The views expressed are his own.
One day in 1991, when I was working as the Silicon Valley correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, I picked up the phone at my girlfriend’s apartment and was greeted by a soft, friendly voice: “Hey Jonathan, it’s Steve. Steve Jobs.” He wanted something from me — I don’t remember what — and he couldn’t have been nicer.
The next time I saw him, a few weeks later, he no longer needed something, and he couldn’t have been more unpleasant. If found his arrogance, and especially his skills as a master manipulator, to be very off-putting, and it took me a while to realize that to pay attention to these aspects of his personality was to completely miss the point about his brilliance.
Technology, for most people, is often experienced as a cold and distant thing, inhuman in every sense. Jobs, uniquely, brought heat and emotion to the technology world; he proved to be the one and only person who could create technology products that people love. His persona, in all its complexities, was entirely in the service of that. No one spontaneously lays wreaths and burns candles at the death of a businessman, except when it’s the exceedingly rare one that has actually touched their hearts.
Love is definitely the right word. Jobs’ product announcements were always been akin to revival meetings, with his disciples cheering every gesture, every word. If you stop someone on the street — me, even — and ask them how they like their iPhone, they’re likely to gush “I love it.” The iPad, a $500 item no one desperately needs, sold more than 9 million units in the second quarter; in the consumer products business, that’s love.
The downside of love is that its emotional power can be dangerous. Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field,” the super-salesman’s ability to convince you of something that, when you take a step back, simply isn’t true.
Love can have that effect too, if you think about it. And in a business environment, that can be a strange thing.
Jobs actually learned that lesson early on, when, shortly before being pushed out of the company he founded, he raised a pirate flag over the Macintosh division at Apple to signal his contempt for the corporate bosses. He and his followers loved the Macintosh, and what it could be (the first personal computer for the rest of us) — and that passion landed them on the street.
Jobs was ultimately able to harness those emotions to create an extraordinarily innovative and effective organization, even as he persuaded swooning customers to buy lots of his products. But it does point to the immense challenges facing a post-Jobs Apple. “Apple is a cult, not a company,” one frustrated former CEO told me many years ago. “It’s always been that way.”
Yet Jobs’ most impressive achievement was to spread the love – beyond the company insiders and committed cult followers who would stick with Apple products no matter what. The biggest test of his legacy will be whether his successors can instill the same passion, both inside and outside the company. Meanwhile, as we mourn his death, we can only say, we love you Steve, for everything you’ve given us.
This essay is adapted from one that appeared in the Bay Citizen when Jobs resigned his CEO position in August.