Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

It's over, so now it begins.

Just one day after Steve Jobs' successor introduced Apple's latest version of the iPhone, Steve Jobs did what he always encouraged all of us to do: he let go. The curtain that for years cloaked the seriousness of his medical condition has been drawn back to reveal what we knew was the probability but dared hope would not be the outcome. Thus ends an almost-decade old fight with an insidious cancer that spares no one, not even Steve Jobs.  His death at age fifty-six leaves a void that the public and most certainly the investment community has worried can never be filled, leading to the question of whether Apple can remain a great company without his direct involvement. While we can argue that he got more out of his fifty-six years than most people would get out of double that number, we are left with the unanswerable question of how much more he would have done with more time. That perhaps is the reason for the very personal grief I feel at the passing of a man who was a stranger to me but whose creations are as much as part of my life as is my own family.

Steve Jobs knew me even if I didn't know him. He probably knew you, too. He knew what we wanted before we did. He understood that existing technology and the software used to harness it was hopelessly complex and he sought over the course of his life to demystify it. He urged us all to let go of our fear of technology and of old ways of thinking about form and function. He encouraged us to "Think Different," to share his vision of technology as a tool for all of us. In this he was spectacularly successful.

His message didn't resonate with everyone, of course, but the good news is that every day more and more people come to understand the simple genius of his vision. Jobs never thought of a computer as simply an appliance or a tool, like a lamp or an iron or a hammer.  Aesthetics always mattered to him.  Steve Jobs reached out but never catered to people who thought otherwise.  He understood that while a hammer is just a hammer, a computer could be much more than a beige box full of circuits and wires. To fully appreciate an Apple product you had to share Steve's view on the role of technology in our lives.  His goal always was to make technology work for us simply and elegantly and never for us to be its slaves.

It was Jobs who first grasped and commercialized the enormous potential of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and the mouse. Prior to the mouse, computers responded only to typewritten commands that required mastery of the various programming languages like Fortran and Cobol. Too hard.

Huh? This is hard.

This is not.
The Graphical User Interface and the mouse brought point-and-click to computers and accelerated  acceptance of the idea of a computer as a tool for everyone.  Making technology simple to use, elegantly.

I was impressed by the power of his convictions, the unwavering confidence that he had in his visions of the future. He bullied the world into seeing things his way.  The press termed his ability to convince anyone that anything was possible the "Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field."  It was another mark of his greatness, for how can anything be possible unless someone first believes that it is? The tragedy of many of history's great artists–and make no mistake, Jobs was an artist–is that they did not live to see their greatness celebrated.  The silver lining to the Jobs' tragedy is that he did live to see his greatness appreciated and that the accolades he garnered drove him to ever-greater levels of achievement. He never appeared eager to cash in on his fame, rarely granting interviews and famously having a prickly relationship with the media, but I do think he derived tremendous satisfaction from proving people wrong.  That his ideas achieved commercial success seemed incidental despite that success serving as the most tangible measure of validation. He was destined for greatness, that much is certain.

How many potentially great ideas have died in the stampede of the herd mentality?  The pressure in society to conform is almost unbearable. It takes an incredible amount of confidence to believe in an idea when no one else does. Steve Jobs had that confidence and the world is a better place for his ability to row against the tide. He articulated this view most famously in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University: 
"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."
Whether or not you think Apple is "insanely great" and even if you have been able to resist the gravitational pull of Jobs' "reality distortion field," your life was changed in measurable ways because you lived in the time of Steven Paul Jobs.  He wasn't afraid to "Think Different." What a great legacy.