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.

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Members have made 41 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Al Kennedy Member
    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.

    • #1
    • October 6, 2011 at 3:32 am
  2. Profile photo of Tom Paine Inactive

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

    • #2
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:03 am
  3. Profile photo of Mel Foil Inactive

    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.

    • #3
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:06 am
  4. Profile photo of PJS Reagan
    PJS

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

    • #4
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:08 am
  5. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    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. 

    • #5
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:09 am
  6. Profile photo of Rob Long Founder
    Rob Long Post author

    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.

    • #6
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:14 am
  7. Profile photo of Elizabeth Dunn Inactive
    • #7
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:15 am
  8. Profile photo of PJS Reagan
    PJS

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

    • #8
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:16 am
  9. Profile photo of danceswithvowels Member
    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:17 am
  10. Profile photo of Dave Carter Contributor

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:27 am
  11. Profile photo of Kervinlee Member

    Job’s passing saddens me deeply. RIP.

    • #11
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:33 am
  12. Profile photo of Caroline Thatcher

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:36 am
  13. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:46 am
  14. Profile photo of Leslie Watkins Member

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 5:51 am
  15. Profile photo of Spin Thatcher

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:05 am
  16. Profile photo of Southern Pessimist Member

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

    • #16
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:16 am
  17. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator

    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:26 am
  18. Profile photo of danceswithvowels Member
    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:30 am
  19. Profile photo of J.Voss Inactive
    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
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:34 am
  20. Profile photo of danceswithvowels Member

    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.

    • #20
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:43 am
  21. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    I bought my first Mac with birthday money in early 1984. I remember that mine was the second “Academic” sale of a Macintosh in the entire state of Oregon.

    I have owned Macs continually since.

    Yes, Jobs was a complete bastard. And he singlehandedly drove as much wealth creation as any inventor/entrepreneur of the 20th century. Simply an astonishing feat of human achievement, and something for us all to aspire to.

    • #21
    • October 6, 2011 at 6:51 am
  22. Profile photo of Scott R Member
    James Lileks: … 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.  · Oct 5 at 5:09pm
    Rob Long: 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. · Oct 5 at 5:14pm

    You two need to push back against Steyn on this point next time he’s on the podcast: His otherwise great book revels a bit much in the “where’s my flying car” disappointments of present-day America.

    • #22
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:00 am
  23. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    I think Steyn might note that they’re made in China, and also note that we lack the national spirit for Big Things – good points both, but Apple under Jobs showed how the small things are often much more transformative. China builds a huge dam and an enormous airport. Apple invents devices that change how we do a dozen different things every day. Krugman worries that we don’t do the former; I’ll worry more when we don’t do the latter.

    • #23
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:13 am
  24. Profile photo of Dave Carter Contributor

    But that begs the question, James, as to whether we really do have the national spirit these days.  My hunch, and that’s all it really is, is that we do in fact have the necessary spirit, but that the government at virtually every level, is intent on suffocating that spirit and stamping it out.  Otherwise, perhaps those products could me made here instead of China.  And I sense, and hope, that the tide is finally reversing.  But what do I know.  I’ve been on pain meds for a week.  

    • #24
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:30 am
  25. Profile photo of Michael Tee Inactive

    He couldn’t build a computer worth a damn (Hello Intel) but he was good at gadgets that most people are now eschewing for cheaper, better devices. Hello Android.

    • #25
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:42 am
  26. Profile photo of Michael Tee Inactive
    James Lileks: I think Steyn might note that they’re made in China, and also note that we lack the national spirit for Big Things – good points both, but Apple under Jobs showed how the small things are often much more transformative. China builds a huge dam and an enormous airport. Apple invents devices that change how we do a dozen different things every day. Krugman worries that we don’t do the former; I’ll worry more when we don’t do the latter. · Oct 5 at 7:13pm

    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.

    • #26
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:45 am
  27. Profile photo of Peter Gøthgen Member

    The first major wave of worldwide change in the second coming era was with the iMac.  After years of beige boxes, suddenly colors were everywhere.  Like the colors of the 1980s blasted the brown, wood-paneled malaise of the 70s, the iMac killed the the gray and grunge of the 90s.  Everything from table lamps to George-ruttin’-Foreman grills was now adorned with colorful plastic.  Technology was to be friendly and to serve us, not we it.

    Thanks to Steve, gone were the days in which I would use Kaleidoscope to customize every aspect of the system, and even ResEdit to change every dialog box on the system.  He was very controlling about how things looked and felt.  But instead of playing with my system, I found myself actually using it.

    The major thing Steve continued to teach us was not to cling to the past for its own sake.  We got frustrated when we had to change the way we did things, but we were generally rewarded in the end.  To flog the Henry Ford metaphor, I still miss my horse.  But I could never go back.

    Thank you, Steve.  Prayers for your family.

    • #27
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:46 am
  28. Profile photo of Cal Lawton Member

    Everything I do every day involves an Apple product — I’ve owned Apple computers since I was 19. My business since 1997 is running Mac networks, I don’t own a television because my desktop Mac is now an on-line video and music hub. I carry a first generation iPhone, an old iPod with a 20 gig drive is attached to my gym stereo. I’m writing this note on a MacBook Pro. That list is just a tiny slice of the Apple gear I’ve owned. What other companies can talk about consumer loyalty like that?

    I interact with these products and believe they were made just for me. I do not think about what I need to do to use them, as these things “just work”. They make up for my shortcomings and allow me to be more productive.

    Steve Jobs was not a programmer, an electrical engineer, or an MBA. What he possessed was the singular driving desire to make things that were insanely great, and only accepted excellence from those who made the things he would later stand on stage and talk about. Sure, Steve was a difficult taskmaster, but achieving insane greatness requires that.

    • #28
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:53 am
  29. Profile photo of danceswithvowels Member
    Michael Tee

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

    Curiously, James and I shared some Twitter moments a few Saturdays back while repairing/replacing kitchen faucets. Successfully. iPhones figured in the telling of both tales.

    • #29
    • October 6, 2011 at 7:56 am
  30. Profile photo of Elizabeth Dunn Inactive
    • #30
    • October 6, 2011 at 8:02 am
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