Posted on | November 21, 2011 | No Comments
Note: This article was originally written on 11/21/2011 and published 01/28/2013
The stage is silent now.
We wait for the footfalls, the loudspeakers, the music that will lead to that thrill we’ve become so accustomed to. No longer is there the thunderous applause as that grinning mischievous face appeared, one which grew thinner and sharper over time, peering at us with sanguine satisfaction from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Forever gone is his striding figure, grey haired and slim, outfitted in black turtleneck and blue jeans, garb which might have looked more at home on a senetorian poetry professor than a technocratic demagogue. Twice a year the world of Apple would pivot on his words, determining the direction of personal computing technology for years to come.
But like all paragons, they are still men, and they can’t last forever. Their words stop, their creations end, and their absence leaves a hard-felt hole in the world.
A world without Steven Paul Jobs is going to be one that will take some getting used to. Even though he had wisely begun to phase himself out of the product announcement cycle, his indelible imprint was still on each product he sent out Apple’s doors. Like a doting father he would walk out into the lights and proudly tell us about the latest innovation from his company. With his own flourish would introduce it, talking about the product like it was his new child ready to take on the world.
Many more things have been and could be said about Steve Jobs, his works, his mistakes, and his triumphs, than I could ever write here. He has been chronicled by better writers than myself, describing in great detail his actions and how his force of will shaped the technology of the world we live in.
And for all that power, for all the money and awards he was given for these accomplishments, Steve most likely did not change the world for mere material reward.
He did it for the applause.
There was probably no greater thrill for him than to feel the throbbing in his chest from the sound of a thousand hands clapping. It would come out of the crowd like a tidal wave, starting simply because he walked out onto the stage. And then when he introduced the next innovation, the product, the treat his company had manufactured, hands would pound together again, making that adopted son of a San Francisco machinist feel a perfect, all-consuming rush few of us will ever experience.
It’s easy to look over his life and pick out the moments where he made decisions that sent shockwaves throughout the IT world, for instance in 1976 with the release of the Apple personal computer, or 1984 when Macintosh and its Graphical User Interface changed the way people used computers. There are also other times when he stumbled, such as when without warning he was forced off the Apple board by John Sculley, and Jobs’ first disastrous foray into high-end hardware with NeXT computing.
But Steve’s greatest triumph, the actions that made Apple into the technological and design juggernaut it is today, happened in 1996.
Right now Apple is on top, the wealthiest corporation there is. But what few dwell on are those lean years of the mid-90’s, when it was hard for Mac fans to look at that cherished fruity logo on one’s monitor without feeling pangs of sorrow. At the time, those of us who still used Apple products were considered the poor cousin of the computing community. Passe games and a tenuous legacy of graphics software from Adobe was all we had to show for our faith.
The hardware line was scrambled, with new Macintoshes were given arbitrary names and numbers which confused consumers. It rapidly got to the point where no one quite knew for sure if they were buying the latest hardware or not. And the Newton, Apple’s attempt at a handheld computer with its infamously balky handwriting recognition software, ungainly size, and pound and a half of weight, was highly unpopular.
After an attempt at licensing clones, and their tenuous dominance in the educational market eroding, the Apple board was at their wits end. Completely adrift they were watching the company they shepherded, a former leader in personal computing, drunkenly careening towards a fiscal ledge. Wired had published a cover article about Apple, simply entitled “Pray”. It was the end times for Macintosh and Co.
With their backs against the wall and the business world nipping at their heels intending to either buy them up or take them apart, Apple did the only thing they could do in such a situation: break the glass, pull the lever, and call in Steve.
The parting of Steve Jobs from Apple had been the stuff of corporate legend. Without any preamble John Scully, the CEO Steve had hired away from Pepsico to run the company, forced him out in 1985. Afterwards he moved on to other projects, such as NeXT computing and Pixar. But with Apple falling apart in 1996, the board decided to buy NeXT, thereby bring Steve back on board.
When word of his return reached the ears of the Macintosh community it was the stuff of Arthurian legend, the great king returning to save the kingdom he had founded at its time of greatest need. After a few swift opening acts such as stopping the clones and killing the Newton, Steve went quiet and began work on overhauling the Apple product lines. The world waited to see what would happen next.
