How Steve Jobs changed the way we live — and work.
Steve Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer on Wednesday at the age of 56, leaves a legacy behind him that literally fills millions of hard drives. Jobs created an industry with the Apple II and reshaped another with the iPod. He made cyberspace tactile and dimensional with Macintosh and its graphical interface. Over the course of the last 35 years or so, Jobs has imagineered, packaged, and sold the future with a deftness and persistence few others have managed: Apple lists him as one of the inventors on an astounding 313 patents. But as impressive and wide-ranging as this record of achievement is — it includes designs for computers, keyboards, mice, user interfaces, media players, product packaging, and even a glass staircase — it fails to acknowledge his greatest, most influential innovation of all: Steve Jobs invented business casual.
Or more precisely, Steve Jobs invented business casual in the same way he invented the graphical interface, the mouse, the MP3 player, and the smartphone. All these things existed before Steve Jobs coaxed talented engineers to produce his version of them — but it’s his version of these things that captured our imaginations, had the greatest impact on our culture, and changed the way we live.
The phrase “business casual” was first applied to a style of dress that replaced the traditional suit-and-tie corporate uniform with an aesthetic that is relaxed but not too informal or sloppy. A blazer with no tie and khaki slacks is business casual; a well-worn pair of jeans is not. A tie with a v-neck sweater instead of a suit jacket is business casual; a Hawaiian shirt is not. A pair of sneakers that costs more than $200 is probably business casual. A pair of sneakers that costs less than $50 is not.
But business casual isn’t just a style of dress. It’s also a more general phenomenon, a synthesis of work and leisure, the orderly and the improvisational, routine and rebellion. In the business casual era, our work lives have grown more creative, but creativity itself has grown more structured and private life has grown more business-like. The signature dwelling place of the business casual era is the live/work loft, where domestic space is rendered with the tasteful sterility of a reception area in a well-funded start-up. The signature meeting place of the business casual era is Starbucks, which replaces the boozy conviviality of the corner bar with plenty of electrical outlets for laptops, free wi-fi, and productivity-enhancing caffeine.
Steve Jobs was born in 1955 and grew up in that part of the San Francisco Bay Area that would eventually become known as Silicon Valley. Jobs was adopted, but his surname was well-suited to his innate, hard-working nature. At a time when Silicon Valley had yet to outsource its manufacturing efforts to Third World tweens, 13-year-old Steve spent his summer vacation toiling on a Hewlett-Packard assembly line, screwing screws into electronic instruments known as frequency counters. A year or so later, he got a part-time gig at a large warehouse that stocked a vast array of capacitors, resistors, and other surplus parts. He became, according to Jeffrey S. Young’s 1987 biography Steve Jobs: The Journey is the Reward, “an expert in the prices of electronics components.”
While Jobs showed a strong entrepreneurial bent, buying sought-after parts at local swap meets for low prices and selling them at a profit at the warehouse, haggling over obsolete logic gates wasn’t the most obvious life path for a naturally rebellious (or at least contentious) kid on the cusp of adulthood in 1970s California. When Jobs graduated from high school, he enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, quickly dropped out, and then cycled through a gamut of self-enlightenment clichés far too efficiently for anyone who was destined to make a lasting career out of hippiedom. He dropped acid. He lived off the land at an apple farm. He traveled to India. He became a fruitarian. He studied Zen Buddhism. He explored primal therapy.
Between these endeavors, Jobs moved back into his parents’ house and worked nights as a technician at Atari, which had recently produced the world’s first videogame, Pong. To truly find himself, to successfully self-actualize and assume his rightful place in the universe, Jobs was going to have to drop out of the counterculture and commit to the world of business.
By the early 1970s, Silicon Valley was already showing signs of a new business ethos. At Hewlett-Packard (H-P), where Jobs’ older friend Steve Wozniak worked as an engineer, employees could set their own schedules thanks to the company’s flex-time policy. H-P and other local firms established their headquarters in sylvan Edens of industry known as office parks. Office parks featured neatly tended lawns, flower beds, fountains, winding walkways, and low-slung buildings. In contrast to those phallic, 40-story metaphors of human overreach known as skyscrapers, office parks exuded the contemplative and creative energy of a college campus.
But even the laid-back culture of Silicon Valley was not yet radical enough for Jobs. Apparently understanding that suits were a legacy garment, an obsolete interface that had once conveyed professionalism but now only signaled conformity, Jobs favored ripped jeans and bare feet. He also believed that his status as a fruitarian exempted him from the dull routine of regular bathing.
