What Steve Jobs Can Teach Developers Today

Steve Job’s 61st birthday was February 24. Somewhat surprisingly, this made the news.

There’s a reason that people still actively remember Apple’s co-founder more than five years after his death. It wasn’t because he was technically brilliant, an extraordinary manager or an exceptional showman. His presentation style and savvy marketing may have influenced a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but this isn’t why people remember Steve as if he were a part of the family. Steve Jobs is remembered because he championed a vision of usability that made technology actually useful.

Even five years after his death, developers can learn from this legacy.

Apple was known as an exceptional hardware company under Steve Jobs. This is the dominant narrative, but it isn’t actually true. Apple was successful with its hardware, but people almost never bought its products because of the hardware. Instead, they bought it for the user experience–the marriage of hardware with software in a closed ecosystem that “just worked.”

The company wasn’t software-first like Microsoft, but it also wasn’t actually a hardware company first, either. Its business was overall user experience. Apple almost never invented the tech, but it made the tech actually work. The Diamond Rio was one of the first commercial MP3 players, but the iPod won because it actually was easy to use.

Steve will probably be remembered longer than anyone else in the computer industry because he did what every business is trying to do even if they don’t know it: He made people’s lives better. Apple wasn’t about the technology, it was about making the world a better place. And everyone basically followed Steve because he was awesome at that and he had the pulpit to make it happen through his heft, the team he built, and the showmanship.

What’s lacking since his passing is this stubborn focus on the user. We have a whole generation of cloud services basically aping his approach of usability, but many developers are getting it wrong because they’re substituting simplicity and I-know-best control for the actual aim of usability. Apple products were beloved under Steve Jobs not because they were simple or because Steve controlled the user experience. They were beloved because they “just worked” even when a new technology paradigm such as the mouse or the iPhone’s virtual keyboard was introduced.

Technology is a tool that makes life easier, but life isn’t actually easier if we’re focused on the technology and not the problem it solves. The best technology sits in the background and works without becoming the focus, which is what Steve understood.

This is the fundamental premise of WebRTC, too, and one way that developers can act on the timeless message of Steve Jobs.

Unified communications have been around for more than a decade, but it rarely if ever “just works.” To call a person on Skype, for instance, both parties must have Skype installed. Both must have a username. Both must switch what they’re doing on their phone or computer and open the Skype client. One must send a friend request to the other person or find them in the address book. After all, this is done, there’s still the question of network connectivity and the frequent quality-of-experience issues this creates.

Contrast this with WebRTC, a Google-led technology that runs natively in modern web browsers and can be embedded in mobile apps. The user clicks a link and instantly can video conference, chat or share files with the person or business they want to reach. They can find this link in the app or website they are already viewing, so they don’t even have to change applications. WebRTC API’s “just works,” and unified communications no longer are about the technology.

Well, almost. That’s where Agora.io comes in.

Even though WebRTC “just works” in most cases, mobile connectivity and Internet bottlenecks can break the user experience. Calls that don’t connect, bad audio and video that is chopped up or stops, all confuse the average user and cause them to avoid using these communications tools.

Agora.io improves upon WebRTC by ensuring that the technology always just works. Agora.io is tuned for specific mobile devices – since not everyone has the latest and fastest iPhone! If mobile connections are spotty, Agora.io dynamically adjusts how much bandwidth it uses. If there is a network blockage that degrades the user experience, Agora.io reroutes the connection around network issues. In the process, Agora.io also makes it easier for developers through an API and sample code that simplifies the embedding of voice and video in mobile and web applications.

Making technology “just work” is an ongoing challenge and something that we as developers can easily forget. After all, we work with technology every day. But we should mind the legacy of Steve Jobs if we want wildly successful projects. He understood the fundamental point of technology, and this understanding is something we should remember as we plan and implement our own applications.