About 30 years ago, perhaps on this very day, I was sitting in front of an Apple II working on a VisiCalc spreadsheet. At the time, I don’t think I even knew who Steve Jobs was. I wasn’t in the software industry yet. I was working for a public accounting firm. The Apple II sat in a corner of the office “typing pool.” For those of you who don’t know what a typing pool was, there was no swimming involved – it was a group of full-time employees with dedicated equipment who did all the typing and word processing tasks of the office.
We all have heard by now that Steve Jobs died this week. When I think about the influence he had on the technology market and business in general, I realize that although I never met the man, his influence has had a huge impact on my career and on all of us who work with business intelligence techniques and tools. The fact that an Apple II was in the office of a public accounting firm in 1981 was a remarkable accomplishment. I probably wouldn’t be in the software industry today if it wasn’t for that Apple II and VisiCalc. Our office used “electronic” spreadsheets to develop planning and allocation models. Now there are hundreds of millions of spreadsheet users whose activities can be traced back to Steve Jobs in some way.
You can argue whether the spreadsheet or the Apple II or the combination brought IBM into the personal computer market, but Jobs had an influence here, too. The advent of the PC was the original “self-service BI” movement. Sure, spreadsheets have plenty of problems when applied to business intelligence, as identified in our business analytics benchmark research, but they also have many virtues that we have been trying to capture in other forms of business intelligence software ever since.
Jobs and Apple always maintained twin focuses on design and innovation. The design of the physical product was part of the Apple experience, but the design of the user interface was even more important. Our whole way of interacting with information systems, including BI, has been shaped by the graphical user interface (GUI) in part because of the Mac OS. It may not have been the first one, but Apple put a GUI into the hands of end users who saw the possibilities and clamored for more. Ironically, Microsoft Word and Excel first appeared in GUI form on the Mac while the PC versions were still on DOS character-based applications. Spurred by the Mac’s graphical environment, Microsoft took the Windows path that resulted in its own GUI-based operating system. While Microsoft Windows may have enjoyed more commercial success than Mac OS, many still consider Apple’s offering superior in terms of the end-user experience. Regardless of your choice of operating system, BI users wanted and vendors were able to deliver improved GUIs, which now enable users to navigate and visualize large amounts of information more easily than they might have otherwise.
And Jobs has left an indelible mark on the mobile computing market. With that same focus on design and innovation, the iPhone and iPad transformed and invigorated the mobile BI market. They fundamentally changed the value of mobile devices, taking them beyond just reading and responding to email. Offered a rich user experience, employees were willing to buy their own devices and bring them along to work. Eventually iPads started showing up in executives’ hands. IT organizations were forced to incorporate these devices into their corporate networks. Users wanted mobile BI, and BI vendors were forced to adapt their products to these new form factors. Our research also shows that 70 percent of organizations either have deployed some type of mobile business intelligence or would like to in the near future.
Without stretching much, we can attribute partly to the legacy of Steve Jobs our desire to be connected 24 hours a day and to connect socially via our smartphones and tablets. His influence on these devices made the experience fun and enjoyable. Now collaboration via social media is a regular form of communication. The full impact of these changes is still being borne out in the market, but we are beginning to see an impact on BI.
So while Steve Jobs is gone and will be missed, his influence on the BI market will live on. Let’s hope the seeds of innovation that he planted will continue to grow and benefit our lives.