The Gift of Steve Jobs
Contrary to the by-line, this post is by Bob not Joselle. She wanted me to post an item that’s been of interest lately.
As a reader of Mac and Apple rumor sites over the years, I was surprised the night of October 5th when I went to cnn.com to show Joselle a news item which I have completely forgotten now. Instead, on the page was notice that Steve Jobs had died. Incomprehensibly to me, I became somewhat sad and quiet. Why? I never met him. I am a fan of many of the developments that came out of Apple this last decade, but I am under no illusion that they are all solely Jobs’s invention. I have read repeated accounts of his sometimes difficult behavior, and it is quite possible I would not even enjoy his company.
Perhaps partly to identify the reason for my reaction, since that day I have thought about several of the blogs and editorials about Jobs that have been published online since his passing. While interesting, none of them helped me understand my own reaction. Many of them seemed compelled to summarize what it was that Jobs had given us, what it was that caught our attention. Initially, many of the conclusions were fairly specific – the iPad is what he was after all along, or maybe the iPhone. Perhaps it was the new technology, like the touch or voice interfaces. Others claimed it was his attention to detail. A common theme was that he found a way to create interfaces and technologies that are close to us. This used to be called ‘the look and feel’ in the days of the Mac vs. PC battles. Some called attention to his evident marketing genius, or seeming creation of new industries. While it does seem to be the case that he accomplished much in these areas, I am not sure all credit can be given to him in each instance. Regardless, I don’t think any of these are the true gift of Steve Jobs.
Later postings have concluded that his greatest success was the company Apple itself, an organization they claim is uniquely able to match artistic and technology sense with the untapped desires of the public. Maybe it is a great result. Jobs appears to have concluded it was, according to one interview. The company seems to have achieved this during his tenure as CEO, and time will tell if it is able to deliver going forward. But I don’t think this is the important gift that he gave.
It was his sister, author Mona Simpson, who touched upon it in her eulogy, I think, when she mentioned the strength of his will during his illness. To me, the true gift he gave was the unique demonstration of will. Not so much his will in illness. Just will. It is perhaps most concisely called to attention by looking at Apple in late 1996, bleeding to death and with drums of doom pounding in almost every news item of its impending end. When he returned, it was rightly believed that it would be impossible for Apple to survive, let alone return to a place of prominence at the leading edge of technology. I dare say that for any other CEO, it would have been. But Jobs clearly saw this differently and had the will to make it happen. Looking in hindsight at the iMac, the cancellation of Newton, Mac OS X, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iOS and iPad, there was clearly tremendous focus and long-term planning of staging and testing developments in the marketplace. I am admittedly no expert, but I know of no other similar sequence in corporate accomplishments.
As an experimental scientist, I tend to rely on physical metaphors. The qualities of ferromagnetism come to mind. Magnetic domains in a ferromagnet become aligned with the application of a persistent and strong magnetic field. In the case of Apple, the magnetic field was the will of Steve Jobs, and the resulting ferromagnetism is the consistent output of his company. The course of Apple was clearly an external manifestation of the internal will of its leader. And this brings me to the reason for posting this in Joselle’s blog.
As her blogs often point out, the world inside and the world outside are inextricably linked. The will is perhaps one path linking them. In the case of Jobs, his internal world was brought out for all to see in surprising levels of design and ease of use of what are usually temperamental and difficult to use technologies. His attention to his own intuition and consistency seemed to verge on the probing thinking demanded of many research mathematicians. Indeed, Simpson revealed that, had his life progressed differently, Jobs felt he might have been a mathematician. That might surprise some people given his ties to art and his subordination of technology to artistic impulses. But I’m not surprised.
Steve Jobs gave us the wonderful demonstration of the resurrection of Apple and the power of will to facilitate it. Whatever you think of him, such a story is as remarkable as a real-life Rocky, and worth the telling. But he also gave us a unique demonstration of an unusual connection of the exterior material technology we use to the carefully tended interior world of our thought. In that sense, what he was doing was similar to mathematicians and artists alike.
For that demonstration of will, I am thankful.