Features & Columns

Think simple.

Global technology's most influential figure stayed true to his vision and close to home

Stay Hungry | Selling a Vision | Animated Character | Hits & Misses | How I Got Dissed By Steve Jobs

steve jobs

WEDNESDAY NIGHT, a few hours after Apple announced its co-founder's death, a semicircle of devotees gazed solemnly at the expanding clump of candles and flowers spilling over the wooden bench on the sidewalk outside Infinite Loop I. The moment's transcendent nature was already clear as we departed past the broadcast network trucks and turned from De Anza Boulevard onto 280. While merging into southbound traffic, a star dropped out of the sky and into the trees behind the sound wall, where Apple sits.

I'm not sure what metaphysical significance the incinerating meteoroid bore as it burned for a split second before vanishing in Earth's atmosphere. A couple of thousand years ago, this might have launched a religion.

What is it about Steve Jobs' passing that has so transfixed us? Steve Wozniak compared hearing the news to learning of the deaths of John Lennon and John F. Kennedy. The flags outside Apple flew at half-mast. Time magazine stopped its presses to allow Jobs to appear on its cover for the eighth time, one more than Winston Churchill had.

The outpouring of genuine public grief is usually reserved for heads of state and entertainers, rather than billionaires or corporate executives, but Jobs had achieved a unique status. His story had all the literary marks of a classic. After suffering a crushing defeat, he had retaken the Kingdom of Apple, which had been ruled during the Beige Era by caretakers Sculley, Spindler and Amelio, to unleash a psychedelic rainbow of personal devices to lands near and far.

Unlike other manufacturers, Jobs personally introduced his products, imprinting the psyche of consumers in a bonding ritual reminiscent of a newly hatched duckling's tendency to follow the first face it sees after it emerges from its shell.

Ancient survival instincts cause us to trust familiar faces. It's bred into our DNA to allow us to distinguish between friend and danger, and drives modern branding and celebrity culture at a visceral level.

Jobs' larger-than-life personality had catalyzed Silicon Valley's transformation during the past third of a century. It went from factory town for semiconductor components to world center for music, film, media and consumer technology. I'm sure I'm not the only one who moved here after college because of the buzz Apple's IPO created, suggesting that a former backwater had become The Place to Be.

Steve Jobs' rock star-style exit hit us all in a dramatic way for several reasons. He and Wozniak ushered in the trend of the early-twentysomething, tennis shoe-wearing Silicon Valley technology CEO. Without them, there might not have been Marc t, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Shawn Fanning. Mark Zuckerberg.

steve jobs memorial CANDLES BURNED: The vigil outside Apple's headquarters paid serene, dignified tribute to a technology pioneer. Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

When icons permanently associated with youth culture expire, a part of us leaves with them. And even though the events leading up to his death were so well chronicled, Jobs specialized in achieving the impossible, so it's hard to believe there won't be an encore of some sort. He seemed to be able to part-swap out body organs like a faulty disk drive and keep rolling out "one more thing."

The tributes this past week have compared Jobs to Elvis Presley and Thomas Edison, though I think Elvis is closer to the mark. Having grown up one town away from Edison's New Jersey laboratory and spent my adult life in the city next to Jobs' workplace, I'm fairly certain that the two shared few common characteristics. Edison represented the old industrial age, and the laboratory we visited on school trips looked like the movie set from Frankenstein.

Jobs, on the other hand, embodied simple aesthetics. He was more of an editor, a marketer and design director than an inventor. There were PCs before the Apple II, MP3 players before iPod, smart phones before iPhone and downloadable songs before iTunes. They just didn't look that good or work all that well. Jobs removed buttons and fans, styled the case and the interface and edited the marketing points into understandable messages.

Wil Houde, an early Apple executive, remembers Jobs' intuitive grasp of user friendliness. "I worked with him pretty intensely for the first four years," he says. "He would get very passionate about things. A lot of people just didn't understand what he was trying to do.

"He would say, it doesn't look right. It doesn't feel right. He drove the engineers nuts. They would ask, 'What the hell is talking about?'

"He got really excited early on about the fonts and all the different letters that people could work with. The icons got him excited. He was a visionary. He wanted everything to be slim, thin, functional and easy to use." Houde says.

"The first mouse he saw was there at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. It was kind of a clugey thing. He wanted it to have one button instead of two. Always one button."

The mundane details sometimes add up to big things, and one rather boring commonality I shared with Mr. Jobs was that we both purchased the same brand of washer and dryer in the early 1990s. Miele produced a ridiculously expensive but energy efficient laundry system that proved its worth because the machines still work as well as they did almost 20 years ago.

The one time I needed a service call, two Miele representatives showed up and told me about their visit to Jobs' residence. Jobs was interested in every facet of the machine and spent more than an hour asking them questions, displaying his singular obsession with refined industrial design.

U2 Ipod Members of U2 appeared on stage at the California Theater in San Jose at the launch of a special edition iPod. Photograph by Jay Blakesberg

I recently came across Gary Wolf's 1996 interview with Jobs, who was then at NeXT before his return to Apple. In it, Jobs confirmed the washing machine repairmen's account of Jobs fascination with common household machinery long before iPods, iPhones and iPads became objects of desire.

"Our family just bought a new washing machine and dryer. We didn't have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them. It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better—but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don't trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.

"We spent some time in our family talking about what's the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We'd get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.

"We ended up opting for these Miele appliances, made in Germany. They're too expensive, but that's just because nobody buys them in this country. They are really wonderfully made and one of the few products we've bought over the last few years that we're all really happy about. These guys really thought the process through. They did such a great job designing these washers and dryers. I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years."

Jobs' desire for order and perfection had its downside. He suffered fools not gladly and his rough treatment of those whom he perceived as threats or impediments to his vision is legendary. Apple's button-down culture of secrecy doesn't lend itself to much pubic discussion, of which there should be more. Apple exercises content control on every app that makes its way onto an iPhone or iPad, and its dominant position in the distribution of popular music gives it a unique position to influence contemporary culture, as well as the economics of an entire industry.

steve jobs

Jobs himself spoke about the P. T. Barnum-esque ability of government to fool a distracted populace in the 1996 interview. "People don't seem to be paying as much attention to the important decisions we have to make," he said.

He was equally cynical about media. "The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want," Jobs suggested.

An interesting footnote is that Jobs, the counterculture revolutionary, was the largest shareholder in Disney, the parent company of ABC News, at the time of his death. In a masterful stroke of identity management, he wrote his own obituary; his 2005 Stanford commencement speech talking about his impending death was widely quoted this week and even published verbatim on the front page of the local daily.

Through his journey to the pinnacle of wealth, fame and power, Steve Jobs remained a Santa Clara County resident. True to the maxim, an apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

He bought the house next to his Palo Alto home so he could tear it down and plant a fruit grove, a nod to the valley's agricultural heritage. Apple's futuristic headquarters will be built in Cupertino, where Jobs spent both his youth and his remarkable career.

He didn't run for office or move away to undertake exotic adventures. He lived ten freeway minutes from work.

Books and movies and digital clips will further memorialize the Steve Jobs legend, which will grow. The spirit and memories will remain here, further contributing to the culture, role and sense of place that is uniquely Silicon Valley.