Thursday, October 06, 2011

Goodbye, Steve

Like practically everybody here in the Bay Area, I was sad to hear that Steve Jobs had passed away. We've known for a while that his health was poor and his days were numbered, but still, it comes as a shock to realize that this titan no longer walks among us.

Steve was inextricable from Apple; even during his years in the wilderness, his stamp remained on the company, and his return cemented his place in the tiny pantheon of true technology leaders.

Most famously, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented the non-hobbyist version of the personal computer. Without the Apple, there might not have been an IBM PC; we would probably still have PCs, but I imagine that they would have taken much longer to come into our homes. As a programmer who first found his life's calling by typing BASIC programs into a home PC, I owe Steve my thanks.

When I was growing up, I bought into and helped perpetuate the whole "Macs-Versus-PCs" debate. In elementary school, I enjoyed our Apple IIe computers, where I experienced the joys of Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and other light educational games. In junior high, I was put off by the Apple Macintosh computers in the lab: where were the games? Where was BASIC? I sneered and returned to my command line at home.

I still remember when Jobs came back to Apple, and particularly when he "sold out" and announced a deal with Microsoft. I remember crowing to my friends, announcing that Apple's days were numbered, that in another year or two we would be living in a glorious, PC/Microsoft-only world.

I'm willing to admit that I was very, very wrong.

Steve proved me, and everyone else, wrong. I can't think of another person over the past fifteen years with his track record. Creating a successful business is hard. Reinvigorating a dying business? I would have said that was impossible, if I hadn't seen it for myself. He rescued Macs, and made them presentable to a wide group of people, including (probably not as crucially as I would like to think) coders like me. OS X proved to be the natural evolution of my college-age love affair with Linux, as I could finally achieve high productivity in a beautiful environment.

Steve had a knack for changing the world. For all the truthful accusations of Microsoft copying Apple's innovations, Apple itself had a tendency to take something that had previously been tried, and failed, and turn it into something indispensable. Our planet has had portable digital music players since the Rio and the Zen; few people cared, and now everyone has an iPod. Palm had been making PDAs for a decade, and Microsoft had spent untold millions of dollars creating Windows Mobile phones. Now, the iPhone dictates every move of the mobile market where I make my living. When the iPad was announced, I wondered whether a market could possibly exist between the small-size phone and the large-size laptop. Yes, it can, and it's where most of the growth in our industry is occurring.

I never met the man, and in all honesty, I'm not sure if I would have wanted to. From what I hear he could be curt and abrasive. He demanded perfection, and could get upset when he didn't receive it. That made life difficult for a few hundred people. It made life better for millions of others.

Nobody can fill his shoes. I'm confident that Apple and Tim Cook will stay true to the vision that Steve Jobs so ardently embodied. When you look throughout the boardrooms of Silicon Valley companies, though, you can see many other smart people, many other talented people, but nobody else who can shake up so many industries, and personally touch so many lives, the way that Steve did. He helped change the way we communicate; he personally brought the publishing industries into the 21st century; he created beautiful objects that can enrich our lives. He left a legacy. He will be missed.

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