enhanced Yelp, and Uber, and moved GPS from simply a way to navigate to a way to share and communicate in a far more interactive way.
Mouse image courtesy of Wikipedia, iPhone image courtesy of Apple.