Steve Jobs, RIP

What an amazing and inspiring entrepreneur.  What a loss.

Here’s what I wrote about him, a few weeks ago, in the pages of NR:

The business world is famous for its difficult bosses, to put it as mildly as possible.  There are screamers and throwers and silent treatment types – all kinds and shapes of cruelty.  If you go to the right bars around the downtown area of any major city and get a stool close to a group of young-looking people in suits, you can hear some pretty alarming stories about their bosses.   The American economy, it sometimes seems, is run by demanding and irrational psychopaths assisted by terrified fauns.

It’s hard, though, when you reach a certain age, not to instinctively side with the psychopaths. 

Steve Jobs, the two-time impresario behind the astonishing success of Apple Computers, has a reputation for being – well, I won’t use the P word, so we’ll have to settle for “demanding.”  He’s a demanding boss, from all accounts. 

A friend of  mine who spent some time in Cupertino – and that’s how the cool kids refer to Apple HQ: “Cupertino,” which is where it’s based deep in the Silicon Valley – has shared lots of stories about Jobs’ famous temper, his obsessive perfectionism, his willingness to shelve any project or product (or employee) that doesn’t meet his high standards. 

“In a meeting with Steve, you have to be prepared for his questions,” my friend told me, adding darkly,  “all of his possible questions, from how long a product will take to build to how it might be shipped to whether it should come in blue.  When he asks a question, you have to be prepared.”

Or?

My friend shook his head, deep into an Angry Steve Flashback.  “It’s not good.”

The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards.  Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough.  Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone.  Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope to become perfect.  Steve demanding more features.  Steve insisting on better syncing.  Steve shouting for thinner.  Steve screaming for lighter.  Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners.  Steve, engaged in furious email exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to email him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this shouting and demanding and firing and insisting, Steve starts a movie studio, Pixar, and produces some of the most lasting and powerful animated movies ever made, like the “Toy Story” trilogy and the magnificent “Up.”

He didn’t accomplish any of this by being an understanding boss.

When a young engineer absent-mindedly left a working prototype of the unreleased newest iPhone at a Silicon Valley bar, it was big news in the tech world.  One industry blog managed to get its hands on the unit, prompting Steve to call in the cops.  Friends of the engineer said they expected him to be plucked off the street one day and disappear into an unmarked van.  They were only half-joking.

It’s hard to keep that in mind, when you pass through the gleaming high-style of your local Apple store, with the beehive of purposeful, slightly scruffy young people milling around in t-shirts.  The Apple Store is such a friendly place.  That’s a big part of the Apple brand – ease of use, sleek design, shiny screens.  When the company introduced its revolutionary Macintosh computer in the early 1980’s, the product photo showed the squat mini-looking unit with a smiley face on its screen.  “Hi,” the computer was saying, thus giving birth to one of the most successful consumer brands ever. 

Apple Computers are nice.  They say “Hi.”  Your grim, beige UNIX-based terminal at work, or your heavy black Dell at home don’t say “Hi.”  They say “ILLEGAL MODE IN KERNEL 1009A5 RESTART” or whatever. 

Apple Computers are also irritatingly smug, if that’s possible.  Well, not the computers themselves – although the early Mac that said “Hi” did seem, somehow, pleased with itself – but the users, Lord help us!  Mac users won’t shut up about their machines.  They’re tireless missionaries of the Church of Steve: how much better they are than Windows-based computers, how much faster and virus-free, how much better looking, how much cooler, which is what it really comes down to.  In movies and on television, when characters sit down to work on a computer – and even when one is just there, in the background – it’s almost always a Mac.  In the painfully fashionable coffee shop around the corner from my house in Venice Beach, the hipsters all tap their fingers onto some kind of Apple product.  Some will be typing onto a MacBook Air; some will be poking out text messages on an iPhone; some will be editing music or video on a MacBook Pro; some will be flipping the pages on an eBook on the iPad; and some will manage, somehow, to be doing three of these things at the same time.

And if there’s a Dell user in the pack somewhere, you’ll spot it instantly, like someone wearing a tuxedo with brown shoes.

When I say “hipsters,” of course, I’m speaking very broadly.  I’m writing this essay on a MacBook Pro, which syncs automatically to my Dropbox storage file in the cloud, so if I choose to finish proofreading it at the local coffee shop I can do it easily, either on my impossibly slender MacBook Air, or my shiny Verizon-enabled iPad.  When my editor calls, wondering where the piece is, his name will flash up on my iPhone, which will allow me to ignore it and get back to the important stuff, like making a new iTunes playlist and scooting farther away from the person using the HP. 

