This morning somebody spilled their drink on my MacBook Pro. I ripped out the battery and flipped it upside down, but I could see chai tea dripping out from the keys, and I knew it was gone.
I spent the day in a pretty terrible mood. Like most of you, I cultivate what is basically a symbiotic relationship with my computer. It’s my outboard brain; without it, I feel useless.
The announcement of Steve Jobs’ death was made in the Apple store right before I walked in - the store employees were told over their headsets. I had already read it on my iPhone. I met with a Genius, he asked how I was. I told him, “I’m sad.” He said, “me too.”
A few posts about Steve Jobs have brought tears to my eyes today, but nothing more than the photos above from Mike Matas, taken on his computer when Steve was testing Photo Booth filters in 2005.
I love those dumb Photo Booth faces so much. Steve is often remembered for his drive, which made him infamously abrasive. But here he is having fun with the same tools that you and I use, enjoying them in the same way that we do. Steve made tools that he loved to use, and that meant that we would love using them.
The same is true of the company he made. Steve’s beliefs are in Apple’s bone marrow, and Apple is a company with radically human values. Steve Jobs’ Apple is a progressive, egalitarian company that believes in making technology both available to and usable by everyone. This isn’t just a business strategy for Apple, it’s a philosophy. Jobs went around saying things like, “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”
This is part of the reason why Jobs’ death stings for so many people. Wade Roush wrote, “To a degree achieved by no other company on Earth, Apple bakes its values into its products, and those values come directly from Jobs. So being an Apple customer meant, in some sense, bringing Jobs into your life.”
For most of the history of the personal computer, the optimal production strategy has been hyper-specialization. Reliable profits lie in doing one thing well. Make one great program. Make one great component. Steve Jobs had the foresight to see something greater was possible; a zen oneness of software and hardware, of how you use a tool and what it can do; what Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as “form and function joined in a spiritual union.”
In their obituary of Jobs, the New York Times wrote:
Coming on the scene just as computing began to move beyond the walls of research laboratories and corporations in the 1970s, Mr. Jobs saw that computing was becoming personal — that it could do more than crunch numbers and solve scientific and business problems — and that it could even be a force for social and economic change. And at a time when hobbyist computers were boxy wooden affairs with metal chassis, he designed the Apple II as a sleek, low-slung plastic package intended for the den or the kitchen. He was offering not just products but a digital lifestyle.
He put much stock in the notion of “taste,” a word he used frequently. It was a sensibility that shone in products that looked like works of art and delighted users. Great products, he said, were a triumph of taste, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”
This is the kind of human insight that changes what the rest of us see as possible in the world. When we see this kind of solution, it delights us. It seems inevitable, as though it could not have been any other way. It makes Apple’s product announcements feel like Christmas morning.
More than 20 years ago, Jobs was interviewed for a documentary on the computer. He said:
I think that one of the things that separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool-builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing of about a third of the way down the list - it was not too proud of a showing for the crown of creation. So that didn’t look so good. But then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And a human on a bicycle blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. It’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s a bicycle for our minds.
I haven’t spent today angry or anxious about losing my Mac, but I’ve been sad, like I lost a friend. For me, that’s a testament to how right Steve was all those years ago about the kind of relationship future generations could have with their technology, and how good his company has become at making it possible.
Steve Jobs was a giant. His thinking changed the way that we understand and interact with the world around us. Steve once said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” and I think it’s fair to say that today it stands dented. Even if you don’t use Apple products, your computer was built in response to design decisions made by Apple over the last thirty years.
President Obama wrote today, “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.” I would only add that there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that the next such giant is already probably among us, and is probably using a device Steve invented to change everything again.
Let’s go make something.