October 6, 2011
I am stunned by the news. I tend to be an optimist about things and I assumed Steve would recover.
It's only hours since the news broke and I'd guess more may have already been written, blogged, tweeted, and updated in tribute to Steve Jobs than perhaps to anyone else in modern times. But writing about Steve is more for the writer, than the reader, so I feel that I have to write. I'll make this inhumanly long so no one will ever read it.
We take for granted the geniuses that invented the world we live in -- a world of light and steel, energy and transportation, food and medicine, entertainment and communication, and of physics, biology, and chemistry -- as they have been outlived by their creations. My kids and grandkids won't remember Steve, but they will live in a world that he helped invent.
It was truly remarkable to grow up as Apple was growing up and it felt like I developed as it developed. It's hard to overstate how much of an impact Apple has had on my life. I'd like to remember Steve first by remembering my life with Apple.
First, I remember Space Invaders on the Apple II. Lemonade Stand, Oregon Trail, Pegasus. Then, programming in Basic. I remember those Apple IIs and their cool, plastic covers. Opening them up. Adding in memory chips. Plugging in colorful wires to floppy disk drives.
Our high school had us all read Orwell's 1984 and I remember the Superbowl commercial. It resonated on many levels.
I remember John Sculley, who had stopped selling sugar water to be CEO of Apple, coming to my high-school (his daughter was a student there), and showing us a slide show of the Mac and how it was made. Cool. I got one. Then the 512. And up and up. As soon as I had a Mac, I wrote all of my high-school papers on it and slaved over my college applications.
I was fortunate to get into Dartmouth -- a school of Macs -- where I spent far too much time playing Risk and Shufflepuck Cafe. I remember getting a HUGE 20MG hard drive. I remember seeing the first color Mac. I remember explaining what "BlitzMail" was to Robert Reich (cool to tell a future Secretary of Labor what email was -- I hope I was the first one). All my work, and a lot of my fun and my social life, went through that computer.
During a summer break I had a job in a real estate development firm and to track leads I built a FileMaker Pro database running on a Mac Portable. Apple won't be putting the Mac Portable on the top of their all time best product lists, but I loved it. It was a Mac.
The next fall, off for the term, I decided to start a company with a friend, Zack, as we had promised each other back in 7th grade that we'd do so. The logical thing to do: teach people how to use the Mac. Thus was born Computer Guides -- consulting, teaching, and classes in how to use the Mac, Excel, PowerPoint, PageMaker, and, of course, FileMaker Pro. We went back to our high-school, where Sculley had first showed us the Mac, and taught classes for parents who wanted to understand how to use these contraptions that their kids were so proficient in.
Back at college, more Blitz, more games, more papers done in Write and Paint, and then graduation. My graduation gift? A Mac. Quadra 950. A huge, beast of a Mac that drove a 21 inch color monitor.
My first month back home, in a house just off Sand Hill Road, I met Tony. He had just left Upside and wanted to start a newsletter about technology finance. He needed cheap labor. And a Mac. I could supply both -- and the Quadra 950 was the top of the line.
Zack joined in and we spent the better part of a year creating a magazine (we decided against the newsletter approach) with a silly name -- all on a Mac. There is not even a chance that we would have started a magazine like this, without any money, if it hadn't been for the Mac and the desktop publishing era it ushered in.
We didn't take it too seriously. Red Herring was going to be a short stint, we were sure, and something that would look good on a business school application. I never made it to business school.
To make money while we worked on the magazine, we went back again to our high-school and became teachers. Computer teachers. Teaching the Mac, and all the wonderful things it could do. Steve Jobs came by one day, checking out the school for his daughter Lisa. Zack and I met him and tried to tell him how important Macs were to the school. But our computer "lab" was, both literally and figuratively, in the basement. Mac should be everywhere, Steve said. Lisa decided to go elsewhere. That year we worked with the school to design a new computer curriculum and a new computer lab, moving it from the basement to the front of the school.
Red Herring launched while we were still teaching, in 1993, and my days and nights were thus spent in front of a Mac -- using FileMaker Pro for the subscription base, editing in Word, publishing and designing with QuarkExpress, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
We covered Apple and NeXT and Pixar. We interviewed Steve Jobs, the second chance I had to meet him, and declared "He's Back" prematurely. This was before he came back to Apple. I remember we asked him what was wrong with Microsoft. He said "They have no taste." What an odd thing to say. Tech people didn't care about taste, design, or style. Style matters for life, this was tech. Those things were separate. Tech cared about functionality and featrures, not design.
Meanwhile, Apple was struggling. I have to confess that frugality got the better of me and as our company grew into the hundreds, I moved away from Mac. Steve wasn't there and Apple wasn't as magical then. PCs did the same thing and were cheap.
