Updated April 13th, 2020.
Steve Jobs is dead, and the tributes are everywhere. I’ve read as many of these tributes as I could and at the end of this article are links to some of the best. I’ve especially enjoyed reading personal recollections from people who knew him, though I’m not sure that I’ve seen any from anyone who claimed to know him well.
I never met Steve Jobs. I thought that someday I might, but I never did. Yet, twenty-five years as a full-time Macintosh consultant connect me to Apple and Jobs in a way that most people haven’t experienced, and that gives me a perspective on Steve Jobs that is a little different from most. I hope my thoughts on Steve Jobs add a little something to your overall picture of the man.
I have a couple of stories. As Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech at Stanford, you can only connect the dots looking backward.
Dot #1: When I first met Mac.
In 1985 I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. As an engineering student I knew something of computers but I wasn’t interested in them. I had a bunch of other interests, including my schooling, and if a computer could help me with them, great. Otherwise, no thanks. I was not what you’d call a computer geek.
My academic department at Texas had a small computer lab that I could use, and in it were three IBM PCs and three Macintoshes. The IBMs had the computer on the bottom, and a monitor on the top. With the IBM, word processing (a new term to me) meant seeing my document in green letters on a black background, and some codes to signify bold and italic.
Original IBM PC
Printing went to a dot-matrix machine and was an adventure since what came out of the printer didn’t look much like what showed on the screen. There was a bit of a learning curve before you could do anything with the computer at all. In short, the IBM PC looked like something that was going to make my life harder (at least at first). Not what I was hoping for.
The Macs were of one piece, friendly little machines where word processing meant black letters on a white background– same as in “real life” with a typewriter. On the Mac, if you made a word bold it showed bold right on the screen. And it had a mouse, which to my way of thinking was a million times easier than using arrow keys on the keyboard. (Pythagoras knew what he was doing when he proved that it’s shorter to go diagonally, which you can do with a mouse, than to go over and up, which is what you have to do with arrow keys.)
Printing was essentially an exact match to what you saw on the screen. “It’s like electric paper,” I thought. I could use it right away. And so I did, using MacWrite and later Microsoft Word (version 1.05) and Excel (version 1.0) to produce great stuff for my graduate school classes (and some rather fancy letters to those back home).
Close-up of original Mac screen, showing the word processor “MacWrite”
To me, the IBM PC made MORE work for me. The Mac helped me do the work I already had on my plate, and it helped me to do it faster, and better, and neater. At the time, Apple called the Macintosh “The computer for the rest of us” but to me it felt as if they’d made it just for me– a smart guy who wanted some help getting stuff done. I had this image of the Mac’s designers having people like me in mind as the user of their computers, hoping that the user would understand what they were trying to provide. I felt like telling them “I get it! I totally get it!” to let them know they’d succeeded. At the time, I didn’t know that I should be thanking Steve Jobs– I just thanked the Mac’s design team– but of course Steve Jobs was the leader of the Macintosh group, so looking back it’s clear that “Dot #1” was made in that computer lab at Texas.
Dot #2: The start of something big.
After grad school I took employment as a rocket scientist (really) in Southern California. One evening I attended a meeting of the Los Angeles Macintosh Group, a “Macintosh club” that brought Mac users together for social and educational purposes. The speaker onstage– a Microsoft representative– was showing how to make calculations and charts with Excel. The guy sitting next to me jabbed me with his elbow and said “I could run my whole business with that program! Do you know how to use it?” I did know how to use it, and as I was used to helping fellow Mac Group members, I told the fellow I’d be glad to show him how to use it too. He asked “How much would you charge for that?” and I told him something like “You have to be kidding, this is a computer club, we help each other, each one teach one,” something like that. He looked at me as if I was nuts and said “You’re not from around here, are you. Around here, no one gives anything away.” I said OK, gave him a three-hour lesson the next Saturday, came home with $60 and my eyes doing the cash-register thing like in the cartoons. A business was born. Four years later Macintosh consulting became my full-time business. Incredibly, I was being paid to do stuff I would have done for free. Thank you, Apple, and by extension thank you Mr. Jobs.
Dot #3: MacWorld San Francisco, January 1997.
The story of Steve Jobs hiring John Sculley to run Apple, his subsequent disagreements with Sculley over the direction of the company, and his eventual ouster from Apple is well known. The company was able to move along without Jobs but failed to continue to innovate, and by 1996 the rest of the world had more or less caught up to Apple. Apple’s Macintosh used an operating system that was very crash-prone and Apple’s management had spent years trying to create a new, “modern” operating system that was better. Each attempt was abandoned (I personally know of three). With time and money running out, Apple decided to buy an operating system from someone else. “Someone else” turned out to be NeXT, the company that Steve Jobs started after leaving Apple. But Apple didn’t just buy NeXT’s operating system– they bought the whole company. Including the people. And that meant, of course, that Steve Jobs was coming back.
