By now, probably the whole planet knows that Steve Jobs passed away today, at the entirely-too-young age of 56.
For the man who brought Apple back from the brink to turn it into one of the most powerful companies in the world, there was no miraculous turnaround for himself.
Obituaries describing his life are everywhere. This one is as good as any. It will be interesting to read his biography, when it comes out later.
What made Steve Jobs interesting to me though, was that he made products for me. I can still recall the first time I ever used a Macintosh in 1984, at a store near the University of Washington. Drawing in MacPaint was revolutionary. I'd painstakingly tried to use computers to draw with for probably five years by that point. And here it was - point, click, draw. Black lines, white background. Just like paper. WYSIWYG fonts. Someone finally got it. A computer for me. Sure, Xerox PARC came up with the idea, but Steve saw the true potential of it, and managed to bring it to market.
That, I think, was his gift. Seeing potential. Recognizing what something could be, not what it is. Where computers could go. Where software could go. What they could do for us, if they were just designed intelligently enough to get out of our way and let us get to the task at hand. A big part of that was seeing the potential in the people that could make that happen. Programmers, engineers, artists. Pushing them to their limits to achieve what they probably wouldn't have reached for on their own. Making them "think different".
Yet at Pixar, where he wasn't the visionary, he had to trust the talents and instincts of other people, step back, and let them do their thing. There's a startling dichotomy there on the surface. But in both cases, he had a unique ability to recognize talent. To have a vision or buy into one, and instinctively recognize the people that could make it happen.
I'll miss that vision. I think Apple is a healthy company, and will do just fine. But that unique gift is now gone - the ability to see beyond what we're stuck with, and picture what we could have instead.
I've long admired many of Apple's products, but have been completely blown away by a handful: the original Macintosh, iDVD, and the iPhone. The original Mac, for the reason I recounted above. iDVD because I had been researching DVD authoring at work, and two years prior to iDVD's release, it would have cost $30,000 to put together a DVD authoring system ($5000 for the CPU, $5000 for the authoring software, $5000 for the MPEG encoder, and $15,000 for a DVD burner). I'd printed out hundreds of pages on how to actually author a DVD that was confusing, disorganized, and not even remotely guaranteed to work. Within a year, the price of the burner had dropped to $1500, but everything else was still too expensive, and the process hopelessly convoluted. But when Steve demo'd iDVD, Apple had made the whole thing work on a $1500 iMac, software included, with a drag-and-drop interface. It was unreal. (Too bad DVDs are dead in Apple's eyes, now.) As for the iPhone, well, I'm still really impressed by the fact that I can carry something around in my pocket that has more RAM, more storage, a faster CPU and better graphics in it than the computer I owned until 2005. I still recall his keynote speech for that, and if any device ever seemed "magical", that was it. Maybe the fact that it's all so commonplace now is even more impressive, than the device itself.
I'll miss Steve's keynotes. I'll miss his, "Just One More Thing". I'll miss basking in the ridiculousness of his reality distortion field. I'll miss stories about his quirky personality. I'll miss the innovation, knowing that even if Apple continues to press forward with more amazing products, there will always be that nagging question, "Just how much better could it have been?" Hopefully, Apple is asking themselves that question now, on a daily basis.
I'll leave you with my favorite Steve Jobs joke (based on the story that he once fired someone in an elevator, simply because the guy didn't recognize him):
Steve Jobs: Knock, knock.
Employee: Who's there?
Steve Jobs: You're fired.