Starting today the future will come more slowly.
For the last 10 years it has been rushing headlong into our homes and hands. But the man most responsible for that heady pace has passed. Yesterday, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs lost his battle with cancer. His death at 56 was not a surprise, he had been ill, visibly so, for many long months. His iconic black turtleneck began to sag and drape during his keynotes at which he introduced the iPhone, iPods, new Macbooks and the iPad. His jeans seemed the attire of a larger man, slipped on by accident before Jobs took to, and then owned, the darkened stage.
But the reality distortion field around him was as strong as ever, despite the cancer, despite the battle. Until the end, Jobs made us believe we were living in the future. That all the clean lines, elegant interfaces and brushed metal surfaces of our teenaged science fiction was close enough to touch, to multitouch, and this week, to have a conversation with. Jobs lived in the future and then reached back and pulled us and the phone, music, book, movies and news industries forward, whether we liked it or not.
Jobs didn't just skate where the puck was going. He willed the puck to where he wanted it. He had both vision and laser focus. He was, by all accounts, a difficult man to work for, a terrible man at times, when the times didn't change fast enough or a product wasn't good enough or when the sheen on a wooden floor in an Apple Store wasn't quite right and he scrapped it and had it redone. Employees, it is said, dreaded getting into an elevator with him. They rehearsed their elevator pitches, so that when he asked, "What are you working on?" they could engage, pacify or excite him. He was feared by the same people who loved him. He was an artist in the company of engineers and he led them to what he called the intersection of technology and liberal arts.
No other company found its way there as well, certainly not Microsoft, or RIM or HP, all led by engineers or MBAs who lived in the quarter, not the future. Their products were junky, kludgy, overburdened by buttons or arcane manuals or made of cheap creaking plastic. Or, at least they seemed that way next to a MacBook Pro or an iPhone.
Microsoft has never learned to leave the past behind, its legacy of Windows code weighing it down like Jacob Marley's chains. Apple, under Jobs, let the past die a quick death, abandoning operating systems, ports, devices and sometimes users in its rush to make tomorrow come sooner.
Jobs wanted a simple future. A future where computers just responded like a friend or a spouse. A future without buttons, or keyboards or file structures or all the beloved neuromancy of nerds. He is the anti-hero of the open source movement and the ultimate user. He wanted to create a computer for rest of us, the rest of us being everyone without neckbeards, three wolves howling at the moon t-shirts and a Lego collection.
He was getting there. The iPad was the computer Jobs wanted the Macintosh of 1984 to be. It is an information appliance, a "bicycle for the mind" as Jobs said in the '80s. Jobs saw it coming and knew how to get us from the Macintosh to the iPad, from there to here. No doubt he imagined what is coming next, a mobile device as far from the iPad as it is from the original Macintosh. Without him Apple will be able to get a long way there. His DNA is baked into the company now. It's product lines are mapped out years ahead already. But after those years run out, so might the vision.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, is a supply chain genius. Jonathan Ives is a superstar industrial designer and the rest of the Apple management are handpicked Apple evangelists and experts. But Steve Jobs comes along once in a generation. He is the unlikely product of a troubled, adoptive youth; a distrust of authority; a love of Bob Dylan; a love affair with the East and drugs and the fanatical focus of a Cassandra almost driven mad by prophecy.
His death has fills me with a dull sadness. It is not the grief of a friend dying, or a family member taken away. It the loss, not of what you had, but what you almost had, that pulls at me. The future I hoped for has been deferred. And, it is also the sadness that comes when a hero dies and what he imagined withers in sympathy. Oh, and just one more thing. Thanks Steve.
Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.
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