The world has been changed many times over by the brilliance of Steve Jobs. I could not begin in these short moments after his death to estimate his impact on me and mine. But a few thoughts deserve jotting down.
I first encountered Jobs in the pages of Fortune magazine, in 1982, wherein I first saw the Apple Lisa. I fell in love. Truly. It didn’t hurt that the girl I was utterly infatuated with (I was 12 at the time) shared its name. But that was a minor point, even then.
The Lisa was a vision, both in and of itself — she was beautiful — and of a world that was about to be. Her lines were elegant, flawless. In an age of black screens and DOS prompts, she seduced with the first commercially-available (for a mere $10,000) graphical user interface. She sported protected memory, cooperative multitasking, 2 megabytes of RAM (almost 10 years later the average PC would still have just 64K), and this amazing new thing called a mouse.
But the details were nothing. It was what the Lisa represented that mattered then, and now. The Lisa at least seemed to surpass anything in Star Trek, or the other science fiction of the time. To the degree it didn’t, it showed clearly that the future was happening, now, in our generation. Steve Jobs was barely older than we were — and in those days he looked almost our age — and it was perfectly clear: the future was here, and we were going to make it.
If there were any 12 year olds who could afford a Lisa, I certainly wasn’t one of them; so I dreamed of it and imagined truly extraordinary uses for it…and watched as it died and the Macintosh replaced it. Not too long thereafter I had fellowship money to buy my own Macintosh, a Macintosh SE with dual 3.5 inch floppy drives, 1MB of RAM, and a then-shocking 30MB hard drive. I still have and use files I created on that machine (in fact, I still have that machine).
What I also watched was Microsoft completely rip off the MacOS (not yet called that), and get away with it, purely because intellectual property law hadn’t caught up with the realities in the field. I watched Jobs get kicked out of his own company, go on to found two other companies, and simply never say die. I saw Apple launch the amazing System 7 and the prescient but not-yet-ready Newton (a brilliant attempt at a tricorder which probably would have captured the market later defined by Palm had Jobs then been running Apple), only to stumble into decay and decline. Gil Amelio made the hard decisions required to save the company, only to be repaid by being booted out for the return of…Steve Jobs. Rarely mentioned was Jobs’ careful following of the long-term plan Amelio had crafted; but his charisma unquestionably breathed as much new life into Apple as NextStep/OS X, the iMac and the iPod.
I was finishing law school when Jobs came back. I was on my third Mac by then, about six Macs, two iPods, four iPhones and an iPad ago, not counting family and staff. No one believed in Apple. There was still talk of the “famous Steve Jobs reality distortion field”. I knew better. I was right.
What was I right about? Or more to the point, what was Steve right about?
That product design should be relentlessly elegant, beautiful and flawless. That it really is better not to release a product at all than to release a crappy product. That things should “just work”.
That technology should not be about incremental change: if it isn’t an order of magnitude better, what’s the point?
That technology, no matter how gee-whiz the form it takes, is about solving real problems real people already have. The Mac was “the computer for the rest of us”. It wasn’t created to “get you to do new stuff”. Like the Model T, it was invented to do something you already needed to do, way way better.
That the role of the visionary, whether or not a technologist, is to see problems people don’t know they have and solve them. That the classical economists like Adam Smith were right (and the leftist economists like Keynes and Marx were wrong) when they asserted that supply creates demand, and not the other way around. That the profit generated by all of this makes possible a radically better world.
That to create great products and great technology reduces the world’s poverty, levels the world’s playing field, and more than most things one can do, likens us unto the Creator, Who made us in His Creative Image.
Steve Jobs didn’t understand that last bit. But he modeled it, and he intuitively understood and relentlessly demonstrated the truth in the rest. We are all richer because of him, not just in the hours of needless work saved, the millions of businesses (and jobs) created, and the immeasurable human creativity unleashed because of his work; but also by the wisdom he gave us on the cusp of this new age. He is truly one of the greats, a Leonardo, a Rockefeller, a Stanford, an Edison, a Ford, a Curtis, a Hughes.
In short, he was one of those extraordinary few who truly “thought different”.