One of his mottoes was “Stay hungry, stay foolish. Hungry and foolish is how he himself stayed, right up to the end of a relatively brief but entirely remarkable career. Many users of his products fall into the same category, and not always for the best reasons.
Steven P. Jobs, who died yesterday from pancreatic cancer, aged 56, will be remembered as the most innovative entrepreneur of the digital age. He was neither a software programmer nor a hardware engineer, nor was he in any conventional definition of the word a businessman. He described himself simply as a ‘technology leader’. He was certainly that. It was Jobs, more than anyone other than Bill Gates who defined the Digital Age. Both will go down in history as true giants of American commerce.
In the constantly changing technology of media and communication, the products turned out by his company, Apple, were marvels of their type. All were well ahead of their time and all but a handful enjoyed phenomenal commercial success. With the introduction of Apple I, followed by Apple II, Jobs – then in his early twenties – virtually invented popular desk-top computing. The Macintosh brought such astonishing advances in user convenience that it seemed less like a computer than an extension of the human imagination. His iPod device transformed the music business. Millions of smitten consumers, like me, are still grappling with the extraordinary functional diversity of iPhone and iPad.
By several accounts, Jobs was not always a terribly nice man. He fell out with people easily. He was exiled from Apple, the company he had co-founded, for twelve years after a row with his chief executive. He drove colleagues to distraction in the relentless pursuit of aesthetic perfection in his inventions and of startling originality in the marketing campaigns that launched them.
Whether his ubiquitous products have made everyday life more tolerable, or less so, is a matter for debate. The technology is undoubtedly brilliant, actually mind-boggling, but nearly every day I find a reason to curse the fatuous ways in which people around me use his toys. The word ‘toy’ is not necessarily a pejorative. But for millions of users, probably the vast majority, Apple’s fiendishly clever devices are employed to perform tasks of such profound triviality that their users are being turned into obsessive zombies.
But the plain fact is that regrets of that nature are no more pertinent than bemoaning, say, the invention of the automobile for making us fat.
The legacy of Steve Jobs is permanent, even if others assume the mantle of innovation. He will generate many and diverse epitaphs – not all of them laudatory – because he has single-mindedly transformed the everyday habits of virtually every citizen in the advanced world.
Barack Obama, the first president to exploit digital technology to get elected, put it succinctly: “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world heard of his passing on a device he invented.”