Steve Jobs: An Unexpected Appreciation

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.