Goodbye to a visionary: How Steve Jobs industrialised cool
Rarely has a company been so synonymous with its boss, but then, Apple is no ordinary company. Long-time accolyte Michael Bywater pays tribute to Steve Jobs, the man whose products changed the way we all live
Friday 26 August 2011
What could be duller than a question of business succession? One identikit CEO gets away with it for a certain number of years, then gets bored, is manoeuvred out or sells out or gets out one step ahead of the Fraud Squad and is replaced by another cookie-cutter suit brought in from a mystifyingly unrelated business.
"He's a biscuit guy," we mutter to ourselves, "what does he know about hydraulics?" and then we turn the page and move on.
But sometimes things are different. The news that Steve Jobs had "abruptly" resigned as CEO of Apple, Inc. is particularly different. People who have no interest in computers or the Californian high-tech industry will find themselves interested in this.
And there will be nerves. Nerves in Clerkenwell design studios as sleek young women in thin black dresses and scruffy young men in thick black spectacles stare at the elegant vast screens of their iMacs and wonder if this is perhaps the beginning of the end. In a thousand Starbucks in a thousand towns, MacBook Airs open in front of them, those damn Moleskine notebooks to one side, a coffee made mostly of adjectives on the other and a screenplay to which not one line has been added since last October on the screen, inept men will contemplate the unthinkable horror of having to pretend they're a scriptwriter by cracking open a corporate-drone Dell and wonder how they're going to pick up girls then (ignoring the fact that their sleek Air isn't helping them pick up girls now.)
Nor is it just computers. Millions of iPhone users will be fondling their mobiles, calculating how to afford this autumn's scheduled iPhone 5 because, who knows, maybe this one will be the end of the road.
The electively isolated, buds crammed in ears, will fret about the next iPod: will it be nasty? Will it have an ugly design, unnecessary buttons, actual knobs? Will this be the moment that, up in the windswept technology graveyard, a reek, a tuneless groan and a muddy shifting of the earth from below announces the resurrection of the Brown Zune: Microsoft's attempt to compete with the iPod, which instead turned out to be a decisive demonstration on how not to be cool. iPad users will see a line of better and better and cooler and cooler iPads yet unborn, stretching out to the crack of doom, now condemned to languish forever in the half-world of the unbegotten.
Bollocks, of course, all of it. Or most of it, anyway. But that is how Apple users think. The corporate logo is said to be the most immediately identifiable in the world. Its Apple Stores set the standard for retail design: a form of clean, minimalism which, in direct opposition to the horrors of PC World, announce not just exquisite good taste, but surplus. The rarest urban surplus of all: space. An Apple Store is 90 per cent empty air. High ceilings, glass staircases, white walls. It mimics the flat, affectless surface of Apple products, cool and smooth as a snake. And the oddest thing of all is that this cool, this elegance, isn't something grafted on to an otherwise indistinguishable product line by not-so-clever-as-they-think-they-are marketing people, but something which is driven by the products themselves. The "values" which Apple fans believe themselves to be buying are the actual values of the stuff. Compare that to the frantic gesticulating, beeping, flashing horrors of their competitors, the cheap plastic "trim", the unnecessary "controls" and the slather of stickers and Steve Jobs's achievement becomes clear.
He has managed to industrialise cool. It's not just a technological feat, but a conceptual one.
Cool, by its very nature, is something which it should not be possible to mass-produce. But he's managed it. Managed it, it's true, with the efforts of one of the finest industrial designers of all time, the – hurrah! – Englishman, Jonathan Ive. With the intellectual labour of imaginative, resourceful software and hardware architects. With one of the most tightly-controlled marketing and PR operations in history. And with an eye for graphic design as meticulous in execution (though the precise opposite in execution) as the Book of Kells.
"But, hell," you might say, "that's a team effort. It's a corporation, even if earlier this year it became the world's most valuable corporation; even if, a few weeks ago, it was revealed that Apple had more cash in hand than the United States of America. Just a corporation – and Jobs is just its CEO."
Which would be to miss the point. Apple is a corporation in the way that the Berlin Philharmonic is a corporation: a great and superbly skilled machine moving in close formation under the control and direction of a great conductor. Jobs is to Apple what Herbert von Karajan was to the Berlin Philharmonic, or, to shift genres a touch, what Steve Gadd was to Paul Simon, or Stewart Copeland to The Police. A great drummer or a great conductor does more than mark the beat. He (yes, yes, or she, but there haven't been any yet) informs every aspect of the performance. Imagine, if you're old enough, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Ted Heat; play, in your mind's ear, "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover", but with Phil Collins on drums. It's not just a backbeat here, a 14" Zildjian hi-hat there. It's an entire ethos.
