Steve Jobs and I
When John Lennon was assassinated on December 8, 1980, I was immensely saddened. I was listening to a rock radio station in Houston when the announcement came over the air. I went to my bed lay down and thought about what had been and what might have been. I was very happy about my association with the Beatles and John Lennon, in particular, and how their music had moved me for decades. I had been that rare, early-adopter Beatles fan since 1963 (or was it 1962?) and had stayed a strong, faithful one throughout the group’s career. After the members of the group separated I continued listening to Lennon like an avid fan that I was. McCartney, Harrison and Starr did not earn similar devotion.
On the day Lennon died, I felt as if music had died. He had just released an album, Double Fantasy, after a long hiatus. It was a rare folk rock album that focused on the family. One song that particularly moved me was Beautiful Boy, a lullaby that Lennon had created for his young son, Sean. When John Lennon died I was sorry for what Sean would miss. Musicians are plentiful but a father is one of a kind. When I became a father, I modified that song for my baby girl and enjoyed watching her eyelids grow heavier with the gentle melody of the song. I felt sorry for Sean Lennon all over again.
When Steve Jobs died last week, my surrounding world—people, media—took a pause to recall and contemplate his life, as did I. Having experienced deaths of near and dear ones, I knew that the world does not stop nor pause after anyone’s demise. We have to grieve alone.
Humankind’s daily currents have a momentum that overrides personal losses. We get swept away by seemingly compelling daily activities that keep us busy, too distracted to address our grief and sorrow. Our memory loses its jagged edges of details with time. One day, we suddenly discover that our dear lost friends are hazy sepia portraits, despite having led distinctive, colorful lives.
I did not have a personal connection Steve Jobs as I did with John Lennon. He was too far away and his earlier products were shunned by the corporate world that I worked in. However, he was always at the periphery, influencing people like me, rebels in the mainstream, to be imaginative.
Imagination is the most powerful resource in the world. As long as the human mind can transcend and go beyond what is possible, the future is safe. The Beatles, John Lennon, and Steve Jobs shared a common characteristic that I admired—imagination.
The Beatles, John Lennon, and a few high school teachers convinced me that if I could imagine something, it was real. That credo was the sustaining fuel of my life through my darkest days. From the 1980s, onwards, Steve Jobs was my symbol for imagination. We admired many common things in life especially the Beatles and their music. I was thrilled when I learned that he named his company Apple, legally borrowing the name from the Beatles, with a promise not to enter the music business; even the most clairvoyant cannot see the future that well.
I first encountered Steve Jobs’ ideas on my first job at Geosource in 1981. I was fortunate that my boss was ahead of his times; he gave me, this neophyte, one of the first CP/M-based personal computers. I had heard about Apple II but my boss preferred the XEROX Star system. SuperCalc (rather than VisiCalc) and Word Perfect were my “personal productivity” tools. I was simultaneously using a time-share system for more intensive work but I always preferred the clunky computer on my desk.
Over the next three years, I was sucked into the IBM-compatible PC world at work. “The No One Gets Fired for Buying IBM” philosophy dictated corporate thinking and despite preferring SuperCalc, I had to migrate to Lotus123. Apple products had no chance of entering this Gulag but Steve Jobs and Apple kept the Wintel duopoly on the edge; they had to be fast followers to Apple’s lead.
I was fortunate when I joined Landmark Graphics, a company of rule-breakers and game-changers. It was one of the best breaks I have had in my career. Besides the firm’s founders’ audacity for imagining that we could bring the power of a supercomputer to the desktop, we also used Macintosh (another tribute to the music world) for our work. Paradise regained.
I bought a Mac for my home and soon added a laser-printer to my home office. More important, my two year old daughter began using the computer to play her games and learn in very interesting ways. I could see that Apple had simplified the use of the machine to such a great degree that a two-year-old could use it.
An anecdote: During one of my trips away from home, one late evening, my now three-year-old asked her mother for help with the computer. Mom replied that she knew nothing about computers. Daughter corrected mom’s misperception by saying, “You don’t have to do anything with the computer, Mom. I know how to start and use it. I need your help to turn on the lights in the room. I can’t reach the light switch.”
Unfortunately for Apple, there was a period of disillusionment with the man. John Sculley came from Pepsi to run the Apple Computer Company, briefly. Steve Jobs, who had by then started two ventures neXt Computers and Pixar Pictures, continued to be successful. He was invited to come back to Apple and my association with the man and his products resumed.
The iPod was his comeback machine. It was love at first sight for me. In the computing world, I had admired his tremendous energy to drive the use of beautiful, iconic devices to simplify lives, to enjoy it, without wasting time, without involving the user with the backend or in the background. Apple extended this philosophy to music (with permission from the Beatles’ business successors at Apple), targeted at a different generation that had grown up with computers, including clunky Wintel ones. IPods were a rage with the next generation. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an iPod but I had to wait.
The iPods had very limited disk-space and I had a large music collection. I patiently loaded all my Compact Disks into iTunes and took the time to classify, rate and comment on each song to create my playlists. When the 160 GB went on sale, I was an early buyer. I don’t think I have ever used a technology more frequently than my iPod/iTunes combination. The iPod’s ingenuity beat all the existing mP3 players in the market to gain a formidable leadership position.
The iPod then spawned the iPhone, which was a phenomenal success. I tried it for a week and discovered that its first version was not a good smartphone for my business-related work, which is email and text-centric. Its poor battery life let me down several times during dire health emergencies. The local AT&T customer service agent told me that I was the first person in Houston to have returned an iPhone and returned to a BlackBerry.
I am still Blackberry user, attuned as I am to a real keyboard rather than a touch-screen one; besides my smartphone is just that—a phone, with a few additional features such as email, Facebook, camera, texting, memo-pad, and BlackBerry Messaging. My hunch is that my ideal combination for the near future is a BlackBerry, with an iPad. Cool.
Steve Jobs was substantially more than “user-interface guru”, “designer, “visionary”, “revolutionary”, “marketer”, “icon”, “artist” and other well-meaning superlative adjectives. Even he couldn’t express his own attributes. His address to Stanford students in 2005 is one of the most watched and referred videos after his death. However, when seen with a critical eye, we see that even he sheds little new light on his own unique combination of genius, imagination, creativity and excellence.
Devices were intermediaries in my relationship with Steve Jobs. It wasn’t as personal as it was with John Lennon but it was a powerful one nonetheless. I thought that music moves me and devices didn’t. Steve Jobs created a few that not only moved me but billions of others, over several generations.
RIP, Steve Jobs.