Apple needed fixing and its leaders were getting it wrong. We had to speak up and in 1997 we wrote, in one of the pieces I'm proudest of, an open letter titled "Gil Amelio, Please Resign." I actually liked Amelio as a person -- he was very brave and gracious to meet with us after we published that letter -- but he was no Steve Jobs. A few months later he resigned (reportedly forced out by the board) and I seem to remember reports that pressure from the media was cited as a factor. I don't know how big of a straw that open letter was on that camel's back, but it was a straw nonetheless and perhaps -- just perhaps -- it really helped galvanize a growing sentiment that Amelio was just wrong for the job. He was replaced by Steve Jobs.
Steve told Apple, and then he told the world, to Think Different and thus emerged the "i" decade. iPod. iPhone. iTunes. iPad. My story with Apple this last decade is much like many others: the music, the fun, the games, the apps. The magic.
I got to see, but never speak to, Steve a couple times -- at announcements and conferences -- and every time he seemed even wiser and more insightful. Or had I simply fallen more under his spell?
Last year I went back to my high school and talked about technology -- and Apple. I'm convinced that iPads will transform education the way Macs, consigned to the basement, never could. iPads can be in your hands -- be in everyone's hands -- and they are much cheaper, much easier to use, and, most importantly, can call up text, video, and apps from around the world. It won't be long before every kid, by a certain age, has an iPad, and every teacher (well, the good ones) will use it in some way to transform how they educate, and every parent (well, the good ones) will use it to ensure their children, especially those whose schools are failing them, will be able to access a world of brilliant teaching, lesson plans, reference materials, Kahn academy videos, and whatever great innovations lie ahead from the millions of creative individuals who want to improve how we educate our children. In fact, it may be that the iPad will be the primary window into the worlds' best educators, courses, and apps while the role of parents, teachers, and schools change more in the next 10 years than they have in the last 100.
I feel so strongly about this that I bought our high school its first batch of iPads and am already thrilled by how they are being used. It was fitting to help bring a little Steve Jobs magic back to a school that helped bring that magic into my life. A school that first showed me the Mac and then brought me back to teach the Mac to expand the role it played on campus. A school that missed out on having Steve's oldest daughter attend but now has a student, using an iPad in an innovative pilot program, whose father changed the world forever and has now departed, leaving all of us to grow, create, and thrive in the world he invented: Steve Jobs.
I should end it there, but I won't. Because I feel that this creative genius has left a void. And I have a call to action: to myself and to everyone. We need to fill this void. Few, if any, will be able to match or exceed what Steve has done, but collectively, using much of the infrastructure Steve helped inspire and create, we can do it.
But will we? It's worth listening or reading Steve's 2005 Stanford commencement speech. He talks about life, about adversity, and about death. We see the brilliance of a man who didn't just overcome adversity but used it. He didn't wallow in self-pity. Adversity motivated him. Had he never dropped out of college because his parents couldn't afford the tuition, would he have started Apple in a garage? Had he not been fired from Apple and experienced "the lightness of being a beginner again," would the "i" decade have ever happened? Had he never been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, would we have the iPad?
Perhaps. But when adversity and character blend in extraordinary people, the world changes. We face adversity now -- Steve has left us. But do we have the character? Will this demoralize or motivate us? Is this the end of an era or the beginning of one?
I should also fight the urge to make broad social commentary, of the sort I usually recoil from when offered by others, but for some reason I just can't resist some sanctimony. To wit: have we lost our way? Why have we allowed Steve Jobs to out innovate all of us for three decades? Do we, as a society, have the character to confront adversity and use it as motivation, rather than use it as an excuse for our failures and justification for self pity?
Something alarming has happened to humans lately -- we haven't been innovating the way we used to. As dramatically as life has changed in the last 10, 20, even 30 years, it changed more quickly and more profoundly in the decades and centuries before Apple was founded -- when measured per capita. The Apple years, that is, have seen less innovation from people than any other 30 year period that came before it, going back centuries. Steve did his part. But the rest of us, as a whole, have not.
Why is this? I don't know. Some believe that the "low hanging fruit" has all been eaten -- land has been settled, society was industrialized, cheap energy was tapped, quick wins emerged as we figured out the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc. The big problems of energy, health, transportation, communication, et al. have all been been cracked, albeit not completely nor spread universally, and the big steps have been taken. We have nothing left to tap into. No more great leaps to take.
Maybe. But I'm not convinced we can see low hanging fruit when it is in front of us, so more may still lie ahead.
But are we looking for it? Society was obsessed through the ages with growth, building, prosperity, greatness, and conquest. Yet as we started eating, not jut picking, the low hanging fruit we began to spend more time contemplating the higher tiers of Maslow's pyramid. Societal progress isn't smooth and growth often brings periods of dislocation. Revolutions happen. Change is jarring. The 1960s galvanized an era in which we focused less on greatness and conquest and more on self-reflection, judgement, and improvement. Despite the fantastic improvements in the human condition that innovation ushered in over centuries, there have always been "stasists," as Virginia Postrel calls them, who have fretted more about the downside of growth and innovation than the advantages. Jeremy Rivkin was at the same event we organized at Dartmouth when I met Reich. I remember him pointing out that while the arms of a classic wristwatch moved, digital time pieces did not have moving parts, depriving us of a visceral sense of time -- of a connection to reality. A powerful metaphor. And drivel.
