Steve Jobs, 1955-2011
October 5, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Apple has confirmed that Steve Jobs is dead.
I wish I could think of something more profound to say. I will, later, perhaps. At the moment, however, all that comes to mind is the urge to curse. I’ve spent much of the day parsing the difference between yesterday’s iPhone 4S and the non-existent iPhone 5. Now of course with this evening’s news, such talk feels like the trivial nonsense it is. This is utterly shocking, even though it’s not like we didn’t have any warning. He’d been ill for years, cancer, surgeries, transplants, probably should have been gone half a decade ago. It’s almost as if he managed to come back to Apple for one more go-round through sheer force of will (I was going to say miracle there for a minute) in order to get his iPad out the door. He was clear that he believed the iPad is the future of consumer technology, far more important than the iPhone, and meant to even replace his original Macintosh creation. Now we know that physically, he must have been running on fumes during that time. And yet this talk of products, any of them, just seems so small and irrelevant today…
Apple, for its part, will be fine for awhile. Steve hand-picked the people who are now running the company. And even if those replacements only have half his competence and a tenth his vision, Apple users will be fine for some time as well. This isn’t about the latest iPhone or the next one or the one after that. The real story is the fundamental change he delivered to the face of consumer technology overall, which will continue long after his passing. And the lament, of course, is that he didn’t manage to stick around another twenty years so he could shape that future even more. Among his contemporaries, Jobs was the only one who truly seemed to get it – the rare tech enthusiast who understood what was going on under the hood of the product but also understood what it was that people outside the tech enthusiast bubble would actually want to use those products for; he aimed to please them, not his contemporaries. He didn’t believe in focus testing for new products, because he was so sure he could come up with new features and uses which consumers would find far more desirable than anything they ever could have thought to ask for – and he usually ended up being right.
On a personal note, I only met the man once. It was at the Apple Event in September 2007, much like the one Apple held yesterday for the iPhone 4S, but this time it was for the introduction of the original iPod touch and a new iPod nano among other products. I was seated in the second row, and when it was over, I all but literally ran into him as I was exiting my row; he was on the floor chatting with some personal acquaintances. I introduced myself, we shook hands, I congratulated him on the new products (perhaps not the properly impartial thing for a journalist to say, but there it was), and then we moved on. Steve was known not to be much for smalltalk with journalists, and I wasn’t going to push him. But the real memory was a few moments afterwards…
After the event Apple steered us press folk into a side room where they had the new iPods set up on tables for us to test out. I made a bee-line for the last table because I figured it would give me the easiest access. Looking up, I realized the three other people standing at the table were Steve Jobs, KT Tunstall, and the chairman of Starbucks; KT had been the musical guest for the event and the Starbucks guy was there to announce a partnership. I stood there quietly, hoping no one would chase me away, and I watched Steve demoing the new iPod nano for KT and trying to convince her what an amazing product it was. A few other journalists caught on and wandered over, with Apple’s PR handlers suddenly looking horrified at what might be about to transpire. But everyone behaved as we watched Steve stand there and try to convince KT Tunstall of how awesome it was that the new nano could do video and yet it was so inexpensive. I have video footage of the moment, stashed somewhere. Suddenly I feel the urge to dig it up.
That moment right there was Steve Jobs right there in a nutshell: here he was hanging out with a rock star who had traveled halfway across the world just to play a few songs at his gig, and yet he couldn’t resist the chance to turn it into an opportunity to sell her on his latest stuff. What made him different from every other born salesman was that he actually believed in the greatness of the product he was trying to sell – and most of the time he was right, too.
I’m not sure what else to say about the matter, at least for now. Let’s not forget that a man died today, a man who had family and friends and colleagues who will all miss him on a human level. And in the bigger picture there are profound implications for the future of technology to be discussed, both based on what he delivered in his lifetime and what a Steve-less tech future will now look like. But I’m drawing blanks. For the moment I simply keep coming back to the same two words: oh shit.