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RIP Steve Jobs — a man who truly changed the world

Updated: October 14, 2011 4:49PM

The last rumor to be addressed on Monday night, the night before Apple’s iPhone event, was, “Will Steve Jobs make an appearance?” Tim Cook, his successor in the CEO’s office, had been announced as the host of the event. But some people believed that plans were in place for Steve to do a walk-on, or at least be in the audience and receive the acknowledgment of the crowd.

It seemed like a long shot, really, and the reasons why I dismissed the rumors had nothing to do with Mr. Jobs’ health. Through everything he did during his nearly four decades as one of the most — arguably the single most — influential visionaries in technology, Steve Jobs was all about focus and eliminating distractions.

And his presence there would have been one hell of a distraction.

He was loved way, way too much and there were way, way too many people in that room who wanted to see how he was doing. His presence would have made everybody enormously happy, as it would have been a sign that maybe he had found a way out of what looked, from an outsider’s perspective, like an impossible situation. The product could have been an iPhone 8 that could unfold into a towel-sized multitouch display and then, when you’re done with your work, be flipped over and ridden home as a hoverboard and it would have made no difference.

The lead paragraph in every print and online piece would have been: “Steve was there.”

And now Steve is gone.

Right now, I’m thinking about the revolving door of CEOs at HP, and the revolving door of “revolutionary, game-changing projects” at Google. How un-Steve can you get? On an evening when most geeks are thinking about Steve Jobs, it’s impossible to imagine the concept of a tech company headed by someone who’s just in the gig for a few years of kicks and then an eight-figure buyout before they move on to whatever the next vacant seat is. It’s impossible to imagine a CEO who doesn’t feel passionately, with utter commitment about the company he runs. It’s impossible to imagine a company introducing a product that has every necessary component of success except the full, enthusiastic faith — bordering on arrogance — of a CEO who believes that this product or service will change the world and if the world isn’t on board with that truth right away, then this CEO has to just stick to his guns until the world catches up.

That’s what I think of when I think of Steve.

I think of the stories. Yes, the funny ones (grifting Woz out of his fair share of the fee Atari paid for creating the electronics for the “Breakout” game, parking in handicapped spots) but those are overcrowded by the stories I’ve heard about him from Apple employees who’ve worked with him directly.

Steve, freshly installed as the savior of Apple, calling all the staff from all of the teams that worked on all of the Apple products and projects that made no sense to him. There was yelling from his side of the auditorium and much cowering, anger and hurt feelings on the other side.

But all he really wanted was to locate the people who were just as focused and passionate as he was. One manager in particular stood his ground and went toe-to-toe and defended his project, point for point, with the same bluntness and force with which Steve had attacked it.

Steve was quiet for a second or two. “OK, then,” he said, nodding, and then he moved on to the next item on the list.

The story of the engineer who was scared green at the prospect of pitching an idea to Steve himself. He had prepared for this meeting as though he were defending a doctoral thesis in front of a board of proctors who had already announced a desire to have him killed. It was a very technical concept he needed to put across, and he had planned 15 to 20 minutes just to explain the discrete theory behind it.

Steve cut him off just a few minutes in, with a wave and a half-smile. “Yup, good . . . I get it.” And then he correctly extrapolated every direction the engineer was about to go with this and summarized the whole project in less than three sentences, far better than the engineer could have.

My own interactions with Steve were sorely limited and of no value to a memorial like this. But I was present when Steve encountered a book on an Apple product that he really, really liked. He got more and more excited with every random page he read. It’s as impossible to imagine Steve Jobs blowing smoke up a writer or publisher’s skirts as it is to imagine him eating a whole side of beef — Steve was a vegetarian — so this was genuine enthusiasm. It seemed so clear to me: When his team at Apple had created and built this software, Steve was terribly excited about what it could be and what it could mean to its users, and proud of the results.

His reaction to this book was that of someone who had once seen a UFO and had just now encountered someone who had seen the exact same thing. That was my clear impression: that he was energized by the knowledge that at least one other person had truly gotten what the company had been trying to achieve.

