Apple legend Steve Jobs died last night from cancer at the age of 56. He packed the achievements of many lifetimes into that tragically short span of years. He kept making things better until his body failed him. That’s an epitaph anyone can envy.
The man was not perfect, and blind worship is not necessary to appreciate his legacy. I’ve never owned an Apple computer myself, but I’m in awe of what he accomplished. I used to work in the computer industry, and I remember the moment when we stopped spending all day just trying to get the damned things to work, and began crafting them into indispensible marvels people didn’t want to put down. Steve Jobs did more than any other single person to bring us to that moment, when the intellect and creativity of the common man began flowing into devices that were both tools and treasures.
In the computer world, we call the people on the other side of the keyboards and touch screens “users.” Users don’t call themselves that any more. Jobs’ unique vision changed not just the machines, but the people using them. His vision is immortal, because until machines and men change again, in ways we can hardly envision today, software engineers will keep trying to bottle a bit of his magic.
Jobs combined vision with the charm, drive, and savvy necessary to infect others with his visions. It took a lot of hard work, and he took a lot of risks. He was cadging computer chips out of Hewlett-Packard, and eventually working for them, when he was only a teenager. He made important business connections with folks who never stopped thinking he and his equally youthful partner Steve Wozniak were nuts. They put in hundred-hour work weeks, and declared they were having a good time doing it.
He got booted out of Apple for a decade, because the first wave of Macintosh computers weren’t selling as well as hoped, and his hard-charging style had made him some enemies. He spent his exile from Apple helping to found a little movie studio called Pixar. Jobs’ genius for simplicity and accessibility helped turn Pixar into one of history’s most successful movie studios. There’s a strong case for calling it the most successful studio, period. Has any other enjoyed such a long, unbroken string of hits? It is said that the names of some stars and directors can fill theater seats. How many studios can say that?
What makes Pixar movies great is the same charm Jobs brought to Apple in a new and highly infectious form upon his return. Pixar creates worlds that envelop the future with effortless grace. The astonishing first act of Up will be studied by storytellers for generations to come. Jobs’ computer designs do the same thing. You don’t really learn how to use an iPhone, or an iPod, or the many competing devices that emulate their style. You harmonize with them.
The vision and drive of Steve Jobs created hundreds of billions of dollars in value for Apple. He didn’t spend his days begging politicians to seize the wealth of others and give it to him, because he knew he could make better use of it. He did not follow official dictation from bureaucrats who would decide what was imperative, and what was adequate. His career demonstrates the vast power of inspiration, which does not exist in an atmosphere of compulsion. He was a free man who used his freedom to make the world richer, and that is a fine legacy for any American.
As you move through the world of electronic marvels surrounding you, every day will bring you in contact with things that are better because of Jobs, and those who rose to the challenge of competing with him. What good is potential, if people don’t know how to unlock it? What use is power, if people can’t figure out how to use it? A lot of brilliant and hard-working people worked for many years to solve those riddles. Their wondrous labors continue, in memory of the man who succeeded.