Every generation needs an intellectual hero… Ours was Steven P. Jobs.
It kind of surprises me to say that given that Steve Jobs was a college drop out. Though the work that so many of us are engaged in science, the arts and humanities have been absolutely and irrevocably impacted by Steve Jobs genius. So much so that I am hit surprisingly hard by this passing of a man I hardly knew in person, but who so deeply touched so many of our lives by building tools we use to interact with the rest of the world. Were it not for the Apple ][+, I would never have been able to talk with physicists in Soviet Russia in 1982 via the first BBSs, or gotten my first job doing computer support at 13 at the medical school where my parents worked, or met innumerable people and friends around the world including the other founder of Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak who frequented certain BBSs and knew all sorts of things like how to do sub-pixel rendering on the Apple ][ which was at the time kind of a crazy trick, but how all fonts are now rendered on computers. Were it not for the modern Macintosh, I would not have met my wife as it was the Macintosh that first bonded my friend Bassam and I. Years later Bassam's wife introduced me to my wife. Were it not for the modern Macintosh, I likely would not have gotten back into photography or perhaps even gone back to graduate school or found the lab and mentor that directly led to where I am now. I can draw all sorts of linear relationships with the computer hardware and software tools that I used and where I currently am. I am grateful for all of those experiences and to the individual who inspired and helped craft their creation.
As I write this, there are comments, remembrances and condolences coming from all corners of the globe on the Internet. President Barack Obama is delivering his condolences as are other heads of state and large corporations, Internet traffic is astoundingly high on Twitter, Google + and other social media outlets and I wager that it will be one of the largest news items of the decade. These kinds of attention are typically reserved for noted heads of state or dare I say religious figures. This attention reflects the kind of passion or devotion that only a true leader can inspire.
Steve was one of those rare individuals who, like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Albert Einsten and many others featured on the notable Think Different ad campaign truly changed the world. I cannot imagine what this world would be like if we had a Steve Jobs that worked in some of the areas of our society that *really need* improvement, like government, or in our current automobile industry or most notably in health care. The products that Steve helped craft were products that were truly democratizing… The iPhone was the best phone in the world when it came out, but it was the same phone that both multi-billionaires and college kids desired and could afford. Other products like the Macintosh, iTunes, the iPod, the Powerbook and many more showed the way forward for a global population while serving at the very forefront of their respective product categories. Yet each one was so carefully crafted to optimize the user experience, yet not infringe on others. You’ll note that the iPod never had an internal speaker… Why? So it could never be used to blast music and interfere with others sense of quiet or impinge on others social space. Steve was absolutely firm on this point and shot down many, many prototypes before settling on the production version.
Many others are now writing or have written today about what Steve Jobs meant to them or personal anecdotes. Some relate how difficult the man was, but I saw him as surprisingly kind, approachable and practical. Granted, I never met him in person and have only spoken or exchanged email with him perhaps a dozen times over 20 years, most of which were exchanges that lasted less than 20 seconds or were emails that had one sentence requests or responses, fairly typical of the man I am told. Though we did exchange emails back around 2001 about an Apple version of a computer tablet that students could use that would take some of the features of the Newton that I loved so much. I proposed some ideas and he warned me that any idea I had, and expressed in our exchanges would become the property of Apple. I said I did not care and just wanted cool products to use and see others use. I ended up putting together a document that outlined what I thought could be possible and useful and did not hear anything back from Steve, but got an email from one of his assistants about six months later asking if I could come to Cupertino to discuss some ideas with some other folks from academia that were going to be on campus. Unfortunately, life conspired to make that trip impossible and I never got to follow up on those ideas or documents. It was one of those moments where you realize that it could change the course of your life, but you made the best decision you possibly could at the time…
Another exchange was after I had run across a couple of women in the Bay Area who were documenting stories for radio and I suggested to Steve that Apple use its apparent interest in media to provide a structure to document history and stories from their radio program, perhaps through Quicktime. Steve responded that his wife Laurene had a class with one of the women and knew about her project, but said that “we are really kinda interested in music right now… spoken history could come later, but for now its music”. iTunes was announced a few months later.
