October 10, 2011
The man whose creative genius and entreprenurial ambition quite literally changed the world of computing, Steve Jobs, passed away last Wednesday after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. The news was not entirely unexpected, but it came as a shock nevertheless. For those of us who became loyal members of the "Cult of Macintosh" from the early days, his departure is terribly sad. It reminds me of the sudden death of John Lennon, who had so much more to give when his life was unfairly cut short in 1980. "Only the good die young"? Jobs was not only a bold pioneer of cutting-edge information technology, he was an inspiration to millions of people around the world whose lives were changed for the better, helping them to realize their full human potential. [There is a fitting memorial page for him at] apple.com.
The news last month that Jobs was stepping down as Apple CEO was a clear sign that his life expectancy was short. Many of us prayed for a full restoration of his health, but the cancer had spread too much and weakened his body beyond its capacity to recover. In his last weeks, he tried to make up for lost time with his family. He leaves behind a widow, [Laurene Powell], who was rarely if ever seen in public, and three children. [See The Independent.] They lived in a relatively modest home in Palo Alto, with no special security gates or fancy ornaments. In the front yard, appropriately, was an Apple tree. Jobs was raised as an orphan, which adds an element of irony to his familial legacy.
According to bloomberg.com (via cultofmac.com), the immediate cause of Jobs' death was respiratory arrest, brought on by complications from his cancer. A private funeral was held last Friday, and Apple will observe his passing in a company-wide ceremony on October 19. His successor at Apple is Tim Cook, and it appears that Jobs took the necessary measures to ensure that his demise would not be cataclysmic to the fortunes of the business empire he created. For a more complete obituary, see CNN.com. What follows is based on my own memory, assisted by old editions of MacAddict magazine, etc.
Jobs embodied a unique combination of creative imagination and a veritable compulsion to transform his ideas into reality, but his rise to superstardom was by no means smooth. The other co-founder of Apple Computers, Steve Wozniak, provided the necessary engineering skill, and the two Steves achieved their first big success with the Apple II computer in the late 1970s. That platform was widely adopted in schools across the country, and remained in use for two decades. In the early 1980s came the Apple III computer and the Lisa (forerunner of the Mac), both of which were aimed at the business market, but neither of them succeeded. "Woz" left the company on amicable terms at about this time.
In sole charge of Apple, Jobs was determined to take on the dominant firm in the industry, IBM, in a latter-day "David vs. Goliath" battle. That was part of the theme behind the iconic "1984" television ad that introduced Macintosh to the world during Super Bowl XVIII. Jobs described his beloved Macintosh as "a computer for the rest of us." using a bit of marketing panache to create a market niche that eventually grew into a worldwide technological empire. The marketing campaign had some short-term success. Knowing that he lacked the proper business education or experience to survive in the cut-throat world of corporate America, he recruited [John] Sculley, who had been a top executive at Pepsi-Cola. Jobs is said to have asked Sculley, "Do you really want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water?" Sculley soon came on board and helped usher in the Macintosh Era, but differences over business strategy soon emerged. Jobs' euphoric rhetoric of "insanely great" failed to overcome the doubts of more conventionally-minded executives. By 1988 it was an outright feud within the company, and Sculley undertook to have Apple's board of directors dismiss the company's founder as its leader. It was a moment of deep disgrace.
Nevertheless, Jobs soon managed to rebound, creating a new company called NeXT, introducing a new line of computers with a variety of far-reaching innovations. Meanwhile, the Job-less Apple went on to introduce several new generations of Macintosh computers, but without a clear vision of the future, the company's marketing department was unable to build sales. By the mid-1990s the company was floundering with too many computer models and a primitive hand-held digital device (called the "Newton") that was a total flop. The company's board begged Jobs to come home, and he agreed.
Back in charge, Jobs drastically eliminated non-essential company departments such as printers and devoted full attention to a simple-to-use Internet-based semi-portable computer -- what became known as the iMac. Introduced early in 1999, it literally saved Apple and the whole Macintosh line of computers (and way of life) from extinction. It had a funky rounded shape, utterly unlike any other computer then on the market. Originally available only in a bluish color, by the end of the year, Apple offered five delightful color options, using the Rolling Stones' song "Like a Rainbow" as a mesmerizing sales pitch. Yes, the old magic was back, and I just had to have one of those iMacs!
