Remembering Steve Jobs

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Steve Jobs left us on October 5th 2011. Eleven years later, we still miss him, admire his accomplishments and enjoy his legacy.

I sill have a vivid recollection of the Oct 4th iPhone 4S announcement: Held in the Infinite Loop event room. Steve Jobs’ front row reserved seat was empty. On the announcement video, you can see how subdued the usually exuberant Phil Schiller was; he and other Apple people must have known Steve was on his deathbed while the show had to go on. A day later, we got the news: Steve was no more, taken far too soon by pancreatic cancer.

His passing was met with an outpouring of sadness and homage, from bouquets and cards on the doorstep of the Palo Alto Apple Store to breaking announcements on TV channels around the globe. I wasn’t immune to the sorrow: I burst into tears while giving my thoughts to a French media outlet. Thus moved, I wrote a Monday Note titled Too Soon, that you can find by clicking on this link and that I also reproduce below as a precaution against random attacks of link rot:

Too soon…

‘Humor is the politeness of despair’, an approximate, googlish translation of l’humour est la politesse du désespoir, a saying attributed to noted post-WWII Left Bank jazzman, writer, and engineer, Boris Vian, So, let’s start with the reverent, despairing humor of Chris Calloway in Wired Magazine’s memorial to Steve Jobs:

“Heaven got a major upgrade today…”

Yes, I can see Dear Leader in his new abode. Having climbed his last mountain, he summons Saint Peter and utters the words that he has heard throughout his life: “You’re doing it all wrong.”

“Look at the name above the door, the typeface sucks, the kerning is off. The furniture is out of style — get something cleaner, fresher. And the stairs… We need something airier…I don’t know, glass? Come to think of it, one of the founding partners of the architecture firm that designed the Apple Store moved in here a few months ago. Bernard Cywinski; look him up get to work.”

…and then it’s Saint Peter’s turn to mourn Steve’s untimely demise, and his own lost tranquility.

[Update: I just found this picture of the New Yorker’s upcoming October 17th cover. Obviously, this is before Steve starts to take matters into his own hands.]

Back in our Valley of Tears, this Onion article provides just the right amount of serious thought wrapped in knowing derision. I can’t resist but quote the entire piece, it’s too good and, in a way, it’s a consolation:

Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on,” a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas — attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen. “This is a dark time for our country, because the reality is none of the 300 million or so Americans who remain can actually get anything done or make things happen. Those days are over.” Obama added that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore.”

The real Barack Obama didn’t disappoint. Rising above the official, persphinctery encomiums, he offered a well-worded and, I believe, heartfelt homage [emphasis mine]:

“Michelle and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Jobs.Steve was among the greatest of American innovators — brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.By building one of the planet’s most successful companies from his garage, he exemplified the spirit of American ingenuity.By making computers personal and putting the internet in our pockets, he made the information revolution not only accessible, but intuitive and fun.And by turning his talents to storytelling, he has brought joy to millions of children and grownups alike.Steve was fond of saying that he lived every day like it was his last. Because he did, he transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world.The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Steve’s wife Laurene, his family, and all those who loved him.”

Just the right words, neither too many nor too few.

Praise for Steve has been plentiful, personal, and often insightful. But we also have the dissenters. Some of them are merely laughable: One unhinged dissenter, a Baptist Church leader named Margie Phelps, promised to picket Steve’s funeral for “teaching his neighbors to sin.” Her call to arms was tweeted from an iPhone.

We have Free Software Foundation’s Richard Stallman in a sadly tasteless post:

“Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die — not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.”

You can read an excellent, balanced retort here.

Most irksome of all is Steve Jobs Wasn’t God, Hamilton Nolan’s heartless and crude opinion at Commenters chimed in and piled on, disputing Jobs’ accomplishments, ascribing them to others, condemning him for lapses of judgment in his early adulthood. This earned Mr. Nolan, who claims to have never owned an Apple product, a stinging rebuke from the Macalope. It’s well worth reading, as are all his weekly posts.

I side with the Macalope, but let’s not forget that the objectors play a useful role in reminding us that we shouldn’t canonize Steve. He was a genius, with an ‘‘insane’’ drive that took him and his company to the pinnacle — and brought us with them — but he was no saint. The undeniable, manic drive admits a dark side. If you want the works of art, you’ve got to accept the real artist. As I wrote in my late August tribute (Steve: Who’s Going to Protect Us From Cheap and Mediocre Now?), Steve learned to ride the animal inside him and matured as a result.

