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.”
“Sometimes the technology just doesn’t want to show you what it can do. You have to keep pushing on it and asking the engineers over and over again to explain why we can’t do this or that—until you truly understand it. A lot of times, something you ask for will add too much cost to the final product. Then an engineer might say casually, ‘Well, it’s too bad you want A, which costs $1,000, instead of B, which is kind of related to A. Because I can do B for just 50¢.’ And B is just as good as A. It takes time to work through that process—to find breakthroughs but not wind up with a computer no one can afford.”
In his obituaries, Jobs was called a visionary. The word is justified: he had visions, and he convinced cofounders, investors, employees, and, finally, customers to share them. Yet the word “visionary” suggests mysterious powers, and as the Inc. interview shows, Jobs’s approach wasn’t so very strange. He pulled at consumers, and pushed at the technology, and merged the two. But if the method was not mysterious, the details were laborious. Jobs was not an engineer. He combined and refined borrowed ideas (from Xerox PARC most famously, but variously: from typesetters, industrial designers, and the counterculture). He ignored vulgar consensus, took risks, and killed unsatisfactory projects. He loved excellence; anything that was substandard, hurried, cluttered, or dumb pained him, and he rejected it. He concerned himself with the smallest details of products, so that, for example, the circuit board of the Apple II had to be flawlessly soldered and classically proportioned, though almost no one would ever see it. He hired the best designers and engineers, and by persuasion and bullying, inspired them to build his insanely great machines.
Apple (and by extension Jobs) existed, he always said, at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. As an artist, his medium of expression was computing. He wanted to excite passionate fandom from his customers, because he was himself technology’s biggest fan. And like all real artists, he didn’t create his artifacts to get rich (although the validation must have been nice to a poor boy from Mountain View); he did it for the absorbing love of his chosen craft.
During a justly famous speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement (the core text for understanding the man), Jobs spoke about getting fired from Apple. He said, “I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the Valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me—I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”
Jobs insisted that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have happened to him: “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again … It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” During the next five years, he founded NeXT and Pixar and met his wife. NeXT led to his return to Apple, and he saw the technology he created at NeXT at the heart of the Macintosh operating system.
“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple … I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Sad that he is dead, disappointed that I will never see the machines he might have created. I hope, in my small way, to imitate Steve.
Jason Pontin is the editor in chief of Technology Review.
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June 11-12, 2019