Wore My Black Turtleneck Today

It was my quiet way of marking the passing of a great man.

Ask yourself this: at the company where you work, would they offer grief counseling if your former CEO died? You’ve probably read plenty about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments in the last 24. I hesitate to add to that, but I think a lot of pundits and journalists are missing the mark on what made Steve great.

Steve didn’t invent personal computers. He didn’t invent the Graphical User Interface. He didn’t invent smart phones or tablet computers or mp3 players. His genius was making all those things useful. He’s been called a visionary, and I’m not going to argue that, but his vision was “If this stuff was intuitive to use, it would be a hell of a lot better. And I can fix that.” Macintosh was “the computer for the rest of us.” It was the first personal computer with a GUI, with point-and-click and drag-and-drop, the first computer that made an effort to make tasks you accomplish with technology more similar to things you do in the physical world.

He stole that idea (with permission) from Xerox. Xerox had, to paraphrase some pundit whose name I can’t recall, spent huge amounts of money to see the future. Then they gave Steve a tour of their facility, and he went and made their ideas useful. Steve himself has regrets about that fateful day; he was so blown away by the GUI that he didn’t appreciate the network and the new approach to programming Xerox had developed.

Xerox gave Steve Jobs a peek at the future of computing, and he was just the guy to take that glimpse and revolutionize the way humans and machines interacted, and just the guy to bend a successful company to his vision.

Almost immediately after the Mac was introduced, Steve was wedged out of Apple. The two events were probably related; to say that Steve was brutal on the development team would be an understatement (“Insanely Great” was his mantra; his unwillingness to compromise on the little details his curse), and he was neglecting the very successful Apple II. But the Apple II was the past. Computing the way it used to be done. Mac was a world-changer. Steve knew that. The board of directors wasn’t so sure.

After his departure Apple continued to refine and improve on his vision, and try with increasing futility to protect those inventions from imitators. To this day, Apple is ready to throw down a lawsuit at a moment’s notice, but the biggie, the one that got away, was the one against Microsoft for copying the windowed operating system. Losing that one almost killed Apple.

Then Steve came back. FiRST step: quit refining the OS and overhaul it. The competition was improving quickly. Next step: follow the power. The computing power, I mean, which was moving into smaller and smaller packages. I was pretty excited about Mac OS X, but I was dead stoked when I heard the phrase “A thousand songs in your pocket.” I bought one of those first iPods, and on airplanes and in bars people would ask me about it. The thing was, in a word, awesome. (“Insanely Great” has long been retired. The phrase is kind of like the Great Wall in China, I think – much more fun for people who don’t remember the cost.)

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first digital music player, but when it came out, something fundamental changed. This was the first player that was useful, that carried enough music, that you could fill up almost thoughtlessly, that was simple to use, often without looking. All the details were right, the little things that others compromised on. That was Steve’s genius. Do it right. He had the unwavering belief that he knew what right was, even if no one else did. Do it right, and people will agree with you in retrospect. I cringed when Apple got into the phone business. Don’t they know what a cutthroat, small-margin business that is? They did it right, and I stand corrected (provisionally).

I think this is why I enjoy working at Apple so much. Most of you out there will never see the fruits of my labors (except perhaps as a microscopic price reduction in Apple products), but always I strive to put that little bit of extra rightness into everything I make. It’s noticed here. The spirit of Steve, his uncompromising attitude, is still alive.

God: Welcome, Steve. Did you enjoy the heavenly choir?
Steve: They were awesome! Really stirring. But…
God: But what?
Steve: What if everyone could hear their own music? I mean, not music they wrote, but music that was perfect for them, right at that moment.
God: That’s kind of what we do…
Steve: Let me handle this.

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