About Steve Jobs: The World is a Colder Place

October 7th, 2011

When I first discovered Macs in the 1980s, I never heard of Steve Jobs, or Steve Wozniak for that matter, nor was I particularly familiar with the Apple culture. I only knew that the Apple Macintosh was the future for my line of work, traditional typography. At the time, I labored on one of those mini computers that came with a simple black and white terminal and keyboard. You entered text commands, and, you hoped, the end result would look presentable.

Some of those machines even offered a rudimentary WYSIWYG display, giving you an approximation of the look of the letterforms and formatting on the output that would soon emerge from a processing machine. Yes, we had to sometimes pour chemicals into that smelly developing device, which used substances similar to what you employed in traditional photography.

Once I migrated to the Mac, I knew I was approaching the end to my line of work, thus hastening my return to writing and, eventually, to broadcasting. To me, the Mac and other Apple products represented something with which you had a deep personal connection. It put the “personal” in a personal computer, and that’s something that Microsoft and other companies have yet to understand. They can imitate the form of the device, if they choose, but the substance has always even lacking.

Now it’s a sure thing that Jobs wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. I could see that in my brief encounters with him, and certainly there are enough credible anecdotes around about his often abusive behavior of employees to demonstrate that he was a rough and unpredictable taskmaster. I wouldn’t presume to understand the whys and wherefores of his emotional outbursts, but it’s very likely that his personal demons also made him the most talented CEO on the planet.

Certainly in his second coming at Apple, it was clear he learned a thing or two about business. The original Macintosh designed and built during Jobs’ first tenure at Apple was highly flawed, although it revealed signs of genius. From folks who used the NeXT computers, I understand that they, too, had their design oddities. After Jobs returned to Apple, he introduced the Power Mac G4 Cube, visually a modern testament to the NeXT Cube, but also a highly flawed design. The Cube had a complex plastic housing that might at times develop cracks in the corners, and the proximity power/sleep switch could accidentally be activated if you moved your fingers too close, perhaps when cleaning the unit. I know when I reviewed one, my wife forced it into sleep mode several times during her routine housecleaning.

But it was clear Jobs had a soft spot for the Cube. I recall when I attended Apple’s official rollout of Mac OS X in March of 2001, at Apple’s headquarters. I was seated behind Steve Jobs and Philip Schiller, in fact, during parts of the presentation where Jobs wasn’t involved. During the question and answer session, Jobs was asked if Apple planned to discontinue the Cube due to poor sales. His response, “you don’t know what you’re talking about!” But the questioner had it right on, because the Cube was discontinued only weeks later. It seemed clear to me that Jobs made the decision reluctantly, but he was a savvy enough businessman to know the numbers didn’t add up.

In the end, though, his successes outweigh the failures. The iPod, iPhone and the iPad reinvented the company, which is why “Computer” was removed from the corporate name. Even though Jobs took three sick leaves because of his extended illness, it was clear that Apple could continue without missing a beat. Tim Cook’s low-key demeanor may not compare to the amazing charisma that made Jobs the consummate salesperson. But Cook clearly has inherited the company’s DNA, and few outside of Apple are, I’m sure, fully aware of the extent to which Apple’s employees pooled their efforts to enhance Jobs’ reputation as a visionary, a true genius. None of that could have happened without the people to back him up.

My feeling is that Jobs worked hard in his final years to make sure the company he co-founded could survive without his micromanagement. Since it takes several years for a new product to often reach the production lines, it’s very likely that other Apple gadgets with as much promise as the iPhone and iPad are already in the pipelines. Perhaps we’ll see them in the next year or two, a testament to the greatness of Steve Jobs.

At the same time, the critics state, no doubt accurately, that Apple has to be nimble enough to switch gears as market forces change. Simply following blindly in Jobs’ footsteps may work for a while, but it’s not a long-term solution. The company will, some day, have to seek its own way to live long and prosper.

Meantime, the world without Steve Jobs will be a colder place.

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