I saw the news of Steve Jobs' death on a device that he invented, the iPhone, and I'm writing on another machine that he willed into being: the graphical interface computer. Just like the touch-screen smart phone and the tablet computer, the PC that you and I use every day became ubiquitous thanks mainly to this one man.
Jobs, who quit college and was never trained in software or hardware engineering, lacked much of the formal expertise needed to power the computer revolution. He didn't make microchips go faster, he didn't invent optical storage drives, bitmapped graphics, cellular radios or even the mouse. If Jobs wasn't around, people like Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Michael Dell and Larry Page would have turned these technologies into computers, phones and music players.
But if Steve Jobs hadn't been around, what might that stuff have looked like? Think of the BlackBerry, the Palm Pilot, the Creative Nomad music player, or MS-DOS. These are all perfectly serviceable technologies, things that got the job done. But none of them was transcendent, and most were a pain to use.
More important, they all represented the logical, Darwinian end point of major technological trends. The BlackBerry is the obvious result of smaller processors, smaller screens and better cellular radios. If Research in Motion hadn't created it, someone else would have. The iPhone, though, was not an inevitability. The "Jesus phone" underlines Jobs' place at the head of this business. While every other company in tech has been shaped by the forces of technological evolution, with their products getting better as chips got faster and cheaper, Jobs had no patience for evolution. He was the intelligent designer.
Jobs' best talent was his ability to spot the pain points in every technology he touched. This became his standard formula for unveiling new products: He would begin by explaining what was awful about the industry he would soon supplant. Old-style smart phones? They were encumbered with buttons that were there whether you needed them or not, and that remained static for every application you used, leaving very little room for a screen.
Though Apple assigned his name to hundreds of patents, Jobs wasn't Apple's idea man. Rather, his role was to separate other people's great ideas from their terrible ones — and to refine the best ideas into workable products.
I've seen Jobs dozens of times as a reporter. I've gotten to ask him questions, and I've had a chance to see him chat up VIPs at product demo stations after he's unveiled something great. I've read pretty much everything written about him, and spoken to many people who've worked with him. Still, he's always been a mystery to me. I've never been able to understand just why he was at good at spotting and creating the best things in tech.
Last weekend my wife and I were taking a walk with our baby not far from downtown Palo Alto, and I realized that we weren't too far from Jobs' house. I'd only ever seen it from the car, so I wanted to see if we could get closer. Part of this was plain nosiness. But I was also curious to see if I could somehow get closer — to get some insight into some part of his world. We walked a bit out of our way, then turned a corner onto Jobs' street. There were some big guys who looked like security guards outside, as well as Jobs' license-plate-free silver Mercedes. We walked slowly past the house, but I wasn't feeling any closer to Jobs.
But I was going about it wrong. For decades, Jobs was nearly alone in the computer industry in his belief that it was better for users if a single company made every part of every device. In an age ruled by mediocre modularity — where one company makes your hardware, another makes your software, and another bundles ads and crapware onto the machine — Jobs saw electronics as an expression of a fierce, if inscrutable, artistic vision.
It's that vision that defined him, and perhaps it's only through the products his company made that we can ever hope to understand him. The major touchstones of the Jobs aesthetic are obvious — he believed in elegance and minimalism. When I look at my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook Air or the beautiful Apple keyboard that I'm typing on now, I see more of Jobs than I could have ever hoped to glimpse outside his house. These products came about because one man understood that machines didn't have to be the way they were. Steve Jobs didn't just want technology to change. He made it happen, and thanks to him the world is a much different, much better place.
© 2011 Slate