Steve Jobs

I last saw Steve Jobs a year and half ago. I spent an hour alone in his company while he showed me the latest piece of magical hardware to have come from the company he had founded in 1976, the yet to be released Apple iPad. Naturally I was flattered to have been approved by him to be the one to write a profile for Time Magazine and to be given a personal demonstration of the device of which he was so clearly proud and for which he had such high hopes. The excitement of him then handing me an iPad (after I had duly signed severe NDAs prohibiting my flaunting it in public until the embargo date had passed) and being able to play with it before the rest of the world had even seen one tickled my vanity and I would be dishonest if I did not confess to the childlike excitement, the pounding thrill, the absurd pride and the rippling pleasure I always feel on such occasions – emotions that have long been pointed out as pathological symptoms of the wilder shores of unreason that Apple idolatry induce in people like me and as a part of Steve Jobs’s almost Svengali like powers of persuasion, and Barnum-like huckstering.

Of course, you might point out that he asked for me specifically because he knew that I admired him and that I would write a positive piece, that I was more or less a patsy who would deliver what he wanted. I would not deny that for a minute. I like to believe that if I had been disappointed with the iPad I would have said so and written it clearly and boldly, but fortunately that issue and the inner turmoil it would have caused never arose for the iPad and I fell in love instantly. A month or so after that meeting with Steve, the “magical tablet” launched and was received with the inevitable mixture of admiration, contemptuous dismissal and bored incomprehension that had greeted so many of Apple’s previous products.

Like the original Apple computers, the Lisa, the Macintosh, the LaserWriter, the OS X operating system, the iMac, the iPod, the MacBooks and the iPhone before it, the iPad went on to reshape the landscape into which it had been born and to exceed the most optimistic sales forecasts and once again to make the Apple haters, doubters and resenters look like sullen fools. The contrast between those awful prophets and Apple’s awesome profits was (and is) something to behold.

Stephen Fry using his white iPhone

Using my white iPhone

It is a very dismal business when a great personality dies and the world scrabbles about for comment, appraisal and judgment. I have been asked in the last 24 hours to appear and to write and to call in to join in the chorus of voices assessing the life and career of this remarkable man. But what was Steve Jobs? He wasn’t a brilliant and innovative electronics engineer like his partner and fellow Apple founder Steve Wozniak. Nor was he an acute businessman and aggressively talented opportunist like Bill Gates. He wasn’t a designer of original genius like Jonathan Ive whose achievements were so integral to Apple’s success from 1997 onwards. He wasn’t a software engineer, a mathematician, a nerd, a financier, an artist or an inventor. Most of the recent obituaries have decided that words like “visionary” suit him best and perhaps they are right.

As always there are those who reveal their asininity (as they did throughout his career) with ascriptions like “salesman”, “showman” or the giveaway blunder “triumph of style over substance”.  The use of that last phrase, “style over substance” has always been, as Oscar Wilde observed, a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool. For those who perceive a separation between the two have either not lived, thought, read or experienced the world with any degree of insight, imagination or connective intelligence. It may have been Leclerc Buffon who first said “le style c’est l’homme – the style is the man” but it is an observation that anyone with sense had understood centuries before, Only dullards crippled into cretinism by a fear of being thought pretentious could be so dumb as to believe that there is a distinction between design and use, between form and function, between style and substance. If the unprecedented and phenomenal success of Steve Jobs at Apple proves anything it is that those commentators and tech-bloggers and “experts” who sneered at him for producing sleek, shiny, well-designed products or who denigrated the man because he was not an inventor or originator of technology himself missed the point in such a fantastically stupid way that any employer would surely question the purpose of having such people on their payroll, writing for their magazines or indeed making any decisions on which lives, destinies or fortunes depended.

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