Comparisons to Steve Jobs are, by their nature, hyperbolic. You might think of him like J S Bach, not an actual inventor of anything in particular, more a picker-up of unconsidered trifles which he then refines into something both functionally advanced and elegantly simple. You could think of him as a technophiliac Keats, asserting that truth is beauty and beauty, truth. Here I am sitting on a balcony in Los Angeles, looking south in the sunshine; Beverly Hills below me to the right, downtown LA to the left, writing about Oscar Wilde on my two-week-old MacBook Air and feeling myself a fine fellow in every respect; and so it occurs to me that Jobs is in some ways a sort of Oscar Wilde of IT: one who is obsessed unapologetically with the surface of things; with form and wit and style.
Which is, of course, what infuriates a subculture of IT professionals (some) and malcontents who have intense relationships with their (often home-brewed) Windows PCs and like to denounce Apple users as "fanbois" (apparently easier to spell than "fanboys"); gulls and dupes suckered in to the faux-stylish world of Jobs and Apple. These odd creatures get genuinely enraged by the whole concept of a computer, or anything computer-based, being elegant.
The simple brushed aluminium, the elegant typography, the clean, almost surgical lines and, above all, the carefully thought-through elegance of the Apple interfaces, infuriate them. The nearest thing would be those die-hard old bikers in the 1960s – head-to-toe road rash, an exhaust-burn on one leg and a permanent oil stain on the other – who passionately denounced the arrival of the new Japanese motorcycles, which did terribly un-motorcycle-ish things like starting first time and not leaking and staying upright on bends.
It wasn't proper biking; and in the same way, Apple, which didn't bend your ear with stupidly incomprehensible error messages, or crash, or have a talking paperclip asking you silly questions, was not proper computing.
I first met Jobs in 1983, when Apple was producing the revolutionary but ill-fated Lisa computer. It's hard now to see how astonishing it was, with its windows, its mouse, its black-on-white screen. Driven by icons, with applications that actually worked together and the first WYSIWYG word-processor I'd ever seen, it was hideously expensive, quite impractical and extraordinarily wonderful – or, in the phrase Jobs became irrevocably associated with: "Insanely great". Even more insanely great, although also even more insanely useless, was the Macintosh, launched the next year.
Stephen Fry says – and I think he's right – that he had the first one in Britain. Douglas Adams certainly had the second, which he brought back from the USA and which needed a transformer slightly heavier than the machine itself.
But though I may have been third, mine was actually given to me by Steve Jobs, personally, in its little canvas bag, to pretend it was a portable. He signed it with a Sharpie in the Red Fort restaurant in Soho. I suppose I should have kept it. There are mad people who pay lots of money for such things.
But what I remember most clearly was not being presented with this odd little computer, with which I instantly fell in love, but something Steve said over lunch.
We were talking about computers and computing and he said: "I wanted the Mac to be an appliance. Like a toaster or whatever. People don't want to do computing. They want to do stuff."
That's the policy that, I think, made Apple what it is. When, in a grim interregnum which saw Jobs booted out by the rather awful John Sculley (whom he had hired and who, with the usual prescience of such people, the Board told to "contain" Steve Jobs) the company got into computing with a perplexing and mad range of different computers and nearly went under for good.
It was Jobs's return and the launch of the first candy-coloured iMac all-in-one machine – a computer which looked less like a computer than any computer before it – that set the company on its road to recovery. It was also the first device with the "i-" prefix; and, like it or loathe it, for a company to in effect trademark a single letter – i™ – is, in itself, something of an achievement.
It's not been without bloodshed and rows. Jobs is a perfectionist and always has been. He's also an immensely territorial man, back to the early 1980s when, seeing the Lisa's problems, he then "poached" the Mac from Jeff Raskin's development group in the company.
But are the Clerkenwell set and the coffee-shop screenwriters and those of us who would rather go back to a typewriter than work with the unspeakable ugliness of Windows, an operating system which inflicts the most execrable taste daily on millions of its users and which cannot (unlike Apple) make the distinction between simplicity and infantilism... are we right to worry? Can Apple be the same without Steve Jobs? The company says the roadmap is clear. But the roadmap only reaches maybe three years into the future. What then? If the calendar and address book apps on my Air are anything to go by – with their silly, ugly fake-fake-leather trim and naff page-turning animations – the unique elegance which characterises everything Jobs has done since his return to Apple may possibly not survive. We'll see.
All I can say is, along with millions of other users, Jobs' role as maestro and his brilliant orchestra of designers and engineers have made my working days infinitely more enjoyable than they would otherwise have been. Every time I sit down at my computer, I am aware of its beauty, as a piece of engineering and of design. It's quite a legacy from a guy who started in a garage.
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