The first time Steve Jobs amazed and delighted me was in 1979, when I was about 10 years old. My dad had just bought our very first computer—the Apple II, complete with a whopping 48 kilobytes of memory—and my parents and I sat and gawked at this beautiful beige thing, which we’d hooked up to our old black-and-white TV.
We didn’t have a modem or even a disk drive for loading programs, although my dad would eventually spring for the $600 Apple Disk II floppy drive, designed by a scrappy young fellow named Steve Wozniak. Instead, we used cassette tapes, which we played on a standard cassette player plugged into the Apple II’s green circuit board.
Primitive? You bet, but mesmerizing, especially once we’d managed (after painstakingly adjusting the tape player’s volume and pitch dials) to load a text-only game called “Apple Trek.” My dad, meanwhile, was thrilled by a new business program for the Apple II called VisiCalc—the very first spreadsheet program, as it turned out.
I remember long, glorious summers at home, split more or less evenly between doing cannonballs into the pool and darting back into my dad’s office, swimsuit still damp, to tinker on the Apple II’s keyboard. Yeah, it was life-changing, all right.
Now, keep in mind that in the pre-Apple days, most people were still afraid of computers. Remember the murderous HAL 9000 and his piercing red eye from the movie “2001”? That was the prevailing image of computers, even in the late 1970s.
But the soothing, molded-plastic Apple II was friendly and inviting; heck, you could even pop off the lid and look inside, no screwdriver required. By thinking about users rather than focusing on, say, market share or bulleted lists of features, Apple managed to push those frightening images of HAL and his malevolent red eye into history. For the first time, it felt like we owned the computers, rather than the computers owning us.
Steve Jobs, who resigned as CEO of Apple on Wednesday, didn’t build the Apple II alone, of course; his co-founder Steve Wozniak, among dozens of other engineers, toiled night and day to make the Apple II a reality.
But while he presided over Apple, Jobs managed to unveil a remarkable string of hits—some that changed categories, and others that created new ones. The Macintosh. The iPod. iTunes. The iPhone. The iPad.
Yes, there had been, say, MP3 players before the iPod came around. But the first crude MP3 players—like the first so-called “kit” computers before them—felt like they’d been made for engineers. The friendly, ice-white iPod with its spinning wheel was made for people. Same with the iPhone, and its jaw-dropping touchscreen—made for your finger, not a stylus.
Jobs doesn’t just have an unmatched sense of design. He’s also a master showman. “Look at that—isn’t that cool?” he’ll say over and over during product demos, and even jaded, hardened tech reporters (including, yes, this one) find themselves nodding in approval.
Jobs is also known as an obsessive, sometimes pitiless taskmaster, building up his troops with cult-like zeal one minute only to tear them to pieces the next.
His powers of persuasion—and derision—are the stuff of legend. He lured the high-flying CEO of Pepsi, John Sculley, to Apple with the famous line, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” Then he’d plop his bare feet on a desk while grilling nervous job candidates, only to dismiss them after firing off a vague question or two. Or so the stories go.
And yes, Jobs saw his fair share of failures. Remember the Apple III? Probably not. Same goes for the Lisa, the Cube, the iPod HiFi.
But I don’t know any other CEO whose gadgets changed the world—or my world, anyway—at least six times, or who managed to turn product demos into thrilling theater, or who inspired such adoration … and jet-black hatred.
Jobs is one of a kind. Apple will go on without him, as will the rest of the tech world. But it’ll never be the same as when he manned the bridge.
P.S: If you haven’t already, check out the wildly entertaining “Pirates of Silicon Valley,” a 1999 made-for-TV movie about the early rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Great stuff (and yes, it’s on YouTube).