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Steve Jobs: An Unexpected Appreciation

Having spent much of my life dealing with the Steve Jobs phenomenon, I can say that it was only in the last few years that he became the great figure he was always destined to be.

by
Michael S. Malone

Bio

October 6, 2011 - 9:02 am

The man who was arguably the single most influential figure of my generation has left the stage for the last time. I’m amazed that it ended this way.

It’s not that the death of Steve Jobs came as a surprise. In fact, it was miracle he lasted so long. Here in Silicon Valley we had a pretty good idea of just how advanced his illness had become. And, knowing a number of Steve’s friends and acquaintances, as well as his neighbors, I had a better idea than most of his state.

But the final clue came a month ago when the publishers of Walter Isaacson’s new Jobs biography backed the publication date from January 2012 to next month. If you are an author, you know that never happens. That was the source of the elegiac tone in the Jobs retirement piece I wrote last month for the Wall Street Journal. I sensed, as did others around the Valley, that Steve Jobs’ days were numbered.

No, what surprised me about the news, which I heard on the radio as I drove around the police cordon from the search for the fugitive killer — it must have been the worst day in Cupertino, California’s history — was how saddened I was by Steve Jobs’ death. As I drove past Homestead High School, and saw the news crews setting up to do their live feed from Jobs’ old alma mater, I already felt the void of his departure from the tech world. And as I passed the suburban shopping center where I once watched Jobs, Wozniak, and Fernandez buying the parts for the legendary Apple II, I realized how much I already dreaded the near future of consumer electronics.

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have felt this way. I had spent much of my life dealing with the Steve Jobs phenomenon. We are near contemporaries, just a year apart in age, and we grew up in the same neighborhood and had mutual friends. We both moved to better suburban neighborhoods, just a few blocks apart, in junior high school, where his future partner Steve Wozniak swam on a team with my buddies and showed his inventions at the local science fair.

It was just a few years later that I saw the scruffy trio, who I thought were buying roach clips, preparing to prototype Wozniak’s computer design. A few months after that I saw the result introduced at the Wescon computer fair in San Francisco. I was also standing in the Wozniak living room when Mr. Wozniak took marketing executive Regis McKenna outside to ask the man’s help in getting his son away from the bad influence of a kid named Steve Jobs.

Four years later, as a cub reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, I wrote some of the first stories about Apple, then in a just few small buildings in Cupertino, and spent a fair amount of time with the increasingly messianic and manipulative Steve Jobs. They weren’t happy experiences. Nor were the interviews I did with him a few years later, after he’d been on the cover of Time magazine. Nor when I interviewed him over sushi for a profile in my first book and the first interview tape mysteriously disappeared while I was in the men’s room (“People think I’m an a—– e, don’t they?” Steve asked, and a lot of folks blamed me for years for not giving Steve an honest answer).

I was also there in early 1984, a correspondent for The Economist, for the now-legendary Macintosh introduction — an event as notable for the press’ complete abandonment of editorial objectivity as for the game-changing new product. It was also the moment when Steve Jobs showed himself to be one of the greatest corporate showmen of all time.

Thirteen years later, I was back, this time at MacWorld, to see Jobs’ celebrated return to Apple. Halfway through writing a history of Apple, I knew enough about Steve Jobs (I was the person who uncovered his early rip-off of his partner Wozniak — Apple’s Original Sin) to be cured of hero worship forever.  Yet, despite everything, I was blown away when Steve unveiled the iMac. After years of ugly decline without him (I’d even written a notorious column headlined “Apple RIP”), Apple Computer once again found its purpose and its old spirit with Steve’s return … and just months later, had already regained leadership of the PC revolution.

In the years that followed, I tried my best to stay away from Apple and Steve Jobs, especially after reports that Steve was back to his old nasty tricks began to trickle out of the company. Of course, not covering Apple, especially in Silicon Valley, was impossible — so I found myself still commenting on the firm and its increasingly remarkable new products.