The rest, as they say, is history, and even though it took years for the Macintosh to grab a significant share of the global computer market, in the mean time Apple began producing a mind-blowing series of incredible peripheral devices, aimed at enhancing the users' "digital lifestyle." Apple had come full circle, from being a populist-oriented "We try harder" company like Avis to becoming an overtly elitist snob brand like Gucci or Nike. And what was once a mere close-knit community of Apple afficionados had become a full-blown quasi-religious "cult," of which I am a full-fledged member. Just walk into any Apple Store across the country, and you'll see what I mean. But watch out, you just might become a convert in the process!
When you think of Apple these days, you think of all the gadgets that company has unleashed on the consumer market: the iPod (2001), the Apple TV (2007?), the iPad (2010). I could spend hours writing about each one of those tiny technological marvels, and I probably should some time soon. Even relatively trivial Apple devices such as the "Magic Mouse" or the iPod Nano (introduced in September 2005) frequently lived up to Jobs' criterion of "insanely great." Speaking of which, the Staunton News Leader's editorial tribute to Jobs was appropriately titled "insanely great. "
The fact that Apple has become a status symbol makes some people wonder whether Apple will ever reach the masses around the world, as Jobs often talked about doing. He was sometimes criticized for an alleged lack of philanthropic activity. One way the company really could achieve global-scale change would be to refurbish discarded computers and other digital devices, to be distributed to poor people in the Third World. That's what is proposed at cultofmac.com: "How Apple Could Really Change the World." It sounds good, but it would take some careful planning to make it work right. For the time being, however, I plan on keeping my old Macintoshes as a personal "museum," even though each of them is in need of repair:
Although it may not be fully appreciated, Steve Jobs' biggest contribution was in software. Indeed, the clear superiority of the Macintosh platform lies not in its circuitry or design so much as in the underlying Mac Operating System. This fundamental lesson became clear to the PC industry overall during the 1990s, when Microsoft emerged as one of the most dominant corporations in the world, leaving IBM in the dust as new hardware firms such as Compaq, Gateway, and Dell emerged. Perhaps if Apple had licensed the Mac OS to other manufacturers in the late 1980s rather than waiting until the mid-1990s, it would have come to dominate the personal computer market, rather than Microsoft Windows. (Speaking of which, with the ongoing rise of Google in the PC software market, Microsoft seems to be receding into the background.)
People often ask me how I do this or that on the computer -- design Web pages, draw baseball stadium diagrams, etc. It's hard to explain this to a non-Mac person, but the Macintosh is in essence an extension of my own body. Just about whatever new task I want to do, I simply apply a bit of common sense and put myself in the Mac "zen" state of mind, and I just do it. I know it probably sounds pompous, but that's the way it is.
More generally, the "Think different" slogan used in many Apple ads a decade or so ago really means something to us Mac users. It's not just vain posturing or rebelling without a cause, it is a call to scrutinize the stale premises that underlie the contemporary conventional wisdom in all areas of human life. Whether it's personal computing or politics or religion or sports, those people who make a conscious effort to "think outside the box" will have a huge advantage in meeting the challenge of this daunting new 21st Century, in which many of the old safe paths are no longer of any use. By evangelizing on this theme, Jobs has attained a rare immortal status, along with other great names in the history of science and technology: Cyrus McCormick, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford. I feel very fortunate to have my life made better by the innovations Jobs brought about.
In putting together this memorial tribute blog post to Steve Jobs, I was inspired by the folks at BoingBoing (a pop culture multi-media info-tainment Web site); hat tip to Cult of Mac. Hence the archaic black-and-white title bar at the very top of this blog post, the background pattern, and the various Mac icons strewn about. The fake Mac desktop seen below was actually very sharp-looking looking 25 years ago. I took their stylistic idea and went a step further, adding a semi-functional menu. Go ahead and click on the "File" menu item below. And for a little "fun," click on the , "Tools," or "Window" menu items...