Steve Jobs: One Last Thing…

In preparation for landing at SFO, I had closed the MacBook Air and turned off the iPad, but as I touched down, my iPhone beeped. The text from my son made my heart sink: Steve Jobs had died. Several of us were quietly fighting tears as we left the plane.

It felt like someone had unplugged my compass. Steve Jobs was by any reasonable measure the greatest entrepreneur and one of the great CEOs in American history. He was a hero to his customers, but to most technology entrepreneurs, he was a God. He revered the Beatles and always reminded me of John Lennon: a genius with round glasses, a rebel with a mischievous grin, and an artist who showed the world things that it had not realized it wanted. With both, it takes years to absorb the full loss.

Steve Jobs had the soul of an an artist. Like Leonardo DaVinci, Samuel B. Morse, or Edwin Land, he lived at the intersection of humanities and technology and could ruthlessly carve away marble until only his vision of beauty remained. He was a practical poet who understood that “real artists ship”. He accomplished his goal of “making a dent in the universe” — but his premature death has left a dent in the hearts of people the world over.

Steve was the rarest of creatures: a business revolutionary motivated by a deep love of technology and its power to change the rules. We always knew that his “Think Different” ad was really about him:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Steve broke rules eagerly. He dropped out of college and dropped acid. He fathered a daughter and disclaimed her, much as his Syrian biological father had lost track of him. He followed very odd diets and lived on communes. At age 20, he made a sojourn to India to see a guru. He learned to focus and focus some more. Often, this meant removing features. The original Mac had no cursor keys. Steve was the first to take away keyboards, mice, modems, floppies, Flash, screens, and CD-ROMs. Reviewers raged and the digerati derided him, but Steve knew that “innovation means saying no to a thousand things”.

His passion often made him obnoxious. Seated next to him on a flight in 1979, he learned that I had made my Apple II usable for word processing by inserting a Z-80 card so that I could run WordStar under the CP/M operating system. He was appalled: “Why on earth would you ever do that?” he asked twice, shaking his long hair and making it very clear that I had flunked the bozo test. He publicly insulted competitors and employees. He launched huge products, including the iPad, with no market research (“it is not the consumer’s job to know what they want”.) At a dinner in 2006, he repeatedly assured me and others that Apple would never sell a telephone under any circumstances. Nobody believed him for a moment (six months later, he unveiled the iPhone), but any other CEO would have deflected the rumor instead of lying outright. This sort of behavior famously got him fired from his own company.

I harped constantly in this blog and elsewhere on his insistence that he control every aspect of the user experience. I recall construction workers building Pixar across the street from my company shaking their heads in awe every time Jobs would land in his baby blue helicopter and take a pencil to their blueprints. He spent millions moving walls and even foundations at the last minute so they would end up precisely where he thought they should go. He obsessed about details that few CEOs notice (when you upgrade your iPhone next week, notice that as you bring the message shade to a full close, a very tiny animation rounds off the squared edges. Nobody but Steve Jobs would bother to do that.)

Steve Jobs failed. A lot. The Apple III was a disaster. The Lisa sold so poorly that tens of thousands of computers named after his daughter ended up in a large land fill in Utah. You have hardly heard of the Pippin, the Newton, the Copeland, HiFi, the G4 cube, Mobile Me, and several other products that were complete busts. It didn’t matter. Jobs remained unbelievably self-assured and ridiculously demanding. Over the years, I met several Apple employees who worked insane hours and suffered nervous insomnia because they had to present a product or an idea to Jobs – and were terrified at the prospect. One such encounter, possibly apocryphal, was reported in The Atlantic.

When engineers working on the very first iPod completed the prototype, they presented their work to Steve Jobs for his approval. Jobs played with the device, scrutinized it, weighed it in his hands, and promptly rejected it. It was too big.

The engineers explained that they had to reinvent inventing to create the iPod, and that it was simply impossible to make it any smaller. Jobs was quiet for a moment. Finally he stood, walked over to an aquarium, and dropped the iPod in the tank. After it touched bottom, bubbles floated to the top.

