The death of an I-con – Steve Jobs

“The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Lest I offend anyone, I will not call any names. But I do believe that among the 125 billion or so people who have lived on this earth, only a handful would have impacted the lives of others as much as Steve Jobs – technologist and culture shaper – who passed away this past week. Steve Jobs was a giant not only of his time but of all times. The unbelievable story of his adoption, his brief time as a college (university) drop-in and drop-out, his firing from the company he created (Apple), his capacity to re-engineer himself, his creative genius, his address at the Stanford University 2005 commencement, the unique products he created and his legacy are sure to be the subject of books, research and analysis for years to come.

Whether one’s interest is his story-book beginning, his technological brilliance, his marketing genius or the marvellous products he created, the sadness of his life cut short by cancer was as palpable as that experienced with the recent passing of Michael Jackson. Lest we forget he created the Apple Macintosh, iPad, an iPhone and iPod products, products which others can only copy, proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For the spiritually minded his embrace of Buddhism and his vegetarian lifestyle would attract a special affinity and emotion. His death has generated a viral explosion of email across the world and we now are reminded that when he stepped down as CEO and President of the most valuable company in America, his annual salary was $1 per year.

Dots, love and loss and death
In his Stanford commencement speech, Jobs spoke not of the great products he had created or the big ideas he had but only of three simple everyday things – connecting the dots, love and loss, and thirdly, death.

In 2004 Jobs was diagnosed with an incurable type of pancreatic cancer that could end his life in three to six months. Despair turned to joy when his doctors thought, somewhat prematurely that the strain of cancer was in fact curable, leading Mr Jobs to state one year later that he was looking forward to living for a few more years. That was, sadly, not to be and all he had was five more years.

He told his audience in 2004 that “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new … time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” he advised the young people.

Who was this man Jobs and what was so special about him? So profound and respected was Jobs that one day after his death, he was on the cover page of that other iconic publication – The Economist – which said in its Obituary page that Jobs “stood out in three ways – as a technologist, as a corporate leader and as somebody who was able to make people love what had previously been impersonal, functional gadgets.”

That Jobs failed academically is simply a demonstration of how non-typical and revolutionary he was. He proved that there are other things besides degrees and education: ambition, vision, energy, focus and resilience. Education for some people only is a hindrance.

Jobs liked to see himself as a hippy, permanently in revolt against the establishment, but ended up being hailed by many of those corporate giants as one of the greatest chief executives of his time. He used the limitation of not being an engineer to great advantage. Not for himself but for millions of persons around the world who were not mere consumers of his inventions but adoring followers. His obsession with product design and aesthetics, and with making advanced technology simple to use was legendary. The genius in him allowed him to transform a technical idea or some half-invention into a user’s dream.

Those who have used his product simply could not understand why others would deny themselves the privilege of owning or using one of his products – whether it is a digital music player, the smartphone or the tablet computer. While the traditional players in the industry may have been riled with the audacity of his ideas, they all marvelled at the way he transformed music, telecoms and the news business.

Surviving and succeeding from failure
He lived by some simple precepts including the one about the dots. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” reflecting how a casual course in calligraphy led to the exciting fonts introduced into the Mac Apple was designing.

His philosophical outlook was also extended to the loss of the job at the company he created. He was only thirty at the time, riding on the crest of the wave of success from the release of the Macintosh, described by Jobs as Apple’s greatest invention. Not that he did not take the firing hard at the time; he said he felt he had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down. But he then used that disappointment to turn getting fired from Apple into the best thing that could have ever happened to him. Success at Apple had come early, but at a heavy price. The break in his relationship with Apple made him into a beginner again – free enough to allow him to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

The return of the master
He started the company named NeXT and then Pixar which went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story. Pixar became the most successful animation studio in the world and in 1996 Apple bought NeXT and with it Steve Jobs and NeXT’s technology that was at the heart of Apple’s renaissance.

His achievements after his return are an inspiration to any businessperson whose career has taken a turn for the worse. The way in which Mr Jobs revived the company he had co-founded and turned it into the world’s biggest tech firm, (bigger even than Bill Gates’ Microsoft, the company that had outsmarted Apple so dramatically in the 1980s), is the story of fiction, except that it is true.

But what was perhaps most astonishing about Mr Jobs was the fanatical loyalty he managed to inspire in customers.

The users show off his products by bumper stickers, have fan clubs and see themselves as part of a community, with Mr Jobs as its leader. There was that bond or relationship that came from his obsession that he was only concerned about what his users wanted: simplicity, functionality and elegance.

Steve Jobs had been ailing for some months and had handed over the reins of the company to his deputy. During the last few months of his life he was regularly in pain, too weak to climb stairs.

Yet he wanted his children to understand why he wasn’t always there for them and commissioned a biography that is destined to be a bestseller.

‘I want them to know me’
“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs was quoted as saying by biographer Pulitzer Prize nominee Walter Isaacson, when he asked the Apple Inc co-founder why he authorized a tell-all biography after living a private, almost ascetic life.

“I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did,” Jobs told Isaacson in their final interview at Jobs’ home in Palo Alto, California.

I started this column with a tribute from President Obama the politician. Here is Microsoft’s Bill Gates speaking of Jobs: “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor.”

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