In other words, I am one of those irritating Apple fanatics.  If it makes you feel any better, no one is more irritated by this than I am.  But given the tiniest opening, I’ll bore you senseless with my devotion to my Phone, my Pad, my Air, my Book.  I’ll ignore your glazing eyes, your watch checking, your backing away, and I’ll just keep going: the machines are better designed, better made, with better software and easier to use.  The MacBook Pro has revolutionized all media.  The iPad is saving the newspaper business.  The iPhone has liberated the world. 

Well, not the whole world.  Not Cupertino.  Although that might change.  Steve Jobs, the Tyrant of Cupertino, announced that he is stepping down as Apple’s CEO.  A long battle with a form of pancreatic cancer has made it impossible for him to operate at the level of intensity that he’s famous for.  His successor, Tim Cook, has assured customers and shareholders that Steve’s relentless perfectionism is embedded deep into the corporate culture.   Apple, he insists, will remain Apple.

But when you start using weasel words like “corporate culture” you’re already tipping your hand.  When Cupertino quaked under Tyrant Steve, no one needed to worry about the culture of the place.  The culture was simple to understand: fear and unforgiving standards.  It wasn’t an easy place to work, but that was part of the appeal: Apple’s engineers and designers didn’t love coming to work despite Steve’s insane temper and unpredictable rants, they loved coming to work because of those things.  Because they knew Steve was trying to do great things, trying to revolutionize an entire market, trying to put incredible technology into a beautiful package and into the hands of ordinary people. 

And that’s impossible to do without being “demanding.”  

The story of Steve Jobs, from his hardscrabble upbringing to his second and third acts in American business, is a classic American story, one we should celebrate and teach in schools: a person with vision and drive and creative passion and an unwillingness to accept anything less than amazing, astonishing, and near-perfect.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true:

Only in America.

  1. Al Kennedy
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Michael Tee

    Yeah, when China gives us all back our debt and stops shipping to us and prefers India, it won’t be important that Americans can actually build things said the small man who can’t fix his plumbing. · Oct 5 at 7:45pm

    I hope you didn’t mean for this comment to be as rude as it looks. Neither this post nor this site are appropriate spaces to take rude swipes at other Members or Contributors. · Oct 5 at 9:44pm

     Thanks for your vigilance, Diane.  It is appreciated.

  2. Tom Paine

    One wonders how many of the idiots currently out in the streets howling about the “rich” and “evil corporations” own Apple products.

  3. Mel Foil

    It’s the rare man that can turn their latest hobby design, their latest high-tech toy, into a mass market product, and keep doing it over and over again. At 56, the boy grew up (and out) too fast.

  4. PJS

    Just heard it, and am quite sad.  His gadgets make my life simpler and faster.

  5. James Lileks
    C

    Unless you were a diehard who started with Macs in their early years and stuck with them through the Tsunami of Dreck that washed o’er our world post-Steve, it’s hard to remember what he walked into when he returned to the company, and what he did. In retrospect it looks like a genius master plan: revitalize the core product line by sweeping everything away in favor of the striking iMac, then adding the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. Each gets thinner and faster and better. Everything moves away from physical media until everything migrates to the ether. That’s what we all wanted 15 years ago – that Star Trek stuff. That crazy sci-fi stuff.

    Well, we got it. I get a little tired of people who jest “where’s my flying car” when discussing the disappointments of the future once it became the present. We take as commonplace things that are absolutely miraculous. 

  6. Rob Long
    C

    So true, James.  We act as if this thin little slice of glass and metal just should automatically be near-perfect.  

    Somebody always has to push for greatness.  Greatness never just happens, automatically.  Steve pushed.

  7. PJS

    Yes, I agree 100% guys.  My iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo moon rockets.  How amazing is that?

  8. danceswithvowels
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Michael Tee … said the small man who can’t fix his plumbing. · Oct 5 at 7:45pm

    I hope you didn’t mean for this comment to be as rude as it looks. · Oct 5 at 9:44pm

    I’d interpreted the comment as ruefully self-referential, hence my use of “curiously,” above.  Perhaps I missed some wider context, the only Lileks plumbing story I know not matching the description.  As James pointed out.

    James Lileks: Actually, I did fix the sink, if that changes anything.  · Oct 5 at 8:16pm

    Sorry for unwittingly participating in conduct unbecoming …

  9. Dave Carter
    C

    As a new owner of a Macbook Pro, I’m amazed at the simplicity and, yes, the perfection of the product.  The mind that spearheaded an effort to produce products that, as James correctly notes, border on the miraculous, will be sorely missed.  

