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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