“Those are air bubbles,” he snapped. “That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

As I drove north towards San Francisco following the news of Steve’s death, the radio reported that mourners were gathering at Apple headquarters, at Apple stores, at Jobs’ house, and in Dolores Park. Tributes followed from around the world – many of them written and read on devices that Steve built. Here are some that resonated:

7. Of the statements by the famous, Obama called Jobs “…brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.” He shoulda said “think different”, but otherwise a good statement.

Bill Gates was quick and generous: “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.” Gates ordered the flags at Microsoft lowered to half-mast. Microsoft joined Amazon, eBay, Google, and many other other sites in offering home page tributes.

6. Insanely Great author Steven Levy wrote a colorful, articulate obit for Wired that is exceptionally well done. Sample: “If Jobs were not so talented, if he were not so visionary, if he were not so canny in determining where others had failed in producing great products and what was necessary to succeed, his pushiness and imperiousness would have made him a figure of mockery.”

5. John Markoff, the talented New York Times technology writer who has known Jobs for many years wrote a precise, careful, definitive obituary. That, of course, is why we have the New York Times.

4. Fake Steve Jobs, captures the Jobsian hauteur and poetry with surprising and touching verse. An excerpt:

“One more thing.”
That was catch phrase.
Or was it the one about putting a dent in the universe?
I like them both, but you have to admit,
“One more thing” is punchier.

Jon Ive says you inspired people, but you could also be difficult at times.
A bit unkind of him, I think.
What genius isn’t difficult?
Picasso was a jerk. So were Tolstoy and Beethoven.
So was Michelangelo, I bet, though to be honest, I really don’t know anything about Michelangelo because I missed class on the day we discussed him.
But based on his work, I’d bet he was a total dick.

What you did, however, now that will be remembered forever.
I don’t mean the products.
The Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.
Yes, you invented them & yes, we have heard of them but no, Steve Jobs, your greatest accomplishment was not some piece of hardware, not some lines of code, not the mouse and the graphical user interface, which let’s face it you really kind of just borrowed from Xerox PARC & “borrowed” might not be exactly the right word for what you guys did but on this day of all days let’s not quibble about word choice.

No, Steve Jobs, your greatest accomplishment is what you did to us.
You gave us joy. You restored our sense of childlike wonder.
You enabled us to live in a world where we always believed that something amazing & magical was just around the corner and that the future would be better than the past.

3. Apple. Immediately revised its home page, as did Pixar. Very Steve. He probably approved it in advance, but still. I hope they keep up the tributes and his spirit.

2. The Onion: “The Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing Dies”. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on…” My kind of tribute. Not for everyone. But anything that makes me laugh at tragedy is +1 in my book.

1. Steve at Stanford. The YouTube video was watched 8 million times yesterday, as crowds paid tribute at Apple stores around the world. NPR played the speech in full at noon. It’s a classic believed by many to be the best commencement address ever given. Even if this is not such a high bar, it’s a great talk and worth watching again.

Many are memorializing Jobs as this generation’s Henry Ford because he did for computers what Ford did for cars — transform them from hobbyist toys to indispensable commodities. In his day, Ford was hugely popular — tens of thousands attended his memorial services in 1947. Some have declared Jobs a modern Thomas Edison, the great inventor who was buried by a small group of friends in rural Ohio (a group that included, ironically, Henry Ford).

Others compare him to Walt Disney, a technology and artistic visionary whose ashes are in Glendale (he is not cryogenically frozen, as widely believed) and whose largest shareholder ended up being Steve Jobs (Jobs made about twice as much money selling Pixar to Disney as he did selling Apple to the public — although these things change with the stock market and there is no evidence that he cared much in any case).

By a very wide margin, Steve Jobs earned first place in the pantheon of genius entrepreneurs. He utterly transformed not one industry but five or six: personal computers, music, telephones, tablets, and animated film. And possibly publishing. He personally led extraordinary business turnarounds at both Apple and Pixar. When he stepped down as CEO, Apple was the most valuable company in the world.

Steve was a national treasure and we should honor him in a big way: schools, parks, battleships, postage stamps — the whole thing. I’d gladly throw Columbus under a bus to give Steve Jobs a national holiday. I hope his forthcoming biography is the smashing success that everyone expects it to be.

We will miss this guy enormously.