  10. Kervinlee

    Job’s passing saddens me deeply. RIP.

  11. Caroline

    RIP, Steve Jobs.

    And speaking of affecting our world, here’s how I heard the news.  I was out taking a walk and listening to Hugh Hewitt on the TuneIn Radio App on my iPhone 4. Hugh announced the news and I stopped and posted it to Facebook.  A minute later, my co-worker and friend in California texted me from her iPhone to see if I had heard.  

    The iPhone 3G was my entry into the Apple work and I haven’t looked back. 

  12. James Lileks
    C

    Let’s not forget that his influence wasn’t just on what the machines could do, but how they look. This isn’t insignificant. One of the standard sneers against Macs was their emphasis on style and interface design – or at least it was, until Windows caught up, and then it was perfectly okay for computer interfaces to look good. (Win boxes are a different matter.)  He was as much an aesthetic pioneer as a technological one.

    Yes, this meant demanding of others what he couldn’t do himself, but Walt Disney stopped animating in the 30s, and never personally built a Lincoln robot. When it comes to aesthetics, it’s a matter of judgment, and his was pretty damned good.

  13. Leslie Watkins

    On this point, James, you may like this, if you haven’t already seen it, by Virginia Postrel: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-26/how-steve-jobs-made-business-cool-again-1981-virginia-postrel.html

    James Lileks: Let’s not forget that his influence wasn’t just on what the machines could do, but how they look. This isn’t insignificant. One of the standard sneers against Macs was their emphasis on style and interface design – or at least it was, until Windows caught up, and then it was perfectly okay for computer interfaces to look good. (Win boxes are a different matter.)  He was as much an aesthetic pioneer as a technological one.

    Yes, this meant demanding of others what he couldn’t do himself, but Walt Disney stopped animating in the 30s, and never personally built a Lincoln robot. When it comes to aesthetics, it’s a matter of judgment, and his was pretty damned good. · Oct 5 at 5:46pm

  14. Spin

    Rob, I read your bit on the Nook reader for iPad, where I get my “print” version of NR. I just thought that was in some way appropriate. Here’s one diehard Microsoft guy that is coming around to the Apple way. A little…

  15. Southern Pessimist

    “Cupertino” which is….based deep in the Silicon Valley.” Isn’t that what you call cleavage in California?

  16. skipsul

    I jumped from the PC platform 3 years ago because I just couldn’t take the endless repairs at home – I’m the IT guy at work and do that enough during the day.  With VMWare Fusion to soften the transition I found the switch not only painless but enjoyable.  Since then I’ve switched my wife and kids and 4 of my co-workers (both at work AND at home), and my mother-in-law.  I swear our house could be an Apple commercial.

    The products themselves are elegant and beautiful (and silent of the roar of cooling fans), but better still they’re transparent…  You’re no longer using a computer, you’re working, or playing.  Star Trek never worked this well.

    Thank you Steve.

  17. danceswithvowels
    Tom Paine: One wonders how many of the idiots currently out in the streets howling about the “rich” and “evil corporations” own Apple products. · Oct 5 at 5:03pm

    As Apple and Exxon/Mobil seesaw at the top of the market-cap charts, with over 70% of a trillion between them, it’s noteworthy that Apple’s profitability far exceeds the oil giant’s. Exxon/Mobil took in well over 4 times the revenue, yet their profit margin is only a third of Apple’s 25-1/2%.  So if the occupiers want to complain about “gouging”, the nearest target would be in their hands. (Not to mention the 3 Apple devices on the table in front of me.)

  18. J.Voss
    I got my first computer in 1992 at the age of 6.  It was an Apple Macintosh Quadra 610.  I still have all of the files that I created on every Mac that I have ever owned, from little santa clauses to the novels I am working on now.  My life has been shaped by the technologies that Steve and his company pioneered.  Today I mourn a man, not for his celebrity, but for the mark he left on the world and for the lives that he touched through his charity and example.  RIP Steve, RIP indeed. James, I do remember the mess he walked into when he returned to Apple in the late 90′s.  I think the transformation of the company is the greatest epitaph one could ever hope for. 
  19. danceswithvowels

    I understand that both Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer were known to heave the occasional chair of emphasis, and both were a presence on stage.  I really prefer “One more thing …” to “Developers!”

    RIP, Steve.  You Made (in) California cool again for a while.

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