Thoughts On The Passing Of Steve Jobs

I’d not intended to write about the passing of Steve Jobs this week, but I found that I had more to say than I’d realized.

As someone who used an Apple II during my elementary and junior high school years, Apple holds a nostalgic corner of my heart. In the 1990s, I evolved into more of a PC user, while Apple languished through years of mediocre products.  Although PCs were often more challenging to use, they were the only real option in the high-end computer gaming market that interested me at the time.

In recent years though, I came to admire the ascent that Mr. Jobs engineered upon his return to Apple. I’ve owned a few of the revolutionary products that Apple introduced during that time and I benefit daily from their use.

One element in the news coverage around the passing of Mr. Jobs that is getting only a footnote of attention though is the fascinating relationship between Mr. Jobs and Bill Gates.

Apple fanatics like to forget that Mr. Gates largely saved Apple from bankruptcy in 1997 by both providing a cash investment and also publicly standing by the Macintosh platform with Microsoft Office.  At the time, Mr. Jobs had just returned to Apple and he asked Microsoft for help; Mr. Gates delivered.   Awkward footage of Mr. Gates appearing remotely on a giant projection screen at a Macworld keynote to announce his commitment is readily available. The appearance by Mr. Gates at that event led to audible gasps – and some crying or boos – in the crowd.

As shocking as that turn might have seemed, many people forgot that, by that point, the two men had been ‘frenemies’ for a solid twenty years. Both men had been born in the same year and both first interacted amid the budding personal computer culture of the late-1970s. Their paths seemed forever linked, as each tried to best the other for domination of the technical landscape. By the mid-1990s, Mr. Gates appeared to have ‘won’ handily, as Mr. Jobs seemed destined to be someone whose difficult personality had undermined what should have been a brilliant career.

Yet, while Mr. Jobs’ personal wealth never came close to that of Mr. Gates – $8 Billion at Mr. Jobs’ death vs. $56 Billion at present for Mr. Gates – I have to wonder if Mr. Gates isn’t sitting somewhere feeling that Mr. Jobs ultimately ‘won.’

When Mr. Gates dies someday, it is difficult to imagine that there will be the same public outpouring of grief. The last grand move by Mr. Gates was re-energizing Microsoft around the internet in the mid-to-late-1990s. That was a bold move for sure, but it was also his last significant action within the technology industry.  Nearly ten years before the iPad debuted, Mr. Gates trumpeted the idea of tablet computing in 2001 as ‘the next big thing,’ but the product that they introduced at that time never took off for Microsoft.

It has been well-known that both, publically and privately, Mr. Gates and Mr. Jobs were somewhat catty with one another.  Yet, these disputes seemed to be in an almost-brotherly, familiar sort of way. The rivals, having known one another for so long, had very different ideas about what computers should be. And both thought themselves the smarter man.

That said, it seems unlikely that Mr. Gates will be inspired to do his own second act, like Mr. Jobs did. Mr. Gates was never pushed out at Microsoft and he wouldn’t have the same fire inside to return for redemption like Mr. Jobs did at Apple. Perhaps the money that Mr. Gates amassed while at Microsoft will end up doing some world-changing good.  He certainly has extensive charitable ambitions and that may end up being his second act, more than anything.

As a visionary though, it is doubtful that Mr. Gates will be making any new, game-changing contributions to the technology industry. A friend brought up Mr. Gates’ book “The Road Ahead” as being his visionary manifesto, but we were both disturbed to realize that that book had been published back in 1996, just after Mr. Gates proclaimed his focus on the internet for Microsoft. Other than that push for tablet computing a few years later, Mr. Gates has not been in the spotlight with big technical ideas for a long time now.

Thus, as much as I mourn for the loss of one great man, part of me mourns most for the void that Mr. Jobs leaves behind. It frustrates me that neither he nor Mr. Gates appear to have groomed someone to succeed them. They left behind no young upstart waiting in the wings at their respective companies. Perhaps neither’s ego could handle the idea of that upstart eclipsing them or, perhaps, there simply was no one of comparable talent available to groom. Unfortunately, as a person who has had a lifelong passion for new technologies, the result is that it feels like one of the main facets of innovation in the world was just turned off.

Walter Isaacson’s official biography on Mr. Jobs was moved up again this week – originally from March to November and now to October 24th. It should be a great read. There’s talk that the book will contain a sketch of what Mr. Jobs saw as the roadmap for technology in the future – one last gift, if you will. Mr. Jobs appears on the cover of Time Magazine for a seventh time this week and Mr. Isaacson wrote the lead story, relating how Mr. Jobs came to him in 2004 with the idea of finally opening up for a book about his life. Mr. Jobs’ reason? He’d not been around enough for his children and he wanted to provide an account of his life for them, so that they could understand what he’d worked so hard to accomplish.

There’s something sad and tragic about that reasoning. Mr. Jobs had spent the past thirty-five year of his professional life crawling up the metaphorical mountain and, right when he got to its peak, his life was snuffed out. He even seemed cognizant of the looming tragedy of it all and, while having death hanging over him, pushed hard to complete his legacy.

Mr. Isaacson mentioned visiting Mr. Jobs this past summer and remarked that he was curled up in pain, but still animated in mind and spirit. That’s a tough mental image just the same, sobering to consider. Can we criticize Mr. Jobs for neglecting everything for the sake of his vision(s)? Perhaps, but I’d like to think that someone that talented was put on the Earth to make use of that talent. To paraphrase Spock (who paraphrased John 11:49-50 and Aristotle), was the good of the many – all of society – more important than the good of the few – Mr. Jobs’ family?  One has to wonder, to what extent, Mr. Jobs regretted certain decisions or, in some way, never got to live the full human experience that he’d wanted. Those are fascinating thoughts to consider and I hope that the final words from Mr. Jobs give us some further insights or answers.

 


Gates, William H., Nathan Myhrvold, and Peter Rinearson. The Road Ahead. Viking, 1995. Print.
Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. First ed. Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

 

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