It’s been nearly a week now since the passing of Steve Jobs. I was surprised by how much it affected me emotionally. Sure, I’m a dedicated Mac user, but it’s not like I knew the guy. When an actor dies, someone you’ve watched on screen for years, perhaps decades, it’s more understandable, because there’s a greater illusion of knowing the person. Watching that person in favorite roles does build an emotional attachment, never mind that it’s on a fictional foundation. Steve Jobs was a guy who had great ideas for cool gadgets that I like. I didn’t make a point of watching his public appearances or reading about him. I just love his machines. How did that turn into personal attachment?
Thirty year flashback. I’m in high school, a dedicated sci-fi nerd and raving Star Trek fan. For the first time the school offered a computer programming elective. We didn’t even have the computers in our little school, we had an arrangement with another little school four miles away to share their computer lab. I don’t remember how many times a week I had the class, but we’d get a ride over there and learn BASIC programming on an Apple–this was pre Macintosh–probably an Apple IIe. In color! It was like the future. I loved it. I think I still have the 5.25-inch floppy disk with my programs, tucked away at the bottom of a drawer. I remember one of the programs: just a bunch of colors moving across the game in geometric patterns. It seemed amazing.
In college I didn’t have the money to buy a computer, and I was taking English classes, not computer classes. The first computer I owned was some sort of Commodore that I got for free. I played around on it a little, since I knew BASIC, but it had no floppy drive, and I didn’t invest in one. The next computer I owned was a dedicated word processor, a glorified electronic typewriter that plugged into a monitor and a disk drive. That was all I could afford in 1987 with my first professional sale. But in 1991 or so, I bought a used Mac SE/30 from a coworker to replace the word processor thing. And started getting my Mac geek back on. In glorious black and white.
From there I went to a Performa 6200 Power PC, then got an iBook G3, then an iMac G5. Now’ve I’ve got an iMac Intel Core Duo. And there are various iPods and an iPad in the house as well. At my day job for the last nine years I’ve worked on Windows machines. I prefer the Mac for a variety of reasons. One is simply style. Yes, the eye candy. Hardcore anti-Mac people often make fun of that, but when you spend as much time on the computer as a freelance editor and writer does, you want it to be fun. I overheard a Windows person on the bus one morning saying Windows was the best because it forces you to learn something. Which, from my perspective, is a lot like saying it’s best to have a car that breaks down all the time so that you learn how to fix it. I swear, that will be the only bit of Mac snobbery I allow in this post! That one was for Steve.
So now I write on the computer, edit on the computer, do my checkbook and taxes, keep in touch with friends, play games, watch movies, video call with the kid on her iPad when she’s out of town . . . I’m a person of the twenty-first century, and for good or ill that means I’m on the computer a lot. A ton. A lot of tons. And to me that computer lifestyle is infused with the Mac OS. Windows is just work. Mac is life. And that, of course, is what Steve Jobs was going for. That’s why when he came back to Apple he started the assault on the boring beige boxes that all computers were. He was the driving force behind so much innovation, yes, in style, but also ease of use. Which, contrary to the person on my bus, is not a bad thing.
Not that I’m a blind-faith fanatic. I’m perfectly willing and able to acknowledge and point out Apple’s missteps. I think Steve’s battle with Flash was ill-timed, for one thing. The Cube was too far ahead of its time . . . to get it that small, the components were too expensive. It looked amazing, but who could buy it? But I remember thinking, “Look . . . if you took that cube and made it a flatter rectangle, it would fit on the back of a monitor. The monitor would be the computer!” I felt pretty good about myself when that was actually what happened.
At some point across the years (or, I suppose, incrementally), without me fully realizing it, Steve Jobs, the man behind the machine, became important to me. But even when I felt concern for his health, and knew he must have been in a bad way to step down from Apple, it seemed like more generic sympathy, that you feel for anyone. But it turned out to be more. Like most people, I didn’t expect the end to come so soon. And I certainly didn’t expect I would be repeatedly getting misty eyed as I read the various reminiscences there have been posted on line over the last several days. Stephen Fry’s was quite good. Stephen Colbert’s was funny but with a poignant end that really got me (I did the same thing myself before I saw it; check it out so you’ll know what I mean).
I don’t know if Apple will ever be quite the same. They’ve got a good set up now, and could have a good run just making the existing products better. Apple TV, although much improved, still needs work. The computer and pods and pads and phone can just keep getting faster and cooler and more interconnected. But they also need to be able to come up with the game changers, the crazy things that Steve would take to his people and say, “Can we do this?” I don’t even know what those are. I just hope there’s someone at Apple, or soon to come to Apple, that does. And then it will be insanely great.