New commercials were broadcast. The original and epic “Think Different” campaign reached televisions and billboards across the country. Apple was the underdog already, so why not be the artistic black-wearing rebel as well?
Then came the iMac. It was the first of its kind: colorful, simple, efficient. A pleasing throwback to the old all-in-one Macintosh Plus, it had a color scheme unlike any PC of the time. That iridescent Aquafresh blue and translucent white were hues chosen by designers and candymakers. The machine was a great leap forward not so much in technology, because it was running the standard PowerPC G3 chip, but in it’s simple streamlined form. Before the advent of the iMac, the only option had been to assemble your computer, wiring its components together and, in the case of some PCs, needing to make *internal* changes such as installing your own sound card. And these were the consumer-level machines.
There were knock-offs of the design made by other companies almost immediately, copying the transparent blue accents and all-in-one concept to cash in on the craze generated by this revolutionary machine. Apple made its first forays into lawsuits to defend its designs since the Windows-MacOS debacle from the 1980’s. But this time, they won.
The G3 line, once seen vaguely as powerful but its capabilities never really quantified, was given a marketing makeover. The Apple ad people oh so cleverly pointed out the chip was up to twice as fast as the Pentium 2 processor. Steve rode that creative meme, making more and more funny, elegant, and poignant commercials, each touting their new gadgets and letting the world know that Apple was back in the innovation game. The new G3 tower line abandoned the classic beige case and was given a sleek new modern translucent blue design of it’s own. The branding was complete: Apple was now synonymous with color, energy, and excitement.
For the longest time Steve had been in the background during this time of change. He was content with the press releases, and like Willy Wonka he merely sat back and watched the world cheer new wonders coming out of his chocolate factory. But in a presentation reminiscent of the introduction of the original Macintosh, he returned to the stage and introduced the iMac himself.
He continued adding his own personal touch to each product release, introducing a touch of panache and style not just with his words but with magician like prestige, like pulling the new iPod mini out of the watch pocket of his jeans, or sliding the ultra-thin MacBook air out of a manilla envelope. Steve’s personal style on these occasions went on to reflect the new minimalist design of the Macintosh line, garbing himself in his instantly iconic black turtleneck and blue jeans. Whenever he was seen making his appearances at developer conferences, at MacWorld, or introducing the Apple store, he brought his own unique energy to the event.
But as time went on, with the Apple stock once again flying high and the iPod dominating the mp3 player market, all the activity seemed to wear on Steve. His energy was still there, and no one could deny his P. T. Barnum-esque showmanship, but with every appearance he seemed a little thinner, perhaps a touch grayer. Eventually you could tell: he was becoming just plain unhealthy looking.
And then it was announced he had cancer. Pancreatic cancer. One of the worst kinds.
He fought it, and eventually was forced to have a liver transplant. Steve bounced back to a degree, but the strain of both treatment and surgery had taken its toll on his body. As had happened to great men before him he was staring death in the face while still in his prime, continuing to steer the company into which he had invested so much, still pushing it to greater and greater levels of success. Wisely, Steve trained his successors, introducing them to the public and making sure his faith in them was well known. Steve knew that when a corporation like Apple lost its founder, and motive force, it could sometimes fall adrift.
When his time came it was not unexpected, but none the less his loss shocked the industry he had helped build. There was an outpouring of support, with even the flags of long-time rival Microsoft flying at half-mast. A video showing a few choked-up words from Apple co-founder and former colleague Steve Wozniak summed up how the rest of the nerd community was feeling.
But even with the pain came memories, and a a legacy that will no doubt live on for many years to come. Steve’s spirit lives on in his company and family, his works and innovations. There are of course still questions left in the wake of his last fifteen years at Apple Computer. Was this renaissance of the company tied to him as its driving force? Will the corporation begin to slide as his influence fades over the next year or two? Or will it not only continue to be a design powerhouse, but keep growing larger and eventually becoming the dominant portable computing force in the world? Only time will tell.
But while I’ve heard Steve Jobs described in many ways, ranging from Magnificent Bastard to Visionary Genius, I think the best way to sum him up comes from his own very first Think Different t.v. commercial…
“…you can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do, is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.”