The deal was made in late 1996 but there wasn’t a lot of fanfare. A few weeks later, in January 1997, Apple’s then-CEO Gil Amelio gave the keynote speech at MacWorld Expo San Francisco. I and two friends had snuck into the invitation-only event, possibly by walking backward into the exit so the guards would think we were leaving (a trick I learned from my father). The keynote was long, dry, and dull– nothing like the ones Steve Jobs would give in years to come. The crowd was super-restless. Then, finally, out of the blue, Amelio said something like “And now I’d like to bring out Steve Jobs.” Jobs walked onto the stage and in an instant the place went wild, several minutes of standing ovations that came in waves– as it started to die out it would start up again, over and over, as Jobs stood on stage and beamed. Eventually, Jobs was able to get us to stop. As I recall, he said simply “Thank you. I look forward to helping to bring Apple back.” But that was enough. Suddenly, for Mac fans, there was hope. Steve Jobs was back. Everything would be OK.
(This was particularly good news for me. Under the rudderless leadership of the CEOs who’d run Apple in Jobs’ absence, the company had nearly gone bust. (Michael Dell famously suggested that the best thing to with Apple would be to dissolve the company and give the money to the shareholders.) Those of us who understood the specialness of the Mac, the ones who “got it”, were irritated, saddened, frustrated– even angry– that that the people running Apple didn’t get it. With my livelihood dependent on Apple, I was directly affected by “the lost years,” more than most. Now, with Jobs on board (as a “special advisor”), we could throw “rudderless” out the window. Jobs didn’t just “get it.” He invented it.)
I slept better after that. And so, I call that “a dot.”
Dot #4: The times, they are a-changin’.
It wasn’t long before Jobs went from special advisor to “iCEO” (the “i” stood for “interim”). He put his own guys (from NeXT) into key management positions, making me wonder whether it was actually NeXT who bought Apple (with Apple’s money). And little by little, under Jobs’ leadership, Apple began to come back. I’m not sure when you could say that Apple was all the way back, but let’s just say the progress was steady– and relentless. The new operating system (OS X) was a success. The iMac was a breakthrough machine, completely different from anything we’d seen before. The iPod, which many of us didn’t appreciate at first, turned out to be a game-changer. Apple was starting to roll. But something didn’t seem to fit, and that something was Jobs’ salary.
Jobs was taking $1/year in salary from Apple. I spent a lot of time wondering about that. I knew that he received other benefits, including an airplane, but if a guy is working for $1/year, he’s obviously not doing it for the money. Maybe he had something to prove, that he’d been right about the Mac all along, and that under his guidance it would not have turned into a niche player. But maybe it was something else. Looking back, I’m sure it was something else. I think Jobs wanted to give the world “technology done right,” technology that empowered people to do great things. I think Jobs thought he could still do that. Being the “iCEO” of Apple provided Jobs the resources to change the world, resources he couldn’t get otherwise. And man, did he ever take advantage.
In 1985, Jobs said this about the personal computer market:
“…it really is coming down to just Apple and IBM. If, for some reason, we make some giant mistakes and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about 20 years. Once IBM gains control of a market sector, they almost always stop innovation. They prevent innovation from happening.”
I came across the quote a few months ago, when Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO. Turns out he was right about those computer Dark Ages. Apple did make some giant mistakes, IBM did win, and the IBM PCs and their accompanying Microsoft Windows software completely dominated the computer business from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s. Many, many people had to endure a demonstrably second-rate user experience every single time they used a computer. Long before Jobs came back to Apple the battle with IBM (and the clones, and Microsoft’s Windows) had been lost. A lot of people thought Apple should keep fighting, but Jobs saw that as a waste of time and resources, and instead took the best thing Apple had going– the Mac– and rode that as far as he could, looking to make a difference later, with another product, as soon as they figured out what that would be. In a sense, the original iMac and all of its subsequent iterations were buying time for Apple and Jobs to come up with the Next Big Thing, and man, did they hit it out of the park. What they came up with, of course was the iPhone. Talk about “technology done right.”
Dot #5: The iPhone.
Watch the iPhone introduction, remembering that there’d been no mention of an Apple phone before its introduction, no rumors, no nothing. Listen to Jobs say “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years” and realize that hey, this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. Listen to him talk about how lucky one is to be able to do even a little bit of important work in a career. And then try to remember what you thought when the iPhone was announced. I know what I thought: very cool, but who needs another cell phone, and especially who needs one that costs $500 and runs only on AT&T? It would be fair to say I didn’t “get it”– but I bought one anyway, because I knew my customers would be asking me for help with theirs. And as soon as I got it, I “got it.”
The iPhone, as everyone knows, was an immediate hit. Turns out that a lot of us agreed with Jobs’ assertion that “smart phones” weren’t all that smart, and they weren’t so easy to use. My iPhone became a constant companion, allowing me to get email on the go, to take pictures and send them to friends, to check in for an airplane from the front seat of my (parked) car. I used my iPhone to plot a route from Appointment A to Appointment B and I used it as an alarm clock. All of this was easy stuff, in stark contrast to my existing Samsung phone which could do a lot of the above but only if I had the manual open. (I used to wonder whether the Samsung guys ever actually used the stuff they designed. I don’t think they did.)
