It’s tolerably well known that newspapers and magazines bank the obituaries of the ailing famous. When Steve Jobs died last Wednesday, the encomia appeared with unsurprising haste. But I had nothing prepared. Ever since Jobs announced in 2004 that he had had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas, editors had urged me to get something down. (Only last week, an editor at Technology Review proposed that I might review Jobs’s life as if it were a book or a tablet computer.) But I always demurred. It seemed ghoulish. Besides, I wanted Steve to live forever, because I loved him.
I had grown to love him even though our relationship (such as it was) had always been chilly. On at least two occasions, I know I pissed him off.
Steve Jobs was the first person I interviewed in Silicon Valley. It was 1994, and he was chief executive of NeXT Computer and exiled from Apple. The late Tom Quinlan, hardware editor of InfoWorld, had given me a page of questions I did not understand, and, chuckling, dispatched me to NeXT’s headquarters. It turned out to be a low, modernist building in Redwood City, down the road from Oracle’s futuristic drums. The founder and CEO, when I met him, was intimidating and impatient. In a conference room that I can still remember was striped with shadows from the blinds on its windows, I peered at Quinlan’s questions and nervously asked Jobs why he had no loyalty to his customers. (NeXT had just announced it would abandon its black-box computers and focus on developing software.) I think I asked why he made beautiful, expensive machines that only enthusiasts wanted. Jobs said, “Fuck you. I created the Mac and it’s still the best. What have you done?” and was gone.
Well, he had a point, although I couldn’t hear it at the time. Five years later, after he had returned to Apple, when I was editor of Red Herring, a magazine popular during the dot.com boom, I wrote a callow, facile column in the form of a letter to Jobs. It began, “Dear Steve, you’ve saved Apple. Good for you! I don’t care.” I argued that Microsoft had a near-monopoly in the market for personal computer software, and therefore controlled computing. Jobs wrote to my boss, Red Herring’s chief executive, Tony Perkins: “I’ll tell you who doesn’t matter: Red Herring, so long as Jason is the editor.” My final e-mail from Apple’s founder, sent this July, was a terse two-word rejection (“No thanks!”). It seems a fitting terminus to our history.
But like millions on the planet, I felt I knew Jobs much better than I did. It was a natural delusion: I’d seen him on stage or on television many times, and I had studied the primary literature—the long, soul-baring 1985 interview in Playboy, for instance—and read the biographies and company histories. I knew the meters of his speech, how he would pause, without embarrassment, when answering a question that caught his searching intelligence. With the rest of the world, I watched him get old and sick. It was affecting to see a world-historical individual so nakedly human.
But, mostly, I loved Steve Jobs because of the products he created and the method by which he worked. The extraordinary success of his method and products made nonsense of the wised-up cynicism which Quinlan and I were peddling: Jobs made hundreds of millions of people into enthusiasts for Apple’s personal technology. Today, the company enjoys near-monopolies in tablet computers and music players; and its iPhone outsells all other smart phones. Perhaps most surprisingly, sales of its computers have outpaced Windows PCs for years.
More than anyone else, Jobs shaped the forms of the machines of the digital revolution, and with those machines, the texture of modernity. He was responsible for six creations of unrivaled influence—successively, the Apple II, the Macintosh, the movie studio Pixar, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad—and they all bear the stamp of his obsessions and values. The products he oversaw were simple, elegant, and genuinely novel.
How did he do it? It’s a paradox that has been endlessly worried over that Jobs’s preoccupation with delighting consumers was accompanied by confidence that there was no point in asking what they wanted. A 1989 interview in Inc. magazine contains the best account of his working method. He hedged that his process was “hard to explain,” but offered up: “Customers can’t anticipate what the technology can do. They won’t ask for things that they think are impossible.” But, he continued, “It takes a long time to pull out of customers what they really want, and it takes a long time to pull out of technology what it can really give.”