The 4th (and final?) coming of Steve Jobs

As you regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know, I am fascinated by Steve Jobs. He is a main character in one chapter of my forthcoming book.

He is a man who is hard to like, impossible to hate and easy to admire. Complex, in a word.

And he is a man who has both lived and reflected on Kipling’s two impostors — ie, triumph and disaster. Oh, what ups and downs Jobs has known.

Now he has unveiled what may be the fourth device in his career (the first being the 1984 Mac, the second the iPod, and the third the iPhone) that fundamentally changes the way we live. It’s called the iPad.

This is not a review

Every tech and media blogger and journalist is right now weighing in on the iPad as a device, so I will not. We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, and my colleague Tom Standage adds context on his blog.

So let me just add some disparate and quirky observations.

1. Nobody imagines (and thus inspires) as Steve Jobs does

My Chinese mother-in-law, who only gave up dial-up internet when it ceased being offered as an option, wrote my wife the following email:

Subject: iPad

Is this the one I’ve been waiting for?

Now this is the Confucian equivalent of a gyrating pole dance. Steve Jobs has hereby cleared the highest hurdle in the excitement-generation industry.

How does he do this?

Jobs has always known how to imagine on our behalf. The truth is that people don’t know what they want (hence Henry Ford’s famous quip that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse’.) Jobs has the arrogance to understand that and to believe that he knows, and he tends to be right.

2. Nobody feints as Steve Jobs does

Two years ago, when Amazon brought out its Kindle eBook reader, Steve Jobs dropped all sorts of disparaging comments in such a way that he could be sure journalists would repeat the narrative on his behalf. For example, he said that

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

It was catchy because it rang true and caused many of us literati to hyperventilate about this dreadful trend (ie, people no longer reading).

But some of us guessed even then that Jobs in fact believed the exact opposite. And now we know. At the time he said it, he was 80% of the way into developing … his own eBook reader! For that’s what the iPad is, in part. It is Steve Jobs’ stab at reinventing buying and reading books as he once reinvented buying and listening to music.

Let us all pay extra attention to whatever he disparages next.

3. Even Steve Jobs feels his mortality

The man has been facing death for years now. He had pancreatic cancer. He had a liver transplant. He looks gaunt.

Could it be that this notorious perfectionist broke his own rules and accelerated the release of the iPad, launching it before it is really ready so that he could still be there for its birth, not only as father but also as midwife?

At the moment, the iPad is really a large iPod Touch — you can use only one app at a time, for example. Its trajectory, of course, points toward a time when it will indeed become a new “interface” for day-to-day computing. But I feel there is something half-baked about the release as it stands, by Jobs’ previous standards.

I also could not help but notice that Apple’s promotional video for the iPad does something uncharacteristic: It does not feature Steve Jobs, but instead highlights his lieutenants. They have, of course, been there all along, as ingredients of Apple’s secret sauce. But Jobs has never really displayed them, lest anybody might get the idea that he were grooming successors. The corporate message used to be that Jobs was Apple, and Jobs was forever.

Put differently, this may have been the beginning of a Good Bye. Viewed thus, it is especially moving.

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24 thoughts on “The 4th (and final?) coming of Steve Jobs

  1. I am old enough, and have been involved with computers long enough, to remember the Apple II and the Lisa (pre-dating the Mac and being a failure). Being a “nuts and bolts” type, I eschewed the Apple path in favor of CP/M and then to IBM and Microsoft. Apple is Jobs and Jobs is Apple. I believe that this pushing of his lieutenants is preparing the public for his successor. He left once before and started up NeXT computers in 1985. See It failed. So he is not unfamiliar with failure. Apple suffered when he left and, when his health problems interfered with his hands-on control of the company (whether real or perceived), Apple had problems. His return turned it around.

    Can it survive without Jobs? That is the question. Is Apple a kind of cult following? Is another question I think is important to ponder.

    At one time it was believed that innovators could produce a quality and desirable product but not run and expand a company. Jobs certainly proved them wrong. We can only speculate what will happen after Jobs retirement or demise.

    • Ah, yes, NeXT. In one of those twists of fate, it was bought by Apple, which brought Jobs back to Apple, and its code then became the foundation for today’s OS X.

    • Though I was not an Apple aficionado, I was intrigued by the NeXT. Apple thought it would be more successful than it was, I think, and saw it as competition for their market. The OS X system is just a Unix based system. I am a bit amused by the success and current extolling of Unix virtues (most of the credit should be given to Linus Torvalds who reverse engineered linux from it). Back in the early days of micros, Unix was derided. I worked with it (mostly as a user and an ad hoc shell programmer) in the 80’s and loved it. The story behind Unix is an interesting one.

