Steve Jobs

Henry Ford didn’t invent the motor car, Rockefeller didn’t discover how to crack crude oil into petrol, Disney didn’t invent animation, the Macdonald brothers didn’t invent the hamburger, Martin Luther King didn’t invent oratory, neither Jane Austen, Tolstoy nor Flaubert invented the novel and D. W. Griffith, the Warner Brothers, Irving Thalberg and Steven Spielberg didn’t invent film-making. Steve Jobs didn’t invent computers and he didn’t invent packet switching or the mouse. But he saw that there were no limits to the power that creative combinations of technology and design could accomplish.

I once heard George Melly, on a programme about Louis Armstrong, do that dangerous thing and give his own definition of a genius. “A genius,” he said, “is someone who enters a field and works in it and when they leave it, it is different. By that token, Satchmo was a genius.” I don’t think any reasonable person could deny that Steve Jobs, by that same token, was a genius too.

I will end with a story few people know. What you probably do know is that Jobs wooed Pepsi Cola boss John Sculley to Apple in 1985. He wanted him to do to IBM the unthinkable thing that he had done to Coca Cola: beaten the brand leader into second place. He won Sculley with the famous phrase, “do you want to sell fizzy sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to change the world?” Sculley came and a few months later, astoundingly, their disagreements came to such a head that Jobs found himself fired from the company he had founded.

You probably knew that. You probably knew he went on to found his own computer company NeXt – a black cube computer that ran a UNIX operating system, revealing Jobs’s already growing conviction that the professionally popular UNIX, so suited to networking, should be the future kernel (if you’ll forgive the geeky pun) of any sensible consumer oriented operating system.

It was on a NeXt machine that the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote the protocols, procedures and languages that added up to the World Wide Web, http, HTML, browsers, hyperlinks … in other words the way forward for the internet, the most significant computer program ever written was done on a NeXt computer. That is a feather in Steve Jobs’s cap that is not often celebrated and indeed one that he himself signally failed to know about for some time.

After having written www, Berners-Lee noticed that there was a NeXt developers conference in Paris at which Steve Jobs would be present. Tim packed up his black cube, complete with the optical disk which contained arguably the most influential and important code ever written and took a train to Paris.

It was a large and popular conference and Tim was pretty much at the end of the line of black NeXt boxes. Each developer showed Steve Jobs their new word-processor, graphic programme and utility and he slowly walked along the line, like the judge at a flower show nodding his approval or frowning his distaste. Just before he reached Tim and the world wide web at the end of the row, an aide nudged Jobs and told him that they should go or he’d be in danger of missing his flight back to America. So Steve turned away and never saw the programme that Tim Berners-Lee had written which would change the world as completely as Gutenberg had in 1450. It was a meeting of the two most influential men of their time that never took place. Chatting to the newly knighted Sir Tim a few years ago he told me that he had still never actually met Steve Jobs.

Their work met however and it is through it that you are reading this. I will not be so presumptuous as to mourn the loss of Steve as a personal friend, but I will mourn his loss as a man who changed my world completely. As the great writer, wit and sage John @Hodgman (who played the pasty-faced PC in the old Apple TV commercials) wrote a few hours after Steve’s death “Everything good I have done, I have done on a Mac”.

“…and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, “this was a man!”



x Stephen

© Stephen Fry 2011

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