I’ve been turning over in my mind how I feel about the passing of Steve Jobs. After all, he’s a public figure: I did not know him, I did not work for Apple, my sole involvement with the products he’s created involve owning a series of Macintosh systems and writing software using a Macintosh. Oh, and owning a series of iPods, iPhones and an iPad.
And really, at some level, aside from being a consumer of products his multi-billion dollar company created, what does a public figure have to do with my own personal life or how I feel about things. After all, would I even bother opening up MarsEdit and typing in this essay at work (when I should be doing more important things) if, for example, Matthias Müller passed away? Would I care if the CEO of Muhtar Kent passed away? Would I even notice if John Stumpf passed on? After all I also consume their products as well.
I don’t have many personal heroes: people I look to for inspiration for myself. Most people I know, even most people I look towards in public life, sometimes have their moments. But for the most part they strike me as flawed fools who happen to be in the right place at the right time–at best, entertaining and amusing, occasionally saying something interesting or quote-worthy.
Thinking back, I honestly think I only have two, and they were people who shaped my world.
The first is Ronald Reagan. When I reached high school Jimmy Carter was in office, the embassy in Iran was overrun by students, and he refused to light the Christmas Tree because it was somehow wasteful. We were a country in decline, so President Carter said, and the best we could hope for as a people was for the rest of the world to forgive us our sins and accept us as equals–and that, in a world dominated by the Soviet Union and by a Communist system that had absolutely no respect whatsoever for the individual. Learn Russian, hope to be accepted as a cog in the machine, and perhaps the Politburo would assign you to something that wasn’t so dreadful that it couldn’t be drowned out by some cheap potato vodka.
And Reagan seemed to change all that.
President Reagan claimed to be the Hedgehog: He knew just one Great thing.
It was my first introduction to the idea that a man, consumed with one great and solitary vision, could change the world.
But in many ways Steve Jobs and Apple really set the tone of my own thinking, at least when it comes to development and aesthetics and the things I find insanely great.
I learned the idea of user interface design and the aesthetics of great computer human interaction at the hands of the Apple User Design Guidelines and the various SIGCHI papers published by Apple in human interaction studies.
I was inspired by the visual aesthetics of Apple’s products, including early vision videos they published in the 1980’s which attempted to look forward 20 years to where we would be today.
I watched as Apple’s attention to detail (including Steve Jobs’ famously using a loupe to make sure all the pixels lined up in MacOS system software and on the iPhone) and understanding that design is how a thing works, not just how a thing looks, captured the imagination of the consumer public, first with the iPod, then with the iPhone, and finally with the iPad.
I realized over the years of working on Apple software how the various engineering decisions under the hood were driven by a genuine need to make a computer simpler to use–from the comment in an older version of “Inside Macintosh” how the tiny flutter of the user’s manual comes at the price of the “thud” of the two manual programming guideline set makes when dropped on the desktop. And how this desire to make insanely great products that people could use drove even fundamental research into things like TCP/IP multicasting, which allows someone to just turn on their printer and see it through Bonjour, without ever realizing just how fucking complex the transactions were behind the scenes to make that magic work.
But ultimately I wanted to do insanely great things as well.
One of my own life’s frustrations has always been that I haven’t been able to do the insanely great, that because of circumstances I’ve been put in places where at best I can do “fairly good”–but product managers with no fucking sense, other developers who have no sense of the “lusers” they deal with, and development managers who hated the idea of a direct report outshining them have stood in my way. But then, I’m not alone in this, and it is the trials and tribulations and setbacks and how we meet them define our character.
And even here I know I’m not alone; I simply need to remember how Steve Jobs was ousted to remember that setbacks happen even to the best of us.
It’s not to say that Steve Jobs did all these things: he didn’t write the SIGCHI papers or the Apple HIG documents or create the original Finder and System software packages that came on my original (1984) Macintosh. But he surrounded himself with brilliant people, inspired and guided them, and drove them to greater and greater levels of perfection.
And in seeking this type of concrete perfection, it always felt to me that it was a way to seek to touch the face of God.
In so many ways my own thinking of the world, and how I look to the world, is formulated by the ideas and philosophies and concepts championed and driven by Ronald Reagan (in politics) and by Steve Jobs (in technology).
And as such, Steve Jobs will be sorely missed.