Some of you have no doubt noted my lack of personal pronouns in that story and wonder if I’m simply too modest to talk about how excited Steve Jobs was about one of my books. This is not the case (my modesty and the identity of the author). But I emailed the author and told him the story. He replied almost immediately and, given the circumstances, I can forgive him for writing two paragraphs in all-caps.

I think I can also confidently explain the author’s reaction. It’s true that if Steve Jobs thought your book was the most fantastic thing ever written, this would bode well for your chances of being given a prestigious endcap marketing space in every Apple Store.

But this couldn’t have mattered less to the author. Steve’s reaction was like your Dad telling you how proud he was of you and the work you’ve done.

Most of us who are old enough to have seen any of the original three “Star Wars” movies during their first theatrical run, and who are honest, will admit to having had that kind of wholly unreal relationship with Steve Jobs. Along with Steve Wozniak, he was one of the original Geeks Who Made Good. Like a father, he’s the grownup version of us, or at least an extremely encouraging sign that somebody could be a child with the most dreadful social handicaps (a desire to work, learn, read and explore) and still become a successful adult.

My most meaningful interaction with Steve was one that maybe never actually happened.

NeXT was Steve’s next big thing after Apple. It’s often named as his one failure, but was it, really? It’s true that NeXT computers are now museum pieces (and in many geek homes, end tables) rather than a going concern. But if you leaf through the brochure for the NeXT Cube, the company’s first computer, you see a catalog of all of the features that were unheard of in any computer in 1990 but would be standard equipment in every PC and Mac made five years later. And the OS that ran the NeXT Cube is fundamentally the same OS that runs every Mac today.

I desperately wanted one.

At the time, a NeXT Cube cost $6500.

At the time, I had made, I think, about as much as that throughout my lifetime. Or not much more, anyway. At that point, I had never had a real job.

So I did the only thing someone in my position could do: I wrote Steve Jobs a letter and asked him for one.

I explained that I was only a poor impoverished student. But I promised that if he just up and sent me a NeXT Cube, he would one day look back on his career and identify that decision as the one that really sent the company up to the next level of success. I closed the letter by citing a recent (extremely minor, enough to startle a sleeping dog but nothing more) earthquake in the Bay Area, and suggested that his insurance company would totally believe that a fissure had opened in the ground beneath NeXT’s warehouse, that a NeXT Cube had tumbled down to the earth’s core, beyond any hope of retrieval, and thus would probably even pay out the $6500 so it’d all work out even.

Two weeks later, I came home from school and my Mom idly said something that froze my feet to the kitchen floor.

“You got a call today.”

(Kids, this was when a family had only one phone and one phone number. And Mom was probably your voice mail.)

She continued. “Someone next? Next somebody? I couldn’t really understand. He asked for you, and then I asked if he wanted you or your father.”

(My Dad’s name was Andy, too.)

I instantly parsed it out: someone from NeXT — maybe even Steve himself; it was a small company at that time — had called this house.

Mom had already moved on to the next thing in her day and so her memory of the conversation wasn’t clear. What did he say? What did she tell him? Were they going to call back? What? What? WHAT?!?

She couldn’t really recall.

There was no follow-up call. In my worst nightmares, to this day, the caller was Steve Jobs and my Mom had given him the impression that the letter had been written by a deceptive engineer in his late forties with a wife and kids and not an impoverished student.

(I still can’t laugh about it.)

Still, it cheered me for days to think that something I wrote had been read, and responded to, by Steve Jobs.

I got older, and became a professional something, and my respect and love for Steve became (quite appropriately) professional.

Still: Yesterday, I lived in a world with a Steve Jobs in it. Tonight, I don’t. That’s truly how I feel right now.

We need people in technology with focus and passion who think ahead and see what’s possible, if only the right pieces can be pushed into place and clicked together. He wasn’t the guy at Apple who came up with those ideas, but he was the guy who created an environment that encouraged, even demanded, that kind of thinking, and the guy who would put the full might and authority of an enormous company behind you and your work if he thought you were right.

To adapt a line from “My Favorite Year”: “I need Steve Jobses as big as I can get them.”

The world can say the same.

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