Paul McCloskey


Steve Jobs' government legacy: Citizen-centric computing

The death of Steve Jobs takes away an incandescent spirit that in one way or another influenced the technology, business and ultimately the cultural life of the country. His ability to  pursue, deliver and maintain his vision of almost intimately personal computing was an epic accomplishment. 

As many have noted, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad represented advances in the experience of using technology at an individual, human level that were orders of magnitude beyond his competitors in personal computing. Ironically, it was this almost paranormal insight into the human factors of computing that put Apple behind in the race for market share in the first couple of decades of the PC era. 

The early iterations of the Mac were not institutional machines designed to facilitate a chain of command. Instead, they were pods for self expression. With a Mac you could explore your own interests, illustrate your imagination. 

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In the federal government, as in the business world, Macs have generally been an oddity. Yet even in government,  there have been workers, members of a small but growing cult of Mac users, who by the late 1980s had formed a government Mac Users Group. From the fringes of the scientific and computing worlds, they met on their own time to share ideas on how to employ the Macintosh for personal uses as well as to explore its uses for research and agency projects. 

I recall getting calls at the time from members of this group complaining that Apple and the Macintosh were not being adequately covered in the press. They had zeal for the Mac, a current of cultish enthusiasm directly traceable back to Jobs himself.

Today, groups of this type have replicated throughout the public sector. While not an iron horse of business or government computing, the Mac and Apple's products are at the forefront of citizen-centric computing — the business equivalent of Jobs-style personal computing. A typical example is Boston Citizen Connect, which enables people to report or photograph potholes and other trouble spots in the city and file an immediate report to the appropriate city office. 

This type of technology-enabled application is a revolution in the making for government computing and, again, it’s directly traceable to Jobs and his eye for technology that people love to hold in their hands. 

In the past month, more than 25 federal government contracts were signed with government agencies for Apple products, ranging from iPads to Macbooks to OS X maintenance. The Small Business Administration even purchased iTunes cards, according to the Government Contracting Tips website. 

These are small numbers for now, but they're sure signs that that Jobs will continue to influence how government works, and especially how individual citizens — government end users, you could say — join in the fray.


About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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Reader Comments

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 NTP

I have encountered and dealt with nay-sayers like LM from New Orleans for years. I ran an all Apple office in the government for 8 years (Windows back end), there are more compatible now than ever and it is a mistake of pure myopia to... think different. Some points of correction... Apple is a company focused on industrial design and engineering first, commoditization second. When Steve Jobs returned to the company, they scrapped the old OS and built Mac OS X around a BSD standards compliant UNIX core. If you were a UNIX administrator and never touched a Mac, you could run the entire machine from the command line. Second was the move to Intel, this was an engineering decision, due to the inability of the IBM chips to outperform Intel while staying cool. The move away from plastics was a PR/industrial design decision, but that decision has led to a product that stands the test of time. In the mobile space, RIM (closed and proprietary), Android (open and unstable), Windows mobile (fairly open and unstable) and no one else is worth mentioning. It is the developer that exposes these open platforms to crashes and viruses with sloppy coding, and it is Microsoft that built its OS on a philosophy of plugins and hidden executable files. Finally on price... this a complete fallacy of an argument. If you pull up Dells page and build a Dell, component for component just like a Mac, they will be almost identical in price... The real reason Macs have not taken off is because people in the server room, MCSEs, help desks, corporate developers, are afraid of them. It would be nice to see some of these organizations THINK DIFFERENT

Fri, Oct 7, 2011

The difference is that Apple's rigid control is centered around the user; creating a standardized user interface that has been proven time and time again to be incredibly efficient. It's about making things faster and easier for the user. If tweaking the device is the goal, apple's a big pain. If creating something, building something, learning something is the goal, apple's made sure the device is unobtrusive and helps you do that. The government's rigid control and standardization is about enforcing the rules and in many cases seems to be designed specifically to make it harder for the user to do whatever it is they're trying to do. BTW.. it's a fallacy that apple's products are a lot more expensive. With the same specs, the apple is within a couple hundred dollars, and often actually cheaper than a comparable name-brand PC.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 LM New Orleans

It is very sad when someone so creative and innovative dies. You wonder what his death has denied us in the future. But look at the irony. His own computing environment was rigidly and under authoritarian control. He did everything he could to standardize and minimize differences in components software etc. and Apple rigidly controls the apps submitted to run on their products. Apple hw/sw is all proprietary and a main reason his products weren't targeted for malware was because they weren't mainstream enough for hackers or APT to bother compromising. That is all changing. Government simply can't rigidly control what is purchased to the extent Apple can, and has yet to be able to apply the equivalent level of programming control over its developers that Steve Jobs was able to. Nor would other hardware/software companies allow USG striking deals for sole source procurments like Apple is able to do, to guarrantee supply and price. Also, Apple products are some of the most expensive on the market, and in the current budget environment, who could justify buying all Mac products for all employees who want them? (Only executives have the clout to get Apple toys since there certainly aren't enough Apple work apps to justify iPads for all employees). Is his legacy really customer centric computing or is it the lesson that to be successful in a business you have to standardize and rigidly control your means of production? Hmmm....where does that phrase sound familiar from?

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