Looking back, the iPhone is a “dot” for me. It made it plain that Steve Jobs was all about technology done right. In terms of usability, the iPhone was so far ahead of every other phone that it made it look as if “the other guys” made their design decisions based on economics rather than on any real thinking. With Jobs, the attitude seemed to be “think it out, do it right, and the economics will follow.” With the other guys, it seemed to be, “we have a lot of keyboards left over from our current smart phones, so let’s design our new phones around those keyboards.”
I think that the iPhone saved us all from 20 years of a horrid user experience with so-called “smart phones” from Palm and Blackberry and Nokia. Once again, I’m grateful to Steve.
Dot #6: The Dream.
I’ve been studying iPhone programming for a couple of years. Usually my studying’s done at night– not because I’m all that smart at night but because I am busy providing Mac and iPhone (and iPad) support during the day so nighttime is all the free time I have. And with iPhone programming being the last thing I do most nights, sometimes it sneaks into my dreams.
A few months ago, I had a dream about the iPhone. I’d come up with a revolutionary idea and the idea was so good, I contacted Apple about it. Someone at Apple thought it was good too, and they arranged to have me come to Apple’s headquarters and explain it. In the dream, I arrived at Apple was about to start discussing my idea with a couple of Apple employees, when much to my surprise, Steve Jobs walked into the room. Jobs looked at me and said, “I hear you have a great idea. You have two minutes, tell me all about it.”
And for some reason, even though the idea was on the tip of my tongue, I couldn’t get it out.
For two minutes I tried to remember my great idea but I couldn’t. I tried and tried. I felt like those people on TV game shows who don’t know the answer to the question, so they slowly repeat the question (“The longest river in Argentina is… “) hoping that saying it out loud will build up “momentum” and the answer will automatically follow. It didn’t work for me either. Jobs left. I went home.
Not a happy dot, but a dot nonetheless. It reminds me to be ready. Some chances you don’t get twice.
Connecting the Dots
When you connect the dots, you sometimes get a picture. Here’s the picture I get of Steve Jobs: he wanted to change the world, he knew he could do it– and he did it. Yes, he turned out to be a great businessman, but think about how that happened: he insisted that Apple make great stuff, and what do you know, focussing on making great stuff was exactly the right thing to do. And think about why he insisted on making great stuff. It wasn’t about the money– he had plenty. It wasn’t about the fame– by all accounts, he didn’t want fame. Truly, I believe that Steve Jobs cared enough about his fellow humans that he dedicated himself to providing “insanely great” devices that helped people with the tasks they had, and enabled them to do things they’d never dreamt of. The alternatives are all around us– clunky, awkward devices whose manufacturers wasted the chance to do it right. With Apple’s devices, the devices themselves fade into the background, so the user thinks only of the task. With an Apple product, you don’t think about “operating a computer” or “operating a phone”– instead, you think about writing your Master’s Thesis or taking a picture at the beach and emailing it to your Mom. That’s the way it should be. And that’s what happens when you care enough to do it right. With Jobs at the helm, everyone at Apple cared enough to do it right (or found a new place to work). It will be interesting to see what happens moving forward.
It’s odd to be so moved by the death of someone I never met, even though I sometimes jokingly referred to him as “Uncle Steve.” Maybe it’s because I know my life would be very different if not for him. More likely it’s because I know that all of our lives would be very different if not for him. No matter the reason, I keep coming back to that $1/year, and what Steve Jobs did, and why.
My favorite Steve Jobs links
Playboy Interview, February 1985. Long, meaty interview with Steve Jobs, at the time head of Apple. Fantastic reading. Three months after this interview was published, Jobs was out of Apple, fired from the company he started.
MacWorld Expo Boston, Summer 1997 Keynote Speech. Jobs is back with Apple, thanks to Apple’s acquisition of NeXT. Gil Amelio (the Apple CEO who oversaw the acquisition) is out, and Apple is operating without an official CEO. In his first big public speech since his return, Jobs outlines his plans for bringing a reeling Apple back to health. He is particularly gracious in giving thanks to the outgoing Board members for working hard under difficult circumstances. Watch and listen as Jobs alludes to “the crazy ones” that Apple makes computers for (soon to be the theme of some very memorable ads). Great stuff throughout.
Stanford Commencement Address, 2005. Twenty-two minute video (counting the introduction by Stanford’s President John Hennessy). Jobs’ pancreatic cancer had been diagnosed the previous year, and the perspective it gave him is evident throughout the speech. Highly recommended.
Original iPhone introduction, MacWorld Expo 2007. “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.” Steve Jobs at his very best.
Signatures of the original Mac team, inside the case, where almost no one would ever see them
Super article by John Lilly, titled simply Steve Jobs.
Great article by MG Siegler: Here’s To The Crazy One.
UPDATE: I had two “Dot #4″s. Discovered by Mom (a math major). Fixed.