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.

It would be vulgar to say that the proof of the correctness of Jobs’s vision is reflected in the gigantic capitalisation value of the Apple Corporation, the almost fantastically unbelievable margins and the eye-popping cash richness which has transformed a company that was on the brink of collapse when Jobs arrived back in 1997 into the greatest of them all.  All this despite low market share and an almost fanatical attention to detail and finish which would have 99% of CFO’s weeping into their spreadsheets.

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”  Steve Jobs in an Interview with Fortune Magazine, 2000

Which is not to say that abject worship is the only allowable viewpoint when it comes to the life and career of this magnificently complicated man. I am very glad that I did not work for him. I cannot claim he was a friend but over thirty year or so years I bumped into him from time to time and he was always warm, charming, funny and easy to talk to, yet I know, and the world has already been told enough times over the past few days and weeks, that he was a fearsome boss, often a tempestuous mixture of martinet, tyrant, bully and sulky child. His perfectionism, the absolute conviction and certainty in the rightness of his opinions and – I am afraid it is true, as it is of so many leaders, Churchill and other great figures not excluded – his propensity apparently to have originated an idea that he had previously dismissed but now suddenly owned and championed, these traits must have maddened his colleagues. But the charisma, passion, delight in detail, excitement and belief in the creation of a new future – the sheer magnetic force of the man made his many faults a forgivable and almost loveable part of his mystique and greatness.

The quality I especially revered in him was his refusal to show contempt for his customers by fobbing them off with something that was “good enough”. Whether it was the packaging, the cabling, the use of screen space, the human interfaces, the colours, the flow, the feel, the graphical or textural features, everything had to be improved upon and improved upon until it was, to use the favourite phrase of the early Mac pioneers “insanely great”. It had to be so cool that you gasped. It had to feel good in the hand, look good to the eye and it had to change things. It changed things because it made users want to use the devices as they had never been used before. As I used to say of the Mac in the early days, “it makes me jump out of bed early to start work”. People may not think so but I’m as lazy as can be, and the creative, human-based implementation of technology in such a way as to encourage labour and thereby invigorate innovation and change is a remarkable achievement in so potentially dull a sector as computing.

Jobs said, when he presented the iPad to the world in 2010 that he regarded Apple as standing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. I pointed out that it might have been more accurate to say that Apple stood at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce. There is no doubt that as Disney’s biggest shareholder, as the boss of Pixar, the company that virtually invented computer animated cinematography, Jobs was in a unique position to bang heads together when it came to getting studio and record label bosses to consent to copyright agreements for what was to become the iTunes store, just one of the massive “game-changing” contributions he made to technology and the arts.

A control freak? Well, since “freak” is always the word used in such a context, then yes. But it was that control that won the war, freakish or not. The so-called “walled-garden” approach whereby Apple make the hardware, the software and control third party access to the APIs and architecture of each device may madden many but they are precisely what allows the devices to work so well, so cleanly, so fluently out of the box. They allow longer battery-life, less heat, more stable operating and dozens of other enormous advantages. If different companies are making the firmware, software, chips, screens, operating system, radios and cases the results will always be far less coherent and usable devices. I have nothing against Android and admire the idea of an Open Handset Alliance. I don’t want to be characterised as an incurable unthinking Apple “fanboi” – but I cannot fight the instinct that makes my hand always reach for the pocket with the iPhone in it when I have a Windows 7, a Blackberry and an Android just as available in other pockets. I have in the past set myself the task of using only an Android for two weeks, or only a Windows 7 phone or only a Blackberry and while it can be done (obviously) I am less content, more frustrated and crucially as far as I am concerned, less productive as a result. And the fact remains that it is so much easier to survive on an Android, a Windows 7 phone or a Blackberry nowadays precisely because they have all fundamentally modelled themselves on Apple criteria. They want to be smooth, graphically pleasing, they want the user to love and enjoy them. The frustratingly silly patent wars that are raging around the world between Google, Samsung, Apple and dozens of other companies would be a sad obsequy to Jobs’s colossal achievements, but with such gigantic sums of money in so huge a market at stake it is little wonder that others will do all they can to “crack” Apple. Well that is fine, I have no shares in the company. So long as the way they crack Apple is to learn from Steve Jobs that style matters, that beauty matters, that joy, simplicity, elegance, harmony, charm, wit and quality matter – well, I don’t care which company has the best stock market capitalisation.

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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