So, indeed, Steve wasn’t God, but let’s give him his due. To those, such as Mr. Nolan, who belittle Steve’s achievements because he didn’t solve world hunger, invent a vaccine, or fight for civil rights, I’ll say this: Computers are one of mankind’s most important inventions, right behind the written word, symbolic language. Steve saw computers as an extension of mind and body. His unique contribution has been, time and again, to make computers more personal and more elegant, to make Apple stand at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.

That’s what I’ve always loved about Apple: I remember how happy I felt when I joined the company more than 30 years ago and found it had commissioned a Ray Bradbury poem for the (unfortunately short-lived) Apple magazine. I only remember the title, Ode to the Quick Computer; and the last verse, So cowards, what are you afraid of?

The dissenters are entitled to their views and they have a right to broadcast them. But to The Rest Of Us, their postures show a deep failure of empathy for the many ways in which Steve touched so many lives, in an ever-expanding number of ways. The drive for beauty and elegance, for enchantment even, is profound. It’s what makes us human, it’s what Apple came to represent, and that’s why so many of us mourn Steve’s demise.

As John Stewart lucidly explained, there’s another reason for the outpouring: We feel cheated. Ford and Edison died old, they had enough time to give society all they were meant to give. With Steve, we’re tragically robbed of what he could have accomplished with more time.

[Update: I just found this beautiful October 17th New Yorker article by Nicholson Baker where he writes:

“Everyone who cares about music and art and movies and heroic comebacks and rich rewards and being able to carry several kinds of infinity around in your shirt pocket is taken aback by this sudden huge vacuuming-out of a titanic presence from our lives.” ]

I bow to the happy family man he became, to the Grand Master of high tech, to the once disheveled hippie who became the Manager Extraordinaire of one of the world’s best-run companies and, last but not least, the Editor In Chief of a large group of engineers and artists.

I leave you with a nice tweet quoting Dr. Seuss…

…and a newly unearthed version of the famous Crazy Ones video, this one narrated by Steve himself, instead of Richard Dreyfuss. Call me feeble-minded, but it moves me to tears. Weeks ago, right after Steve resigned as CEO, Adweek created a version of the famous commercial in which a picture of Steve, as a young man, is added to the end, a fitting inclusion in the procession.

Lastly, a reminder of Steve’s mark on Apple, powerful because it’s so simply elegant, the creation of a young Hong Kong designer named Jonathan Mak:

Rereading it, I wouldn’t change a word. Written in the moment, I feel it stands as a good reflection of the sentiments of many, mine included.

Eleven years later, I still feel a great debt of gratitude to Steve Jobs and to the company he co-founded. His return to Apple in 1997, when the company was on the brink of certain dissolution, sparked a turnaround the likes of which the tech world had never witnessed and may never see again.

Under the stewardship of his trusted successor Tim Cook, Apple has grown from $108B in FY (Fiscal Year) 2011 to $366B in 2021, and has become the most valuable tech company in the world, with a current valuation of $2.25T (as in trillion).

Naysayers claim Apple lost it soul when Jobs handed the mantle to Cook, that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. I feel bad for Cook and admire his composure as he endures the comparison and repeated, shallow criticism. Yes, there was only one Steve Jobs, but other than following his sage advice to not try and divine what he’d think, say, and do were he still around, what is Cook to do to please critics? From my perspective, Cook has forged his own way while maintaining Steve’s less heralded but fundamental legacy: Apple’s functional (vs. divisional) organization. By respecting the foundation and structure that Steve insisted upon, Apple has avoided the infighting that beset Microsoft.

Perhaps the only thing Cook can do to mollify the critics is to come up with a new product of iPhone, world-changing proportions. As I wrote in recent Monday Notes, I don’t think AR Glasses, an Apple Car or deeper Healthcare forays will do the job…

…but now I’m dipping into tech talk, which we’ll leave for another time. Today, I simply bow in gratitude. It didn’t always feel blessed back in the day, but it was never dull and, in retrospect, I join the many who feel they learned so much from Steve.


Remembering Steve Jobs was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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