But if the young iconoclast’s hacks of traditional workplace behavior were mostly skin-deep at first, he also showed an advanced ability to intuit where the high-tech world was headed at a time when others in the industry believed a Texas Instruments calculator was all the computing power the average person would ever need or desire. In 1976, Jobs convinced Steve Wozniak and a friend from Atari, Ron Wayne, to create a company that would build personal computers for the burgeoning hobbyist market.
Their first product was little more than a circuit board in a wooden case, but Jobs found a retailer who wanted 500 of them at $500, and the Apple Computer Company was off and running. In its early days, company headquarters was the garage of Jobs’ parents’ home. When business picked up, it expanded into the vacant bedroom of his older sister.
Starting a business in one’s garage was a Silicon Valley tradition — Bill Hewlett and David Packard had started that way, too — but it was a particularly apt beginning for Apple. Computers had always been business machines — and not business machines like, say, typewriters or mimeograph machines, but rather, the instruments of the monolithic State and oppressive corporate overlords. They were room-sized machines designed to complete feats of awesome drudgery, soul-crushing devices that helped the government and Big Business reduce people into abstract, easily trackable stock-keeping units. Now, however, a new vision was dawning. The computer could be personal. It wasn’t exactly clear how people were going to use them, but however they did, computers were going to be a liberating, empowering, enlightening new force in the world.
Apple wasn’t alone in preaching this newly humanistic vision of computing. But from a metaphorical perspective, at least, it was the most apt. Its founders weren’t interchangeable corporate robots in matching white shirts and ties. They were hairy and disheveled. Their company was headquartered in a suburban tract house straight out of a 1950s sitcom. It was named after fruit. How domestic! How earthy! How very business casual!
Like America’s all-time favorite machine, the automobile, the personal computer was evolving into something simultaneously utilitarian and hedonic, a vehicle for work and pleasure. By the time Apple was getting ready to roll out the Apple II, Jobs understood how a new aesthetic could help popularize its status as an everything-machine. He wanted something “light and trim,” according to a 1983 Time profile of Jobs, “well designed in muted colors.” This aesthetic, he knew, would position the Apple II in that fruitful middle ground between hardcore business tool and consumer electronics product. To help reinforce its status as a new kind of hybrid product, Apple’s marketing guru, Regis McKenna, advised the company to introduce the Apple II in a publication where personal computers had never been advertised before.
“Apple II will change the way you think about computers,” the copy began, in what may have been the wordiest, least sexy ad to ever run in the pages of Playboy. “That’s because it is specifically designed to handle the day to day tasks of education, financial planning, building security, scientific calculation, and entertainment.”
But if the messaging was still a little 1.0, America’s untapped desire for an appliance-like machine that could “control inventories, chart stocks” and “enable [one] to create hundreds of sound and action video games” was even greater than anticipated. By 1978, Apple had already sold enough of the $1,195 Apple IIs to make Steve Jobs a 23-year-old millionaire. Just two years later, he was worth more than $100 million, and as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, Jobs was fast becoming an icon for a new era and a new ethos. It was the beginning the age of business casual.
In 1977, Apple had outgrown the Jobs family home and moved into more traditional office space in Cupertino, California. As the company expanded into larger occasions, it began to pioneer a new approach to what can be described as the “office home.” Apple was raking in enough cash to make even the most rapacious 19th-century robber baron envious. Its employees were working longer hours than Third World sweatshop laborers. But when reporters appeared at its Bandley Drive building in the early 1980s, what struck them most was the relaxed, nay, downright recreational mien of the place. The lobby contained a Bosendorfer grand piano, a BMW motorcycle, and 6-foot speakers blasting the Rolling Stones. Refrigerators were stocked with complimentary beverages. (“The Mac team alone spends $100,000 on fresh juice per year,” marveled Playboy contributor David Sheff in the introduction to his 1985 interview with Jobs.) Employees spent part of their working hours playing ping-pong and video games, had access to an on-call masseur, and gave themselves fanciful titles on their business cards. At IBM, you may have been a senior systems analyst. At Apple, you were a “Software Wizard.”
Where did work end and private life begin? Following the lead of the Apple II and its even more successful follow-up, the Macintosh, which folded work and recreation into a common interface of overlapping windows, life itself began to seem less partitioned, more fluid, a dynamic mish-mash of work, recreation, work, work, a little ping-pong, and more work. Midway through a 1985 interview, a Newsweek interviewer tells Steve Jobs, “We wanted to talk about you personally.” “What have we been talking about?” Job replies, not quite grasping the interviewer’s intent. “We mean apart from Apple,” the interviewer clarifies. “Oh,” Job says.
