As you’ve no doubt heard through various sources—and for many of you, through the very products that he created—Apple founder and all-around technology visionary Steve Jobs has died. According to a statement from his family, Jobs “died peacefully today surrounded by his family,” finally succumbing to a long battle with pancreatic cancer that forced him to undergo a liver transplant in 2009. He was 56, and one of the most powerful men of our lifetime.
That encapsulating Steve Jobs’ impact on the world into just a few paragraphs is pretty much impossible is a testament to just how great and far-reaching that impact was. More than just a designer of personal computers, Jobs was in many ways a designer of modern life. His belief that technology should above all be user-friendly forever changed the methods in which we work, communicate, enjoy our entertainment, and even create our own innovations.
In fact, through his company’s inventions, Jobs redefined the way most of us spend the majority of our waking hours—and if all this sounds like an overstatement or hyperbole, consider the way you’re reading this webpage, or the device you’re accessing it on, or the way the news of Jobs’ death reached you, or the way you’ll share it with someone else. Odds are, all of those things were influenced or even outright shaped by Steve Jobs. And with apologies to those who flinch at sweeping statements, or dislike the conferring of mythic proportions on the mortal, our world would look dramatically different were it not for Jobs’ contributions, or the efforts of his competitors trying (and so often failing) to match them.
Of course, that sort of incredible power can corrupt, and certainly there are detractors who will balk at these kinds of sentiments, many of them the same people who have long accused Apple of creating a cult-like devotion, with Jobs as its self-appointed messiah. And definitely, Jobs was a bit grandiose, frequently speaking of his desire to “change the world” or make “a dent in the universe,” ever since the days when he was just a hotshot hippie kid building circuit boards in his parents’ garage. And yes, over the years, his rallying cry of engendering a “revolution” that would overthrow the technological monopoly of IBM and the like—as encapsulated in Apple’s famous “1984” ad—started to sound slightly ironic, as with each passing day Apple began to seem like the dominant empire, with Jobs even cutting a benevolent yet slightly Bond villain-ish figure in his never-changing black turtleneck.
But all revolutionaries, once they actually change the world, become the de facto establishment. And it’s to Jobs’ credit that—no matter how many hubristic quotes there are collected on the Internet, or reports you will find of his difficulty as a boss, or the amount of exacting control he exercised over his products—he always, always strove to use his powers for good, and reward his followers for their incredible loyalty. And reward them he did, time and again.
The Apple II, the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPad—for many, Jobs’ computers were all they ever knew, and they were the tools that helped them create just about everything they ever did in their lifetimes. (It's no surprise I’m writing Jobs’ obituary on a MacBook Pro; ever since I played my first game of Oregon Trail on an early Macintosh, I've done nearly all of my personal computing on a Jobs invention.) And as if these things alone weren’t enough to earn Jobs a huge debt of gratitude, he also changed music—the way we listen to it, the way it’s bought and sold, even the way it’s envisioned by its creators—nearly overnight.
The iPod was an invention that was so forward-thinking that no one even knew they were supposed to want one until it was announced—and then, setting a pattern for so many Apple products to follow, everyone absolutely needed one. While some may mourn the iPod’s deleterious impact on the music industry, its slow and steady chipping away at the life of physical media, or the way it’s made listening to an album as a cohesive artistic statement nearly obsolete, there’s no denying that its existence has made absorbing music generally easier and more enjoyable than it ever was before. For anyone who used to spend hours crafting a homemade mix tape, or walked around carrying a cumbersome Discman and a wallet crammed full of CDs, Jobs’ initial introduction of the iPod in 2001 was like seeing Henry Ford debut the automobile to a crowd of slack-jawed farmers. Now entire libraries of music and movies are available at your fingertips on a device barely the size of a cassette, and the fact that all future generations will just take that for granted truly is revolutionary.
And beyond that, of course, Jobs’ inventions opened up new, easier ways to make our own entertainment—something he also did himself when he bought a small computer animation house named Pixar in 1986, then transformed it into the multibillion-dollar company whose creations have all but usurped those of the Disney studios that bought it. In a statement released today from Pixar’s John Lasseter, he acknowledges that Jobs “saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’”
And under his guidance, that’s exactly what they did, creating films that were technological leaps ahead of everything else, yet always with a genuine, old-fashioned heart underneath. In a way, Pixar’s Toy Story is even sort of a metaphor for the way Jobs approached his business: Yes, the products he made were really just glorified toys—plastic hunks of briefly fetishized consumerist flotsam that begin growing old and obsolete the second you buy them. But they’re also yours, meant to be loved and cared for, and engendering the sort of strong human connection that it’s almost impossible to imagine making with any other kind of technology—hence that crazy “cult-like” devotion. Anyone who’s ever declared, “I’d be lost without my iPhone/iPod/iPad/iWhatever” isn’t really kidding, so deeply have they placed great swaths of their lives and even their trust in it.
Right now, it’s also near impossible to imagine Apple retaining that same aura without Jobs (whose absence was certainly deeply felt during this week’s first presentation from new CEO Tim Cook). Jobs himself knew that he was so inextricable from Apple that he stayed on long after his illness made it difficult for him to work, resigning only six weeks ago with a letter that read, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.” But of course, Jobs’ influence lasted beyond that day, and even still it will go on, rippling outward as the people he helped to shape and inspire continue to use his tools to realize their own ideas about tomorrow. Even though he won’t get to see how it plays out from here, Steve Jobs—just like he always wanted—has already given us the future.
Oh, and—as Jobs was fond of saying—one more thing: There’s probably no better tribute to the man floating around (of the many that will be popping up just about everywhere for the foreseeable future) than this video of Jobs’ commencement address to a group of Stanford graduates in 2005. In it, Jobs talks about his life and life’s work, and even touches poignantly upon his own death by putting it in terms of his own creations:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because 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. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Thanks, Steve. (Sorry I was such a shitty Apple tech support technician.)