Enthralled by Steve: an obituary of sorts

Following Steve Jobs’ death on 5 October 2011, I wrote this obituary of sorts. It was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 24, 2011, and I have only adjusted paragraphs to make it easier to read online.

Steve Jobs was, perhaps, the most prominent and influential of those who have moved on to become irreversibly virtual this year.

It was only appropriate that, given his skill for transforming the attractive into the compelling, and his famous ‘reality distortion field’, eulogies have compared him with Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci.

Whilst he was neither the greatest theoretical physicist nor the ultimate Renaissance Man, Steve and his companies have been hugely influential in the transformation of computers into everyday tools, and latterly into consumer products.

For the first nine years of Apple’s switchback fortunes, Steve was central to the Apple II, then led the development and launch of the Mac in 1984. In the UK the pervasive success of the Apple II was lessened by Acorn’s BBC microcomputer, but in North America Apples powered research labs, hospitals, businesses, and homes.

The Mac moved us a huge leap forward. Steve pooled exceptionally talented minds who refused to ape the conservative success of IBM’s PC, and sold us the modern personal computer.

After leaving Apple in 1985, he led Pixar to develop the ground-breaking movie Toy Story, and tried a third time to transform computing with NeXT. There his demanding perfectionism won him many devoted users in Wall Street, but sold a mere 50,000 systems.

When Steve wrested control of Apple in 1997, it was struggling to sell 2.5 million Macs a year despite the new PowerPC G3 processor, and lost a billion dollars.

In a couple of tense years, Steve axed several visionary products, including the Newton palmtop, Cyberdog, and OpenDoc, and shut Larry Tesler’s Advanced Technology Group that had been responsible for those, as well as the more successful QuickDraw, QuickTime, ColorSync, HyperCard, and AppleScript.

Instead, Steve Jobs’ reborn Apple ported the NeXTStep operating system to become the public beta of Mac OS X in 2000, and entered the consumer entertainment market with the iPod and iTunes music store the following year.

Apple briefly lapsed into loss as it awaited returns from the large investments it had made to bring these and other products, such as the Xserve (2002), to market. In 2005, sales and profits surged, and the rush of products since has caught competition like a rabbit staring into the headlights of Apple’s car hurtling towards it: iPhone and iOS in 2007, then iPad in 2010.

For the last seven years, Steve fought an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against pancreatic cancer. His eclectic keynote addresses to Apple’s WorldWide Developer Conferences and at Mac Expos showed the steady toll that his cancer was taking, leading to a liver transplant in 2009. Ultimately even Steve could not distort that reality, though.

Already this year we have seen collateral product deaths, with the Xserve ending in February, reflecting Apple’s continuing struggle in the corporate computing market. However Steve must have managed a wry smile of success when HP killed its competitor to the iPad, the TouchPad, less than seven weeks after release, and Microsoft finally laid its Zune to rest after admitting defeat to Apple.

Steve Jobs was an exceptionally gifted entrepreneur, who, by pulling together the array of talent at Apple, led the whole market to innovate fearlessly. He had the power to enthral audiences, inspire developers, and persuade purchasers, far beyond any of his contemporaries.

He was also profoundly paradoxical, being a Buddhist who had once survived on charity, but stopped all Apple’s corporate philanthropy in 1997.

I am deeply sorry that he did not enjoy the long retirement that he so richly deserved.

May his spirit live on in Apple and its products.