How Steve Jobs Changed the Catalog and Ecommerce Industries

As the accolades pour in for Steve Jobs, who died yesterday after an epic battle with pancreatic cancer, it’s clear how much the Apple cofounder and his creations have changed the world.

Most of the attention focuses on Jobs’ more recent accomplishments in delivering music, mobile and tablets. But the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984 had a massive impact on the catalog industry.

True, advancements in catalog production weren’t just about the Mac—computers and desktop publishing in general streamlined and automated page design. But if you’ve ever tried to design a catalog or magazine page on a PC vs. a Mac, especially back in the early days of desktop publishing, you can appreciate what Apple did for the process.

Personal computers enabled catalogers to bring functions inhouse that had been done by prepress houses, which drastically reduced both costs and production cycle times. The technology lowered the barrier to entry for catalog start-ups, and enabled mailers to reinvest funds saved on production into marketing and merchandising.

Then when people started buying products online in the mid 1990s, the proliferation of those colorful, easy-to-use (and slightly more affordable) iMacs no doubt helped fuel ecommerce.

Jobs and Apple changed the game again with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. The fact that consumers could suddenly surf the web and check email from the mobile phones was enormous for multichannel merchants. Welcome to m-commerce.

The iPad’s launch in 2010 is perhaps having an even bigger impact on multichannel selling and catalogs. Not only are catalogers developing iPad apps right and left, many are creating iPad-friendly digital catalogs.

And several tablet app makers have come out with options for putting catalogs into cyberspace. Affiliate marketplace, Coffee Table and Catalog Spree are just a few.

Many industry watchers believe that tablets are leading to a true m-commerce revolution. And much of that can be credited to Apple and Jobs’ innovation.

No disrespect to other technology providers, but at this point, there are smartphones and there are iPhones; there are tablet computers and there are iPads. Competitors have a ways to go before catching up with Apple on these fronts.

At the conference in Boston last month, Bill Bass, president of direct for apparel/food gifts merchant Charming Shoppes, told merchants they need to be looking at tablets—namely, iPads.

“The shopping experience on an iPad is empirically better than on a website,” Bass said. “Mobile matters depending on your product line; iPads matter for everyone.”

So to the late, great Steve Jobs, thanks for everything. You deserve credit for an awful lot, but perhaps your biggest accomplishment is putting leading digital technology into the hands of technophobes like me.