I am fascinated and mystified by the hagiography of Steve Jobs that is flooding the press these days. I have never understood the fanatical loyalty and hysterical excitement that his products generated in his fans, but now I am starting to get the idea. Not that I am a convert – so appropriate that that cult-based word is used over and over – but I am starting to understand a bit what it was all about.
There are many things being said about Jobs – that he changed the human condition more than any person in the last fifty years; comparisons with Leonardo and Edison that strike me as absurd; that he invented this, that, and the other thing which he most certainly did not invent – but leave that aside. The man was brilliant at marketing, at product design, at keeping his pulse on the finger of popular culture, and at seeing the long-term arc of technological development while the more earthbound around him simply saw the next technological problem to address. But, that doesn’t explain the sense that a prophet has passed from the scene.
The analogies that come to mind are the great fashion houses and Elvis. Clothes are objects of utility, but fashion makes them objects of desire. The fanatical loyalty of Apple buyers reminds me of how people talk about their favorite fashion designers and brands. Such intense, intimate, and personal commitment to a manufacturer! Bono, of U2, was also touching on something important when he referred to Jobs as the Elvis of software and hardware. Whaa? Jobs was a charismatic, messianic, prophetic figure in the sense that Elvis was. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, then talk to some Elvis fans. The point is not that I share this feeling, but that is the role he played. And to find that niche by manufacturing digital appliances, well, that’s a pretty tall order.
In some columns in the NYTimes, there were more balanced appreciations of Jobs’ talents, and some cranky readers tried to puncture the bubble that everyone else is inflating with some common sense. They also offered insight to what drove him, including this comment on Microsoft: “They have no taste. They don’t even try!” It just so happens that I was sitting yesterday in a conference room, staring at a large flat-screen monitor displaying the new Windows 7 logo.
It struck me that it was silly – the butterflies, the trees, the rainbow, sort of corporate kitsch. And when I read that comment by Jobs I thought, he’s right ! So Microsoft made the PC a household item, but Jobs made style a desideratum of personal computing. People were willing to pay nearly double for the design premium and the style. And it wasn’t just superficial design, they really were easier to use, for most people. For engineers like me, they just seem like a waste of money.
Some writers have asked whether there will ever be another Jobs? One commenter responded:
I am getting so fed up with this treacle. Nothing against Steve Jobs…it’s just plain silly to say that there will never be another like him. There have been plenty like him — Akito Morita of Sony, say, another manager with a nose for elegant, innovative products.
Remember the seismic impact of the Sony Walkman? It was huge. Another wondered if the Apple success story would carry on without his driven, dictatorial, dogmatic, visionary brilliance, or, sadly, if Apple would be regarded in future generations as a special moment in technological design history that had no sequel. Personally, I’d bet on the latter. The odds, the economics, the technology, and even the culture – it changes always – are against it. I imagine that Apple products may come to be regarded with the same delighted awe with which I look at Bugattis and Ferraris of yesteryear. They don’t make ’em like that today, and they made darn few like that then.