Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011: Mourning Technology's Great Reinventor

Harry McCracken

King Computer
Jobs sits for a portrait outside his home in Palo Alto, Calif. on December 7, 2004.

Steve Jobs, whose death was announced on Wednesday night, wasn't a computer scientist. He had no training as a hardware engineer or an industrial designer. The businesses that Apple entered under his leadership — from personal computers to MP3 players to smartphones — all existed before the company got there.
But with astonishing regularity, Jobs did something that few people accomplish even once: he reinvented entire industries. He did it with ones that were new, like PCs, and he did it with ones that were old, such as music. And his pace only accelerated over the years.
He was the most celebrated, successful business executive of his generation, yet he flouted many basic tenets of business wisdom. (Like his hero and soulmate, Polaroid founder Edwin Land, he refused to conduct focus groups and other research that might tell him want his customers wanted.) In his many public appearances as the head of a large public corporation, he rarely sounded like one. He introduced the first Macintosh by quoting Bob Dylan, and took to saying that Apple sat "at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology."
Jobs' confidence in the wisdom of his own instincts came to be immense, as did the hype he created at Apple product launches. That might have been unbearable if it weren't for the fact that his intuition was nearly flawless and the products often lived up to his lofty claims. St. Louis Cardinals pitching great Dizzy Dean could have been talking about Jobs rather than himself when he said "It ain't bragging if you can back it up."
Jobs' eventual triumph was so absolute — in 2011, Apple's market capitalization passed that of Exxon Mobil, making it the planet's most valuable company — that it's easy to forget how checkered his reputation once was. Over the first quarter-century of his career, he was associated with as many failed products as hits. Having been forced out of Apple in 1985, he was associated with failure, period. Even some of his admirers thought of him as the dreamer who'd lost the war for PC dominance with Microsoft's indomitable Bill Gates.
Until the iPod era, it seemed entirely possible that Jobs' most lasting legacy might be the blockbuster animated features produced by Pixar, the company which he founded after acquiring George Lucas's computer-graphics lab in 1986. Instead, Pixar turned out to be, in Jobs' famous phrase, just one more thing. 
Born in 1955 in San Francisco to an unmarried graduate student and adopted at birth by Paul and Clara Jobs, Steven Paul Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley just as it was becoming Silicon Valley. It proved to be a lucky break for everyone concerned.
He was only 21 when he started Apple — officially formed on April Fool's Day 1976 — with his buddy Steve "Woz" Wozniak, a self-taught engineer of rare talents. (A third founder, Ron Wayne, chickened out after less than two weeks.)
But Jobs had already done a lot of living, all of which influenced the company he built. He'd spent one unhappy semester at Portland's Reed College and 18 happy months of "dropping in" on Reed classes as he saw fit. He'd found brief employment in low-level jobs at Silicon Valley icons HP and Atari. He'd taken a spiritual journey to India, and dabbled with both psychedelic drugs and primal scream therapy.


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