When historians look back at the life of Steve Jobs, they will chronicle a man of contradiction and genius. But for the legions of Apple fans, it’s personal.
Jobs led a company that became one of the world’s most valuable enterprises, and easily the most beloved by its customers, with a series of innovative and always elegant products that brought value and pleasure to people’s lives. This is why you are seeing an outpouring of genuine sentiment at his passing.
Jobs’s career was in every sense astonishing. He helped create Apple, the first serious personal computer company. He was banished by the managers he recruited. But his years away were hardly a wilderness. He led Pixar’s ascent to one of the world’s most creative film studios as it revolutionised animation, and he founded a ‘failure’, NeXT, that became the foundation for the modern Mac operating system. Those years gave him the knowledge and skills he needed to lead Apple into its best years.
But what set him most apart from his peers was an exquisite sense of product design and the ability to intuit what people would want, and use. Combined with his leadership (and salesmanship) skills, he was the most formidable CEO of recent times.
I’ve been a fan and follower of the Apple way, especially when it was by far the best alternative to the Microsoft empire — and when it was the best in class, period. I bought my first Apple product in the 1970s.
But in the past half-decade, as Apple became increasingly powerful, I have found myself less enchanted with a company I’d supported with my words and, ultimately, tens of thousands of dollars of my own money. Where Jobs had been the freedom fighter, he was becoming the emperor, creating a regime of secrecy, manipulation and control-freakery to accompany the ongoing, even accelerating, innovation.
My respect — no, awe — for Jobs’s genius has only grown, but I couldn’t ultimately follow him into a walled garden, however comfortable, that contradicted what I believed in, and what he once stood for. I was no longer his kind of customer, though; he aimed now for the masses who preferred to live in Apple’s warm but controlling embrace, and he succeeded.
The competition hasn’t yet matched Apple’s marriage of hardware and software, so elegant, easy to use and playful. But the sense of style that Apple made so popular increasingly permeates the electronic devices we use today, no matter who makes them, and that trend seems likely to continue.
That is one reason why Apple’s long-range transition looks murky. The company’s technical and design people are phenomenal — Jobs built an unequalled team — and his successor as CEO, Tim Cook, has built one of the world’s sleekest operational juggernauts. What is in the product pipeline will no doubt maintain the momentum for at least several years.
But for almost a decade and a half, this redoubtable team has deferred on the most essential decisions to the design sensibility of Jobs. Now he is gone. Every such decision in years to come — the most crucial choices any consumer-products company makes — will be accompanied a frisson of doubt. Everyone will ask, would Steve have made this particular choice? And no one will know for sure. As I write this, Apple’s homepage is poignant and just right. It is a photo of Jobs in his recent prime, after coming back to Apple but before the illness that consumed him. In the photo, he is looking into the camera with utter assurance, and with a hint of mischief.
Today, I sent an email to my students. In that email, and from my social networks, I linked to a video of a powerful commencement speech Jobs gave at Stanford University a few years ago (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html). The power went beyond his genius as a product wizard, pitchman and CEO, illuminating a man who’d listened, learned and led.What he told the graduating students may be Jobs’s best legacy.
Here is one part we all should remember: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University
The views expressed by the author are personal