Every year the same films tend to be shown on British terrestrial television during the Christmas holidays. You know the ones: The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, The Italian Job and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory amongst others. I guess they’re shown because they’re family favourites and indeed I like all of those films. I mention this because Steve Jobs’s incredible run of keynote presentations introducing new products in recent years somehow made me feel like I was Charlie Bucket being given a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and the delights within. The similarities don’t end there: Wonka was a charismatic leader and the chocolate factory a secretive place that rarely opened its doors to outsiders.
I didn’t set out to become someone who considered Apple events to be so compelling, but it’s been such an incredible run that the best way I can think to describe it is like watching an amazing sports person pull off a once in a lifetime feat. With Steve Jobs at the helm it just kept getting better and better, one brilliant keynote and product announcement after another. A juggernaut that saw Apple go from the verge of oblivion to financially the most valuable company in the world.
I never really imagined that I’d get to own an Apple computer, because the idea of owning a Macintosh in the 1980s when a Sinclair ZX Spectrum was my home computer was preposterious—they were just far too expensive. The same held true when I got into the PC in the early 1990s. I loved the industrial design of the Mac and its integrated GUI was obviously superior to the MS-DOS and Windows combination, but at that time in my life I couldn’t afford one. I’d read plenty about Steve Jobs and the founding of the company and I was vaguely aware of what it was up to and its products, but it wasn’t then part of my life. That would have to wait a few years until I got a job and starting earning some disposable income.
Like many millions of people, my route into Apple product ownership was the iPod. I bought one of the fourth generation hard drive and click wheel ones in 2004. At that time the iPod range had only just diversified into the wildly successful and surprisingly short-lived iPod Mini. I still have that white and chrome iPod and it still works perfectly. From there, I bought laptops and a desktop—leaving behind the home PC forever—and an iPhone and most recently an iPad. I didn’t intend to end up with so much Apple kit, but I use and treasure all of it.
It strikes me that Steve Jobs was all about removing things, both figuratively and literally. With the Apple II he removed the prerequisite that you had to be useful with a soldering iron to own a personal computer. With the original Macintosh you no longer had to remember a list of obscure commands to use a computer. With the iPod, you didn’t have to carefully trim down your playlists so they’d fit on a memory card or deal with temperamental syncing software (both problems my pre-iPod Diamond Rio MP3 player had). With the iMac, you no longer needed to have a separate bulky system unit cluttering up your desk. With the iPhone and iPad he removed the stylus that got in the way between you and the computer, and in doing so created a much more intimate and immersive experience. As a leader he removed the barriers to those under him doing the best work of their lives.
Steve Jobs wasn’t God and he certainly wasn’t a saint. We’ve all read the stories about how demanding he could be to work for and how ruthless a businessman he was. The question of his apparent lack of philanthrophy also comes up regularly. However, we’ve also all read the stories about how inspiring he was to work for, pushing those who worked for him to not be satisfied with just good enough and to do insanely great work. Those stories put me in mind of a special forces sergeant, pushing recruits to their breaking point and beyond and getting away with it because the recruits want to earn his respect. Wouldn’t it be great to work with somebody so charismatic who could see your true potential and push you to reach it? I think so. I don’t think Steve Jobs was a mean man because there are many examples online of his kind and human side. He was also unique amongst his peer CEOs in regularly reaching out directly via his famously pithy emails—through the layers of corporate protection he himself instigated—to those who bought his products.
Earlier this week I was stood at a bus station and there was a lady stood next to me who I’d estimate was in her late sixties. She was holding an iPhone 4 in her hand and prodding the screen with her finger. Curious, I sneaked a look to see what app she was using. At first I thought it was Maps, but then I realised that she was actually playing Sim City. I shouldn’t make assumptions based on appearances and age/gender stereotypes, but in all honesty I think it’s unlikely that she was a geek pensioner. That’s Steve Jobs’s legacy right there: an elderly lady enjoying playing a game on a handheld computer. He really did deliver the computer for the rest of us and whether directly or through Apple’s influence on competitors, he played a massive part in making computing ubiqitous and more accessible to all.
I feel very sad that Steve’s life was tragically cut short by cancer at the age of 56. It resonates with me personally because my own father’s life was tragically cut short by cancer at the age of 64. My thoughts in particular are with his family who have lost a husband and a father. The rest of us have merely lost a creative genius and an industry titan. All of us who appreciated Steve Jobs and the impact he made on our lives should take some comfort from knowing that he packed an incredible amount into his years with us and I feel lucky that I was alive to see it happen. There will never be another quite like him.