And what products they were:  the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and a string of stunningly innovative Powerbook laptops. It was a run of milestone products with no precedent in the history of American industry. Each was not only a design breakthrough, but the creator of its own multi-billion consumer electronics category.  Even Edison and Ford hadn’t done that, nor Hewlett and Packard, nor Noyce, Grove, and Moore at Intel.

And at the center of it all was Steve Jobs. Contrary to myth, he was never an engineering genius like, say, Steve Wozniak. But where his real talent lay — as a technology impresario — was of far greater importance, and infinitely rarer. As in the early days of Apple, Jobs by the turn of the new century was exhibiting almost perfect vision not just for what the marketplace wanted in new consumer products, but what it would want once it saw them.

Here in Silicon Valley, we tend to throw around terms like “visionary” with abandon. But more than anyone in the Valley’s history, Steve Jobs deserved the title. And while others have exhibited this trait briefly — and are celebrated for it — Jobs not only displayed this talent for generations of new technologies, but managed to imbue his entire company with it. In many respects, today’s Apple Computer is Steve Jobs’ greatest invention — a giant company that still manages to reward risk-taking and radical innovation. There has never been another company quite like it — and it all rested on Jobs’ extraordinary willingness, almost unique among Fortune 500 CEOs, to always reward risk-taking even when it failed, and punish “safe” thinking.

This kind of corporate culture would be admirable at any time, but in the first decade of the 21st century, when the battered tech industry and crippled venture capital profession almost always took the safest and most conforming path, Steve Jobs’ Apple often seemed like the only interesting company in consumer electronics; the one ray of light in a dreary economy. Everybody else just seemed to be following in Apple’s wake, waiting for Jobs & Co. to introduce the latest wonder product … and then race to create second-rate imitations. It was during this period, like many others in the Valley, I found myself rooting for Jobs and Apple as the last best hope of electronics.

Something else happened as well: Steve got sick. Steve Jobs, pancreatic cancer survivor, made his first public appearance with his celebrated Stanford graduation speech. This was a new Steve. If some of his bad habits remained, they were also tempered by the new-found wisdom of someone who has just faced his own mortality. In an odd way, the cancer seemed to purify Jobs, removing the small things in life at which he often showed his worst, and focusing him on the big things, where he was always in his glory.

Though he was idolized long before that, it was only in the last few years that Steve Jobs reached his full potential and became the great figure he was always destined to be. Seemingly knowing that his time was short, and stripped of the ego that had been his biggest burden, Steve at last became a great CEO, just as he had always been one of the greatest of all entrepreneurs. To that unmatched run of landmark products, he now accomplished one more thing never achieved by his famous Valley predecessors — he took Apple from the garage to become the most valuable company in the world. It was the perfect finish to one of the most amazing lives of his generation — and even those of us who knew-him-when found ourselves cheering.

What will be his legacy? It is far too early to tell. There are the great products, but they will fade, sooner rather than later in the fast-paced world of tech.  Apple? It will be a healthy company for a long time, but there is no one who can take Steve’s place and put the stamp of his personality on the firm. If Hewlett and Packard, having created the most celebrated of all corporate cultures, couldn’t keep it going after they left, does anyone think that Apple will remain a risk-taking innovator? No, its likely fate will be a genteel middle age with strong profits and low incentives to take new risks.

As for Jobs himself, there is little that can be learned from his example. He was such a complex bundle of brains and quirks, charisma and cruelty, pettiness and prophecy that he is likely sui generis. You can’t clone him, copy him, or teach him, no matter how valuable an economy full of Steve Jobs might be.

So in the end the only real legacy of Steve Jobs, beyond a few products on display in museums, will probably be the life of the man himself . Generations of budding entrepreneurs will now know that it really is possible to go all of the way:  to start from nothing, build the most important enterprise on the planet, change the world … and through it all, as Steve Jobs told the Stanford graduates, love every step of the journey.

Don’t miss video: “Wozniak talks about his friend Steve

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years.
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