In thinking of something worthwhile to add to the mountain of sadness accumulating today from the passing of the greatest innovator and designer of our time, I can only regret that I never interviewed Steve Jobs, not even once. Ten years of tech journalism and I never had the opportunity to meet him, let alone write about him. I suppose a combination of being deeply entrenched in the world of IBM standard computing from my days at PC Week, my existence as an East Coast tech journalist with very few links or immersion in Silicon Valley, and the definite advantage that Fortune magazine had over Forbes in the 1990s due to Brent Schlendler’s constant stream of cover stories about Jobs and Gates, made Apple and Steve two topics I shied away from. Three of my colleagues were very linked to the man and the company. Jim Forbes was an old Apple reporter from his time at InfoWorld and MacWeek. Jeffrey Young who wrote for PC Week and Forbes wrote the first biography of Jobs, and of course PC Week and Forbes colleague Dan Lyons brilliantly spoofed Jobs for over one anonymous year as the Fake Steve Jobs.
I’ve had a mixed experience with Apple products. I never took to the Mac interface – the file system, the one button mouse, the propeller key on the keyboard …. It never clicked. The most I ever used a Mac was in the late 80s when I forged a Forbes expense check with an Mac II running PageMaker and Quark. Of course I’ve owned some six iPods, but never a Mac, MacBook, or MacAir. I bought an iMac for my daughter ten years ago, and most recently a MacAir as she set off for San Francisco to start her post college career. My wife has owned a MacBook for two years – I remember feeling very traitorous as I bought it from the Genius at the local Apple store since I was still working for uber-PC maker Lenovo at the time.
Lenovo’s former CEO, Bill Amelio, once asked me for my analysis of the Job’s phenomenon in exciting consumers’ lust for Apple products. I wish I had saved the email, it’s lost now, but it came down to Jobs’ charismatic cult of personality and complete totalitarian ownership of the design that he willfully exerted over Apple and the PC market. My conclusion was that Apple had a genius. The rest of the industry had committees and Powerpoint. While in a design meeting for a future Lenovo product I remember one ebullient and indignant engineer getting animated about the fact that his own teenaged son was saving his summer earnings to buy a Mac despite his efforts to push a discounted ThinkPad down his throat. I suspect there were a lot of Mac owners in the Morrisville closet. To say there was envy for Apple by the other PC makers is a gross understatement. The integration of the MacOS with the hardware, the excellent supply-chain execution by Tim Cook which locked up crucial components, the back-end brilliance of iTunes, and of course the elegant less-is-more design status made the typical clone-makers claims of economic ruggedness and keyboard quality about as effective as a maker of lumberjack clothing arguing his flannel shirts lasted longer than a Jermyn Street bespoke tailor’s work in Sea Island cotton.
The grief over Job’s passing is in part over the all-to-early end of a career of magnificent invention that easily could have yielded another two decades of breakthroughs. I imagine Apple’s labs have a few years’ worth of future Jobsian insights in the pipeline, but after that … who knows. Generationally, I can think of no contemporary of Jobs now working in technology with half the vision or talent. With Jobs comes what feels like the coda to the entire personal technology revolution that began at Xerox PARC in the late 60s and early 70s, when the confluence of Cold War engineering and countercultural utopianism combined to initiate 50 years of massive change in the relationship of people to technology.
John Markoff’s obituary of Jobs is worth seeking out. Markoff wonderfully writes about the origins of the PC industry in his book, What the Dormouse Said, particularly the influence of LSD on certain pioneers, especially Jobs. In his obituary today, Markoff writes: “He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.”
My next computer will probably be a MacAir or MacBook, not out of sentiment, but acceptance that as a semi-creative person unfettered by the procurement and IT departments, I can finally select what I want, and what I want Steve Jobs invented. As he famously said of market research – it’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.