The first time I spoke with him on the phone though was in response to a complaint. I had purchased one of the early white iBooks for my Mother that arrived DOA. I returned that laptop and received its replacement that had both a screen defect and an audio speaker defect. I was furious and typed out an email to Steve telling him that it was damned hard to be an evangelist for the company when they cannot even produce a working laptop that I can give my own Mother. I hit send and promptly regretted sending the email, but soon forgot about it as I was in the middle of a difficult set of experiments that were simply not making sense. I walked out into the lab and got to work. About 10 minutes later my phone rang and I walked back to my desk and answered the call. Caller: “Is this Bryan?”. Me: “Yes….” Caller: “This is Steve from Apple”. Me: “Hey Steve…”, as I was trying to figure out if this was The *Steve*. It was in fact Steve as he explained that he was calling in response to my email. He totally remembered our previous email exchanges and thought it was cool that I was buying a laptop for my Mom. He apologized for some production problems Apple was having at Elk Grove and wanted to help make her experience what it should be. He thanked me for the email, gave me his number and said to call him if there was any other problem with Apple products and told me that he was putting me on the phone with his assistant who would take down the particulars and fix things. I was on a high for days after that despite never really anticipating talking with him again.
A few years later, after a conversation in May of ’08 with one of Mr. Jobs lawyers, Howard Ellman, we were talking about the plans for Mr. Jobs house in Woodside which Steve wanted to tear down, but was being thwarted by the Woodside city council. I suggested that perhaps, given the original owner of the building, there may be a company that would be interested in disassembling the house, moving it and restoring it somewhere else, essentially solving his problem with the Woodside city council. The next day, my office phone rang and it was Steve. We exchanged pleasantries, he mentioned that he really liked a picture I made of a doorway in Aberdeen, Scotland… I was stunned… He had actually visited my website and commented on a photo, then asked about my science and politely listened to my explanation. Then he related some of the problems they were having with the property in Woodside. I told him that a local company, Kennecott land had massive plans for real estate development here on the Wasatch Front and might in fact be interested in his house as it was built by the man who founded Kennecott Copper, the parent company of Kennecott land. I proposed that we pitch it to them as a centerpiece for one of their high end developments. He said that anything I could do to help out would be greatly appreciated and I promised him I would look into it and get back to him and Mr. Ellman.
Unfortunately, the collapsing housing market put the real estate development plans of Kennecott land on hold and despite some interest from a Kennecott VP and the company historian, we could not get enough interest for them to make any move. I reluctantly emailed back and related the difficulty in getting them to bite. I received an optimistic note back saying it was useful information that could still prove helpful and that was the last I heard. I don’t know if anything ever happened after that with the house or what the ultimate status of his house was, but I regretted not being able to do anything for a man that has done so much for the rest of us and irrevocably altered the way we work, play and interact with each other.
The future was absolutely inspired by Apple computer and we are all much further along because of the company and of Steve Jobs ability to create and inspire. Technology moves so fast that it is hard to imagine just how futuristic some of the devices we use actually are. Take for instance the new feature Siri in the iPhone 4s which was presaged by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Interacting with one’s computer by voice was just a few years ago the stuff of science fiction almost to the point of comedy. Yet here we are, the recipients of a dream to move the human race forward.
Its worth noting that there was a seat at yesterdays iPhone 4s announcement reserved specifically for Steve Jobs. I am sure that Steve would have loved to have been there and the audience would have gone absolutely wild had he showed. We all wish he could have been there, though Steve was aware of the ephemeral nature of things as evinced by his quote at the 2005 Stanford commencement speech: Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. ~ Steve Jobs
His last quote from that commencement speech and one that came from the 1974 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog… “Stay hungry, Stay Foolish”, is the one that resonates most deeply.
Thank you Steve,