Michael Bywater: Sorry Steve, we did lose the hunger

Innovation now is web-based. In the glory days, the product was stuff. Now the product is us, our habits, friends, likes
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The Independent Online

So there was I, and there was Steve, in the Red Fort restaurant in Dean Street, London, 1984. Actually, Steve wasn't "Steve", not yet. Then he was "Steve Jobs". The public had just started to know of him. After a while they started to feel they knew him, then that he was a friend, maybe even an intimate. And so Steve became "Steve". Which is probably somewhere at the root of the whole Apple phenomenon.

But this is not going to be a "The Steve Jobs I Knew" piece, because why should you care? It's just that there we were in the Red Fort restaurant in Dean Street, where Steve had just finished reorganising the chairs ("Is your backside damp? My backside's damp. I think they've been cleaning the chairs") and Steve was making excuses why I couldn't ring my mother on his new mobile phone, a thing the size of a carry-on suitcase with a separate battery pack, finally acknowledging that it didn't, as it happens, work in London. Though it was fine – really, really excellent – in Cupertino.

But all the same. A mobile phone. You have no idea how exciting that was. Just to see one, being mobile, even though it was as handy and as useful as walking around Soho with an ape. And you can certainly have no idea how really, really exciting it was when another Apple guy turned up with a boxy fawn Cordura bag containing a brand new Macintosh computer. A present. Douglas Adams and Stephen Fry can fight it out for all eternity which of them had the first Mac in England. But I had the first Mac in England which was a present from Steve. I got him to sign it with my Pentel felt-tip marker. Perhaps I should have kept it.

Technology, though, wasn't for keeping. Back then, in the mid-Eighties, technology was – really was, not like now – about the next next thing. It was like the early days of rock'n'roll, except with geeks instead of sex. You never knew what was coming through next. The level of innovation – not just in Apple stuff, but everywhere in what we used to call "new technology" – would seem amazing to people now, when a moderate upgrade of a smartphone is hyped like the Second Coming even though it's obvious to everyone it's just the Coming v1.2.

Not even the invincibly self-confident Steve would have thought he'd be coming back. And now he's dead there'll be the endless nervous speculation about whether Apple can go on being a top-dog innovator without him.

The answer, of course, is "no". But it's not because Steve died.

Back in the day, significant innovation was the rule, not the exception. Old hands will remember the buzz. My workroom literally emitted it. There was an Olivetti ETS1010 word processor, slow as Nick Clegg, but thrilling. There was a Sirius Victor green-screen computer running Spellbinder, a new word processor which kept me regularly up all night trying to fit my copy to length. There was the 128K Macintosh, with its odd, singing disk-drive and its no memory and its endless disk-swapping but with its fonts and its WYSIWYG word processor... I just mistyped that as "world processor", and that's what it felt like: this stuff was changing the world.

Steve saw that clearly. Bill Gates didn't, I don't think. Bill saw market opportunities and sought to profit by them. Steve saw the world changing and hoped he'd find a market for changing it.

Software authors in those early days were, generally, more Steveish than Billy. There was, if you like, a clear field. The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, came as a wonderful surprise. The first desktop PIM, a thing called Habadex (which, oddly for a computer application, only had dates up to August 1985) was a real thrill. A program like VisiCalc, which enabled you to do a database of your wine cellar with little pictures of wine bottles which you could put in slightly bigger pictures of your cellar, set us all ringing each other up, envisioning a genuinely brave new world. One week, someone would launch a natural-language spreadsheet; the next, someone else would come up with an "integrated software package" which would let you include graphs! In your reports! And find stuff! And – wow! – modems! We can talk to other computers! And ThinkTank – an outliner! Who'd have dreamt it? PowerPoint? How exhilarating PowerPoint was, when we didn't know what the damn thing would do to the world...

Every week was a new surprise, and there at the centre of much of it was Steve. Look! The LaserWriter! And now we can do desktop publishing! Look! AppleTalk! Now the rest of us can have networks, too! Look! The Switcher! It's almost like having more than one program running at once (though not quite). Look!

We couldn't wait for the next thing, even though we didn't know what it would be. As the song has it, "Those were the days, my friend." And now? Maybe the days of paradigm-shifting technology are, for the time being, over. There are a few signs that may be so.

First, we don't have a new infrastructure technology visible yet – no silicon chip, no new equivalent of TCP/IP for getting data down telephone lines. Second, we don't seem to have the financial and entrepreneurial culture to bring the next wave of insanely great stuff out of garages. Not here, nor in the US. Maybe the IT industry is too corporatised now to tolerate a maverick like Steve, however passionate and however right.

Third, the very information-based society that the computer revolution has brought about actively militates against innovation. There's nothing you can't do now, the argument goes. Oh yeah? So how come the desktop metaphor is still around when most of us have computers instead of desktops? How come we're still farting around with mice? How come we're still navigating through folder-based file systems? How come everyone hates the goddamned auto-correct? So there's no hunger for genuine innovation. And nor is there the chance to lie, to punt, to gamble, to wing it. Everything's online; your past is with you forever.

One more thing. The market has changed. Innovation now is primarily web-based, and in turn that's because of the biggest change of all: the product. In the glory days, the product was stuff. A new Mac. A better spreadsheet. A phone you can carry in the street. A thing you can put all your music on. Stuff. But now the product is us. Our habits, location, friends, likes, dislikes, health, travel plans, eating habits... Us. We think we're getting Google or Facebook or even Twitter free. Really, they are getting us cheap, and selling us to advertisers at a mighty profit.

It's not, I think, a game that would interest a current version of Steve Jobs. And the only certainty is that I'm wrong. Out there, somewhere, maybe in India, maybe in China, there's a person in a garage, doing something neither you nor I can even imagine, but which they just know is insanely great. And it'll change everything. I wonder what it will be?