Life, apart from Apple? For Jobs, that didn’t quite compute. Life was Apple. Work was renting out Disneyland for a company retreat, a refrigerator filled with fresh juice, complimentary health-club memberships, computers at cost, ping-pong at 4 a.m. What more was there to life than that?
As Apple turned into an increasingly lucrative business, Jobs and the company-at-large stressed the creativity at its heart. One conference room was called the Da Vinci conference room. Another was called the Picasso. “Half our best computer scientists play in punk-rock bands on the weekend,” Jobs told Mother Jones in 1984.
By that point, however, no one was mistaking Jobs for, say, Jello Biafra. In 1982, he was the youngest person included on Forbes’ inaugural list of the 400 richest Americans. A year later, his personal net worth had topped $200 million. Gone were the ripped jeans, the bare feet, the stringy hair. Jobs had given his own personal interface an upgrade and was now sporting styled (or at least recently washed) hair, casual suit jackets, the occasional bow tie and double-breasted blazer, shoes, and socks. He was, according to that 1983 Time profile, a “work junkie” who “dresses with what might be called tailored informality,” the crown prince of business casual.
In 1982, Jobs bought the top two floors of an exclusive residential skyscraper in Manhattan and eventually retained the services of I.M. Pei to redecorate it. According to Spy, it featured 12-and-a-half-foot nickel and bronze doors and “Pacific coast planking that need[ed] its own climate-control system.” The window-and-door budget alone was $1 million. The bedroom windows were said to cost $79,000 each.
But Jobs was too busy envisioning the future to actually ever move into his Manhattan apartment and enjoy the million-dollar views framed by its $79,000 windows. As early as 1981, he was imagining something like the iPad, or at least an Apple PowerBook. “I’m really committed to putting a computer in a book,” he told New Scientist. “Book size. In five or six years. Sometime between 1985 and 1990, we’ll do it. Because that’s what we want for ourselves. Everybody that works at Apple wants one.”
When the Macintosh debuted in 1984, it was the most potent incarnation of business casual to date. Its compact size and cute little icons made it seem friendly, almost animate, but it was incredibly powerful. The overlapping windows of its interface meant you could forecast budgets and battle alien invaders at virtually the same time. Its point-and-click interface made even mundane office tasks game-like. Work never seemed more like play. Play was beginning to feel a little more work-like: Even simple notes to friends or doodles could be revised, formatted, named, and archived.
But as forward-thinking as the Macintosh was, it was just the start. The holy grail was the book-size computer, the entire world contained in a single tiny machine. Jobs left Apple against his wishes in 1985 and did not return until 1997. In the interim, business casual began to inform the culture-at-large. A Starbucks appeared on every city block — their interiors were “light and trim” and “well-designed in muted colors,” just like the Apple II. Banana Republic began specializing in slacks and blazers that were just as optimized for sipping lattes at lunchtime brainstorming sessions as they were for sipping wine at post-work networking events; they were clothes that could multitask. The web made its debut and further eroded any remaining divisions between work and leisure. Laptops, wi-fi, and smartphones continued this process. These days, entertainment is always at hand, but we also carry our bosses in our shirt pockets, close to our hearts.
Around 15 or so years ago, Steve Jobs settled into a permanent sartorial interface: a cashmere and silk black mock turtleneck, Levi’s 501s, New Balance 992 running shoes, no belt. The look is explicitly more casual than business, no doubt to hide the fact that we’re all a lot more business than casual these days. In 2001, perhaps hatching their dreams in the Da Vinci or Picasso conference rooms, the artists behind iTunes and the iPod figured out how to commodify creativity more ruthlessly than Hollywood or the music industry ever could. Now, as Jobs steps down after enjoying similar triumphs with the iPhone and the iPad, Apple’s market cap is $350 billion, making it the second mostly highly valued company in the world. (The first is ExxonMobil.)
While Jobs is gone now, the most ardent inheritors of his ethos continue to blaze the trails the rest of the world follows. Sergey Brin and Larry Page aren’t all that interested in money: They simply want to organize all the information in the world. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t all that interested in money: He simply wants to make it easier and easier for you to connect with everyone else in the world. And yet somehow the companies they’ve founded have figured out a way to take the most intimate, most casual forms of human communication (love letters, jokes about the news, etc.) and turn them into incredibly lucrative advertising mediums. While some day even iPhones and iPads will be eventually be superseded by whizzier devices, just as Macintoshes and iBooks were before them, business casual endures. • 6 October 2011
Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
Photograph by Matthew Yohe/CC-BY 3.0