  2. I once read that some day we may be able to “download ourselves to software and dispense with our physical bodies.” Perhaps the iPad is being released in half-baked condition because Mr. Jobs is busy working on that other project.

    • Have you ever read Frederik Pohl’s Heechee series? Also may be known as the Gateway series. It addresses this concept quite interestingly, I think. I mused about it at one time because it brings up questions like:

      What is “life?”

      What is the “soul” or “essence” of a person?

      If our bodies die but our entire personalities and memories are loaded into a computer system, are we alive and would we think of ourselves in the same way?

      I would certainly prefer this to the concept of cryogenics.

    • Blade Runner/i> and Freddie Mercury’s Who Wants to Live Forever come to mind

      there is a beautiful youtube video combining the two

    • 😦 that’s it.. no more italics for me.

      douglas, i would guess that mr. jobs would also prefer his essence be preserved in a series of ones and zeros rather than a frozen human popsicle.

      i would be content to be recycled in any way the cosmic compost heap sees fit. did anyone notice the automatically generated related posts? “Steve Jobs coming back?” or were the posts just the natural hannibal blog progression (“story > philosophy > science > metaphysics > back to story”)

      he will be missed.

    • I think we are just getting to the level of addressable memory needed. Actually, we may not yet be there. Then there’s the question of a program which would integrate the data and use it in the same way that the specific human being would. We have a tough enough time creating a rudimentary artifical intelligence. So many things to ponder. But, yes, I also think Jobs might be someone desiring such an environment… becoming One with the Machine. I sometimes think so would I. Not for the immortality possibility but for the experience itself.

    • I hope you’re right, but sometimes a vague outline of something does seem to appear in the mirror when I shave. Not sure what to make of it.

  3. Interesting plug, have Steve Jobs as a main character in one of your book chapter.

    Now, Steve Jobs has done a lot of great things for the computer industry. But for those brave investors who ride the roller coaster call AAPL, if this is indeed “the beginning of a Good Bye” for Steve Jobs, then they should be angry at the board again.

    The wonder how much legal liability the board of directors would and should assume if they, again, fail to disclose important health information about the CEO. In Apple’s case, Jobs’ health is absolutely material information for investor.

    P.S. the iPad version 2.0 or 3.0 may be a better bet. But then it really depends on what the person need to use the machine for and what are the options.

  4. I’m sceptical about the iPad because it will add too much complexity for us who are merely average, to handle.

    The iPad will be fine for geeks, though. There are enough of them (geeks) around, to create a large demand for the iPad. This could consequently force the makers of the currently simpler Kindles and Netbooks to make them as complex as the iPad, thereby making life impossible for us who are average.

    It behooves us who are average, to beware of geeks bearing gifts.

    • I’m not sceptical on THOSE grounds. That’s because I don’t think it’s complex. It’s basically a simpler, easier computer. You see something and you point your finger or drag. My kids already do that on the iPhone.

  5. I am concerned about Douglas’ statement about Apple folks possibly being a cult following.

    Now, those folks who followed Harold and Maude…that was a cult…

    • Have you ever tried to discuss computers with a Mac-head? I once had an argument over US Robotics lack of support for the Mac for USR’s external modem firmware. He was almost paranoid about it, accusing USR of being in league with the Devil (aka Bill Gates) and conspiring against Apple.

      Yeah, it’s a bit of a cult to me.

    • Heh, heh…my dad took me and my brother to watch Harold and Maude at a drive in movie. I don’t know what my dad thought of it. My brother drifted off to sleep after many hot dogs, a couple of hamburgers and some soda. I thought it was interesting, but the drive in was first and foremost a chance to eat all the junk food and buttered popcorn my parents could afford.

  6. I belong big-time (still thinking about kennings as I labor on this essay) to the non-cult. My office: 2 iMacs/ My home: 1 iMac My laptop: MacBook Pro and then there’s my iPhone…

  7. Well, I will certainly was for the next generation of iPads, and being a long time Intel/MS type (as businessmen often are), I am only now looking at the most basic of ipods as a way to transfer and to transport my huge CD collection. Still, I think it is an advance, and an advance that does recognize that a sizable portion of people in this world can and do read (and at least a small portion of them can read books in an electronic format). I think of it as a hopeful sign that literacy is not dead.

  8. I tried to run “If” on VBA for Word but it came up with a syntax error message – to many “Ifs” and not enough “Thens”

    The bit about minutes and seconds turns out to be a logical error, Douglas.

    At least Kipling new when to stop. That’s because his intelligence isn’t artificial, I suppose.

  9. Great stuff, and a good point about Jobs introducing us to his team. My wife, who never normally talks about this kind of stuff, took one look at the iPad coverage and said: “What are all these people complaining about? This is the future of computing.” She’s right. This is a machine geeks will buy for their grandmas.

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