October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs: An Irreplaceable Icon

The world's outpouring of affection for Apple cofounder Steve Jobs is remarkable. In a time when scandal and tawdriness make headlines, and the foolish are revered, Steve represented something else - an intelligent, perfectionist approach to creativity, aimed at the greater good to constantly refine and bring value, through technology - and somehow won the hearts of the people. Amidst a world of awkward poor dressing techies, Steve exuded class and presented himself as being above the fray. His presentations were a masterpiece. His products were art. He took a world consumed with cutting margins and making it up in volume and made it emotional - a status symbol. He helped define a generation of computing and electronics in hardware and software, and became the man on a pedestal by whom all other CEOs and innovative tech leaders are measured - a tall task for the current crop and those to follow.

The last 4 or 5 years of uncertainty around Steve's health (and I feel like I know him so well that he should simply be referred to as Steve) were the unspeakable story - the deep hope that he could surprise us all - again - with "One more thing" and show that he had somehow beaten cancer and proven his immortality. All while fighting unspeakable challenges at home and in hospitals, he and his extended team churned out more and more products, hit after hit that built Apple into the highest-valued company in the world. Each keynote worried us that it would be his last. His very figure was dissected by cheap online tabloids trying to score a few million page views, and we rejected the opportunity to have this new shrunken image burned into our pupils, because we knew that despite his newfound frailties, Steve inside remained the lion we all knew.

For 15 or so years, Apple and Steve Jobs have once again been whole - practically synonymous. College students everywhere can't remember a time when Steve was not leading the company. But for those of us who suffered during the dark days of Apple, when the word "beleaguered" followed the company everywhere, and showing up with a Mac in a world that was going Windows was a conversation starter, knowing you were different.

It's not just that Steve did his job better than anybody else when he was on top. It was that he took a company in the middle of a very public suicide and turned it around, using the perfect mixture of humility when it was needed, and arrogance when it too was needed.

During the summer before my junior year in college, I remember my roommate, almost with a cat call, announcing that Gil Amelio, then CEO of Apple for a mere 500 days, had resigned. Yet another obvious example that Apple was doomed, and we would have to settle for something less than great for the rest of our computing days. Even I had almost given up. But this presumed bad news was the turning point that brought the original visionary who made the Mac what it was to the company that could make history again. Almost nobody saw it coming. Not even the geeky among us who said we would give up our Mac when you pried it from our cold dead fingers knew what was coming. Not even those of us who held our AAPL shares in the single digits and cheered when the company market cap passed $4 billion had any idea of what the next decade would bring. If we had, we would have put our life savings on it.

Why is the world reacting to the passing of Steve in the way that it has? Why has the President of the United States taken the time to remark on his passing just hours after Steve left us for what's next? Why did the leaders of practically every tech company on the planet express their heartfelt loss and appreciation for the man's accomplishments? Because Steve stood for something. He personalized the fight for the user so absent in a world of drab number-pushers unwilling to take chances. He personally stood for making change for humans that made products desirable. He was, to many, a hero - even to those who found themselves going against Apple in the market.

In the last few years, as we've all started to think about the inevitability of Steve's passing, as cancer doesn't give anybody any slack, writers have all had the chance to write their premature obituaries, to share their favorite stories of Steve - to tell their first experiences of the Mac or the iPhone or the iPad or anything else that made Apple have an impact on them. I now have three children who will grow up in a world without Steve Jobs, who will be forced to hear from me stories that make him sound like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford wrapped up into one. I have but the one blip of a memory of when I saw him at an early Apple Store in Palo Alto, when being his perfectionist self, he answered a support question I had. I am glad I saw a keynote of his at MacWorld in person a full decade ago. Even as some of my preferences changed in terms of my own computing and mobile choices, I never lost faith in Steve and his fight.

The world lost a vibrant 56 year old man. In a world where people regularly crest over 100 years old, and CEOs melt into their chairs into their 80s, Steve could not beat cancer. There were no karma points for being the best in the world for what he did and being an inspiration to all who saw him, knew of him, came into contact with him, and understood him. And this is just wrong. It is a major reason why underneath all the praise and wistfullness and sorrow, there is also anger, and frustration that a man who had already given so much, who had so much more to give, was taken from us too soon. This is unacceptable.

Tim Cook and the rest of the Apple team have an impossible task, to satisfy the millions of Apple fans and the tech world who has grown used to expecting the impossible from the company and seeing it exceeded. I have no doubts that Steve has trained his successor and management team well, that they know the right way to build products and make things beautiful and magical. But in a world of copycats, Steve remained without equal for decades, a cut above the rest. There will be no replacing Steve. Just an end to an era, and the start of a new landscape, where he moves into the history books instead of current events.

I do have a heavy heart tonight. I say it without melodrama, without a need for others to feel shared sorrow, but for reality. The whole world lost somebody special today, and we will never get him back.

No comments:

Post a Comment