California: The man who shaped contemporary consumer technology died on 5 October, 2011. Steve Jobs battled cancer and other health issues for several years and had a rare form of pancreatic cancer.
He helped change computers from a geeky hobbyist’s obsession to a necessity of modern life at work and home, and in the process he upended not just personal technology but the cellphone and music industries.
In dark suit and bowtie, he is a computing-era carnival barker – eyebrows bouncing, hands gesturing, smile seductive and coy and a bit annoying. It’s as if he’s on his first date with an entire generation of consumers. And, in a way, he is.
It is 24 January, 1984, and a young Steve Jobs is standing at centre stage, introducing to shareholders of Apple Computer Inc the “insanely great” machine that he’s certain will change the world: a beige plastic box called the Macintosh.
Here is the Wizard of Cupertino at the threshold of it all, years before the black mock turtleneck and blue jeans. He is utterly in command – of his audience and of his performance.
All of the Jobs storytelling staples are emerging.
The hyperbole: “You have to see this display to believe it. It’s incredible.”
The villain: “And all of this power fits in a box that is one-third the size and weight of an IBM PC.”
The tease: “Now I’d like to show you Macintosh in person. All of the images you are about to see on the large screen will be generated by what’s in that bag.”
He retreats into the shadows, pulls the inaugural Mac out of its satchel. He inserts a disk and boots up. Suddenly, on the screen – roughly pixelated by today’s standards but, for 1984, stunning – a typeface rolls by to the theme from Chariots of Fire. A picture of a geisha appears. Then a spreadsheet. Architectural renderings. A game of video chess. A bitmapped drawing of Steve Jobs dreaming of a Mac.
The computer speaks. “Hello. I’m Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag,” it says. “It is with considerable pride that I introduce a man who’s been like a father to me: Steve Jobs.”
Applause shakes the place. Steven Paul Jobs, basking in it, tries not to grin. He fails. The future, at this moment, is his.
It is 29 years later now, and Steve Jobs has exited the stage he managed so well. We are left with the talismans of his talent, a tech diaspora: the descendants of that original Mac. The iPod and iTunes, Nanos and Shuffles and Classics and Touches. The Apple Store. The iPhone 5 and the App Store and the new iPad. They are part of the cultural fabric – tools that make our lives easier and, some insist, sexier and more streamlined.
But taken together, what do they mean? Are they merely gadgets and services that sold well, that answered the market’s needs for humans of the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Did Jobs’ prickly perfectionism – born, some said, of outsized ego – merely create a whole run of really useful tools? Or is something more elemental at play here?
Jobs the CEO, Jobs the technologist and futurist, Jobs the inventor and innovator and refiner of others’ ideas: All of them, in the end, relied upon another Steve Jobs who sewed the others together and bottled their lightning: Steve Jobs the storyteller, spinning the tale of our age and of his own success, and making it happen as he went.
From his earliest days with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, he was a half step ahead of the rest of us, innovating and inventing and creating and doggedly marketing it all by building a lifestyle around it. From Apple’s personal computers, he harnessed the new and repackaged the existing to create something fresh, something more.
Beyond his measurable successes, though, Steve Jobs claims one spot in history above all others: He realized what we wanted before we understood it ourselves.
We wanted easy to use. We wanted to lose ourselves in what our gadgets did. We wanted sleek, cool, streamlined – things that weren’t always associated with consumer electronics. We wanted the relationship between object fetish and functionality to be indistinguishable. We wanted to touch the future without seams that would yank us out of our communion with our machines. We wanted, in short, intricate simplicity.
To Jobs, the above sentences might have been commandments. They were used to denounce – in a friendly manner, but always pointed – what Apple cast as the corporate, bland chaos of the PC culture that IBM and Microsoft were creating.
In Jobs’ hands those principles were potent weapons. Apple’s successes and missteps are well known, but things seemed to accumulate voltage when they passed through the switching station of Jobs’ brain.
“There are two sides of it. One is the interface design side. The other is his ability to persuade major media outlets and others to work with him,” says Edward Tenner, a technology historian and author of “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.”
“His personal mystique,” Tenner says, “became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Some of it is the American penchant for big personalities. Microsoft had Bill Gates, Facebook Marc Zuckerberg. A dominant human face focuses things. Think of IBM, one of the 20th century’s most influential companies: It dominated as the computer age dawned but lacked a defining figure; does it hold the same place in popular culture as an Apple or a Facebook?
The Hollywood storytelling tradition, built on the American cult of individual achievement, feeds the belief in a national history of invention and innovation.
Progress by committee? Not so compelling a script, even though Apple succeeds on the hard work of thousands. But the American inventor mystique – the notion that one guy armed with a combination of a good idea, hard work, challenging conditions and a bit of snake oil, can still change the world? That’s been a big seller since Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.
When it comes to Jobs, comparisons are legion. Like Edison? A little, but not really; Edison didn’t understand the elegance of interfaces. Like Barnum, selling the sizzle? Except that Jobs had the steak, too. Perhaps more like broadcast pioneers David Sarnoff and Bill Paley, who realized they must harness the pipeline – the airwaves, in their case – so that the content could flow through.
In a world of corporations and committees and consultation and collaboration, Jobs personified the power of the individual to effect an outcome – or at least the appearance of it. He was nothing if not cinematic. He projected his own image onto giant screens behind him as he rolled out product after product like some microchip Merlin. He was not merely a technologist; he was a stylemaker.
Jobs “saw there was this personal quality to computing,” says Paul Levinson, author of Cellphone: The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything.
“The attractiveness of the product . They’re gleaming, beautiful objects that are physically attractive,” Levinson says. “iPods are almost worn as jewellery. Who would have imagined it would have been cool to see wires coming out of somebody’s ear?”
Every medium, of course, needs messages. Every container needs content. Every gadget, to endure, needs to transcend itself and become what the people who use it dream it could be.
Imagine, in the Foghat and Starland Vocal Band days of 1976 when Apple came into existence, if someone said you could acquire all the music you could listen to in a lifetime, from the best bands, in a matter of moments – and not by ordering 10 eight-track tapes for a penny from Columbia House. Unthinkable.
Imagine if, on the day Jobs introduced the Mac, someone said: Hey, wanna watch “Risky Business” on this screen that looks like a thick piece of paper? And we can read magazines and newspapers AND play Missile Command while we’re waiting for it to – what’s the word? – “download.” Preposterous.
Sure, we had downloaded music and even movies before iTunes; yes, we had been digital when it came to reading before the App Store. But again Apple stood in the intersection of utility and desire. Those services helped free content from physical format and let it go where people were.
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