iLife

Piecing together the obituaries and eulogies of Steve Jobs makes it clear that his impact wasn’t just reality distortion

I try to stay wary of Apple’s marketing lingo: as much as I like using the iPad, it’s not “magical;” and for all the Apple-branded products I have scattered around the house, in various states of obsolescence but each one the best device I’ve ever owned, I’d never describe any of them as “insanely great.”

But Apple’s brief memoriam is absolutely right in calling Steve Jobs “visionary.”

There were plenty of obituaries and eulogies popping up across the internet within minutes after the official announcement of Jobs’s death; most ghoulishly composed right after his resignation (if not sooner) and polished off with an edited date and time. There were a few insightful ones as well; the best I’ve seen being Slate’s analysis of the wide reach of Jobs’s vision and a more personal thanks from Stack Overflow on behalf of all computer programmers.

But the best obituary was provided by Jobs himself, his commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. You have to wonder at the time whether he was aware he was delivering what would become the best summation of his life, not content with letting other people handle it.

That wasn’t the first time Jobs provided his own retrospective; the Think Different campaign for the Macintosh was every bit as much about Jobs’s own philosophy as it was about a computer brand. Jobs says as much in that video. And that ad campaign is a better testament to his legacy than any number of rote obituaries checking off his career achievements.

It may seem crass to associate a life’s work with a product marketing campaign, but I think it’s an outstanding symbol of Jobs’s vision, that his public life and his ideals are so inextricably linked with the Macintosh. It’s because of Steve Jobs that we can even think of computers and mobile phones as having “ideals” at all.

Even the tired criticisms of Apple echo the criticisms of Jobs himself. People decry Apple devices as being overpriced status symbols, while most of us who depend on Macs and iPhones use them simply because they do everything we want and do it well. People criticized Jobs for being an arrogant, stubborn, and sometimes ruthless; while he consistently described his perfectionism as a desire to reject the less-than-perfect in favor of making something that would genuinely change the world.

People are quick to point out that technologies existed before Apple used them, or that other devices have better technical specs — more slots, faster processors, more “open” technologies. But Steve Jobs’s greatest achievement was staying true to a holistic view of computing: individual specs aren’t as important as how they all work together. Technology isn’t the focus, what you do with technology is the focus. Xerox PARC first developed the GUI. But would Xerox have produced MacPaint and HyperCard?

It was the work of hundreds of hardware and software engineers, industrial designers, and graphic artists, not just Steve Jobs, that “invented” the Mac, iMac, PowerBook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. But without Jobs’s dogged fixation on Apple’s core philosophy, they never would’ve come together as an integrated product line — not a phone, or an MP3 player, or a computer, but a line of technological products that could inspire you and enable you to make something great.

Getting that right once or twice could be dismissed as a fluke. Getting it right over and over again can only be genius. And it’s only by “connecting the dots” over Jobs’s career that you can see the remarkable consistency and devotion to that philosophy. How much did he influence the direction of Pixar, for example? It’s always a mistake to give too much credit to one person, but then you have to realize: Pixar was the studio that developed the most advanced computer animation and put it to use not as pure spectacle, but for storytelling. Again, it’s not the technology that’s important.

I never regarded Steve Jobs as a hero, and I barely knew anything about him before I read the retrospectives after his resignation from Apple. By most accounts of his management style, I would’ve hated working for him. I tend to be annoyed at the level at which people worship him. And I absolutely reject the ideal of the auteur, and I’ve seen far too many cases of people being treated poorly for the sake of staying true to one man’s arrogant “vision.”

And still, I’m more profoundly affected by the news of Steve Jobs’s death than I’d expected to be. His arrogance doesn’t seem just dogmatic, but inspirational: not just for the people making the computers, but for all of us using them. And “think different” no longer seems like just an opportunistic marketing plan to inspire people to buy computers and cell phones; but a genuinely-felt philosophy intended to inspire us to do great things with them. Maybe Jobs’s greatest achievement was understanding that business and art don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jobs invented the personal computer. And I’ve only just recently started to have fleeting moments of awareness of how profound that is: getting directions from my cell phone while I’m listening to music after just playing a game or reading an article, and having the sudden realization that I’m living in the future.

From now on, when I watch Apple ads, I’ll try not to see ethnically-diverse models on skiing trips or vacations to Paris, or hear the carefully-selected focus-tested music in the background as actors pretend to be a father talking to his wife and daughter. Instead, I’ll try to appreciate the bigger picture, and understand the vision Jobs wanted us all to see: friends and families using innovation to make their lives better.

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