The 1960s were vital to our development and transformed our world for the better in many profound ways. But it also ushered in a new age of doubt and guilt: what had our new physics, new chemistry, new biology, and new medicines wrought? It took us millennia as a species, and countless geniuses, to achieve a relatively bountiful world of light and steel, energy and transportation, food and medicine, entertainment and communication, and of physics, biology, and chemistry. It has been our tireless quest, ever since we evolved a will and an intellect, to develop cheap energy, plentiful food, rapid transportation, low infant mortality rates, and long life expectancies. And just as we got them, we started worrying about them and what they were doing to us.
Over-population, GMOs, nuclear energy, pesticides, deforestation, ozone depletion, extinctions, acid rain, global warming, have (in the developed world) replaced hunger, want, deprivation, disease, and all sorts of corporal misery and physical trauma, as the beasts that society must slay. To fight these maladies, which some blame in part on growth and innovation, we developed anti-bodies that curbed growth and innovation and brought us a new mindset. We are now "destroying the planet" while most of our history as a species has been trying to stop the planet -- its animals, its bacteria, its storms, its ice ages and warming periods -- from destroying us. We haven't attacked the planet, we counter-attacked it. We survived! Then we surveyed. And now we sulk. We lament our "addiction" to oil. Suddenly, the boon of cheap energy, the ether of our prosperity, the manna that every generation before ours would have, literally, killed for, has become a villain, not a hero. Suddenly, instead of thinking about how big of an impact we can have on the planet, we focus on how small of an imprint we should make. Kids are taught in school to be "green" and leave small foot prints, not big ones. We don't want them to build big, bold things -- things that shape the planet and adapt it to our needs -- we want them to adapt to what the planet needs. We recycle. We reuse. We reduce. We repent.
Humanism is out. Naturalism is in. The planet doesn't work for us anymore, we work for it. Freeman Dyson, a genius, has been ridiculed and ostracized for suggesting that it should be the other way around.
We aren't focusing outward, upward, or even forward. We are focusing inward. Many of our tech inventors just spent a decade on "social" innovation and the new tech billionaires are people who help us connect, remember, get in touch, share, and, lord help us, tweet. This isn't about shaping the world, it's about hanging out in it. We innovate in virtual space and create new worlds, because real space is off limits. Real space people, who mine and drill the earth, who develop big buildings and use lots of energy, who burn things and build things and chop things down, are dirty at best and villains at worst. If they make a profit, it's a windfall. If they make too much money, it's unfair. They are to be resisted, regulated, protested, and taxed.
Meanwhile, how much time has been spent, or squandered, by talented young people who've decided that the best use of their energy, imagination, and intellect is to try, through facile pattern matching rather than true innovation, for a one in a million shot of becoming the next Marc Zuckerburg?
I think it's time for synthesis. I remember studying Hegel's dialectic at Dartmouth: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Let's accept the conservative thesis that prosperity through industry and innovation, not the leviathan, has delivered us from lives that were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Let's accept the progressive antithesis that this prosperity has had costs as well as benefits and has not been equally distributed. But then let's move beyond conservative and progressive and move to synthesis: unleash the power of innovation and the forces of prosperity and point them at real problems. Prosperity hasn't created the our problems, it just hasn't fixed them all -- yet.
Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. He focused on big problems and developed bold and brilliant solutions. He figured out what we needed before we knew we needed it. He bent the world to his will and he left a big footprint. Confronted with adversity, he was the Atlas that didn't shrug. He told those graduating Stanford students: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
The first wave of the Internet was built on the personal computing infrastructure he created. That dot com boom built the infrastructure -- the access, the browsers, the search, the stores, the software, the servers, the networking equipment -- upon which the second wave, Web 2.0, was built. This social wave, combined with the new accessibility of Steve's "i" decade -- devices that are easy to use, touchable, mobile, and full of music, movies, and apps -- has created a whole new foundation for us to build on and new materials to build things with. We shouldn't ridicule the world of nearly 8 million people following @aplusk or millions more playing Angry Birds. It helped build these platforms.
But for the third wave, let's be bolder. Let's be more audacious. Let's build on this foundation and try to change the world. For real. Let's confront the adversity of a world without Steve and let it motivate us, not demoralize us. Let's rally to the cause and following his example let's fill the void he's left -- and then some. Let's not wallow in guilt about the state of the planet nor deny the damage that is being done -- let's set ourselves to making things better through our creativity and industry. Let's not waste time with small permutations on other people's big ideas. Instead, let's resist dogma and have the courage to follow our heart and intuition. Let's be hungry. And foolish.
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