Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The look & feel of the modern world:
Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

On Tuesday at an Apple Store near Seattle, I bought an iMac computer with 21.5-inch backlit display, 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of SDRAM, built-in Bluetooth and a 500GB hard drive. This was no random impulse buy; it was necessary to replace Malcolm OS X, my aging Macintosh iMac from 2005, exhausted after a logic board replacement and two power supply changeovers, the computer the victim of literally a thousand late nights and, just as literally, keystrokes equal to more than a million words.

But it wasn't just a replacement of a piece of high-falutin’ technology, a swap of a dinosaur for the latest thing for its own sake. I was trading one tool for another, one avenue of expression for a newer, better one, a fresher device with which to articulate my world, to make sense and order of the wider world beyond.

More than any other company, Apple Inc. has offered the world a software license to dream. The breadth of the appeal of that idea is evident everywhere around you every day and every night. Pedestrians walk down the streets staring into sleek, glowing lozenges of light and sound; in Starbucks stores around the world, people race their fingers down the faces of small black slabs of aluminum and glass, summoning or imparting information; in gyms and health clubs across the planet, people exercise to music, vast libraries of songs delivered by a device no bigger than a deck of cards.

We live in a world shaped and crafted by the bold, buccaneer, visionary esthetic of that company, and of its guiding light, its lightning rod, its avatar. That spirit, Steven Paul Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Apple, died today, after a long and courageous battle against the ravages of pancreatic cancer, at the heartbreakingly young age of 56.

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In his time at Apple, Jobs guided the company from a wild dream concocted in his family's garage in California to become what it is today: not so much a company as an ecosystem, agent of a design for living, and a wildly profitable venture whose assets (about $345 billion) rival those of the United States Treasury, a concern whose 4,000 percent stock appreciation over the past ten years has made it, according to market capitalization, the second-largest corporation in the world.

The vision that Jobs brought to Apple and its products — computers as life tools, as functional furniture, as a means to a creative end — has permeated every aspect of our lives. Like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison before him, Steve Jobs reordered our reality, altering our sense of what is possible from technology, our idea of what to expect from business, from ourselves.

Jobs relished his role as Apple's evangelist in chief; his product presentations in San Francisco were as eagerly awaited as a visit from any head of state, and a lot more fun. His talent for showmanship was that much more obvious when compared with other CEOs introducing other products.

Case in point: On Sept. 28 at a Manhattan news conference, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the new and much-anticipated Kindle Fire, the latest and enhanced iteration of the company’s popular e-reader, and thought to be Amazon’s first salvo in the tablet wars.

Bezos walked out onstage holding the new Amazon device aloft in his left hand. “It’s called Kindle Fire,” Bezos said.

Crickets. Not a mumblin’ word from anyone in the room.

Contrast that with the reception Jobs received in San Francisco when he rolled out the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — from colleagues, the media and the public,  a reliably raucous welcome to the newest device in iWorld, the latest thing people didn't know they needed or wanted until Steve Jobs & Co. brought it to life.

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Jobs' carefully cultivated reputation as showman, as maverick, as industrial shaman and prickly businessman, ultimately couldn't conceal what he really was: a visionary with a heart. This was obvious in June 2005 when Jobs, then recovering from an operation to arrest the cancer that would eventually kill him, gave the commencement address at Stanford University and dared the graduates that day to make their lives an unmitigated leap of faith.

“You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect somewhere down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference.”

That address made it obvious. Jobs didn't just dare us to think; any reasonably passionate, dedicated professor can do that. Only some of them can do more; only some of them can do what Steve Jobs did. He dared us to dream, and he brilliantly put technology at the service of those dreams.

The devices that Jobs shepherded into reality, the things that Apple makes — the iMac, the iPod, iTunes and iPad — are all too easily described in literal terms: they're storage machines, retrieval machines, communications devices, delivery services, tools.

What they (and the actual packaging of those products) really are is evidence of a spare, minimalist elegance, an organic sensibility announced in curves and contours, an absence of right angles that mirrors our own. What these devices really are, what Jobs designed them to be, is what we make of them. They are tabula rasa: the empty slate, the blank canvas onto which we, the customers, the early adopters, the newcomers, the eager acolytes, the people of this world, paint our masterpieces, offer our expressions, establish our identities, announce our quirks, our desires. Our dreams.

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And the phrase that became Apple's corporate mantra — Think Different — has become a deeply internalized rallying cry, a call to push back against convention and stasis however they manifest themselves, from the hopelessness of a bad marriage to the unsatisfying career, from the intractable policies of dictators in north Africa and the Middle East to the equally intractable culture of the titans of Wall Street.

In his command of computer science, his knack for marketing and a pitch-perfect sense of the power of design, Steve Jobs showed us the magic of technology. In his embrace of human aspiration and the possibilities of the human spirit, he revealed the magic in all of us.

Steve Jobs died today surrounded by his family. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and they'll keep coming for days and weeks to come. Leave it to President Obama to put things in perspective:

“Steve was fond of saying that he lived every day like it was his last. Because he did, he transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world. The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.”

Steve Jobs transformed nothing less than the look and feel of the modern world. And nothing in that world will ever look or feel quite the same again.


Image credits: Jobs top and bottom: via The Huffington Post. Apple 20-year stock chart: The Wall Street Journal. Apple logo and iMac photo: Apple Inc.

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