Insanely Great

I’m sad today. I knew Steve Jobs was very ill but somehow I thought he’d pull another rabbit out of the hat. I’d been getting mixed signals from my SiVal sources, some saying he looked terrible and some saying he looked good, real good, and was just recharging his batteries.

Steve Jobs is one of my all-time heroes and I don’t have a lot of those. Obviously it’s sad he was taken so young despite such heroic accomplishments, but part of me also mourns the loss of a brief, shining exception to the truly terrible world in which I used to dwell. The world of consumer electronics is overwhelmingly peopled by utter human filth, and in fact the worse of a person you are the greater heights you tend to climb in CE.

But Jobs was different. One in a trillion. Even though he left Apple in extremely capable hands, let’s not kid ourselves. It won’t be the same. (Yes, that means sell all your AAPL, now, right this instant. Thank you.) Apple may still dominate hearts and minds and wallets but in many ways it was the knowledge that Steve was there obsessing over the details until he was ready to release products that instilled such confidence in the people who bought the stuff he created.

There are plenty of big brains left at Apple and maybe someone will rise up and be the dick at the end of the day who risks missing a 100mil holiday season because he doesn’t like the way the mute button protrudes. I want to be optimistic but it is a sad day and I feel the world lost something a lot bigger than just a guy who sold iPods. It lost one of the very damn few titans of industry that actually thinks, believes, and says genuinely, meaningfully humanistic things that indicate he or she is somehow, despite the exorbitant wealth, a Good Person, or even Great. The kind of leader capable of stepping outside the public message points that feed his whole corporate flow and pleases his directors and stockholders and absolutely nobody else. The kind of leader who somehow got there and became an even better and more inspiring person.

How many people do you know like that in public life?

When my sister graduated from Duke the commencement speaker was former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. His speech was steel-cut template, as canned as the corn he so legendarily fed upon as a small boy with preternaturally good hair and trustworthy mien. Open with self-deprecating joke, name drop university poobahs, fabricate hardscrabble upbringing and yes even mention the Greatest Generation if you’ve got a coffee table book coming out for the holidays, acknowledge the difficulties that await those who will soon enter the workforce of tending to the tedious tasks of the speaker’s life while he skis in Aspen, bring it all back home by telling graduates they too can be a Greatest Generation if they just go out there and do lots of great things, wave like an astronaut riding in the back of a parade Buick, collect the check, make brief appearance at private reception at college president’s home, tell car service to floor it back to the private airstrip while yelling in the back seat “Fuck it I don’t care how much they pay me I’m never doing one of the fucking things again I don’t care HOW many of my kids are graduating!!” It was the same $45K speech you heard at corporate retreats, AARP conventions, and local Rotary Club meetings in pancake restaurants all over the Midwest. It is, as they say, good work if you can get it.

I dredge up T-Braw because he typifies what most celebrities do when asked to come deliver a commencement speech. They smile the winner’s smile and Phone It In. The phony message of universal greatness possibility that they themselves clearly don’t believe at all except as useful canned auto-palaver for ginning up future peons and pool cleaners and lift chair operators and town car drivers.

Here’s Steve Jobs’s famous 2005 commencent speech at Stanford.

See if you can tell the difference.

The comparisons to great figures of the past have been flying fast and furious in the last 24 hours since reports of his passing. Edison, Lennon, Tony Stark, Newton. Whatever. I hate when people rush to be the first to bleat “He was our generation’s _______!!” I remember when Kurt Cobain actually blew his mind out with a gun and Kurt Loder gravely intoned on MTV News that Cobain was “this generation’s John Lennon.” No he wasn’t. Look, I like Nirvana, but let’s be real here. Kid was talented, could do a mean rewrite of Boston. But by no stretch of the imagination was he a John Lennon.

And Steve Jobs wasn’t either. He didn’t peak in his 20s and live on as an increasingly uninspiring figure generating lightweight irrelevance even his diehard fans had to choke back and keep telling themselves “Just Like Starting Over” was just as brain cleaving as “Strawberry Fields”. Jobs kept hitting them out of the park and then hitting them even farther and farther nearly every at bat until his last game where he somehow hit a grandslam with more than 3 men on base which is theoretically impossible but look it up in the record books it’s all there.

Forget MacIntosh. The iPod and the iTunes Music Store are lifetime achievements on so grand a scale as to be unthinkable for most tech luminaries, who would’ve ridden that one hit out for the rest of their career as the guy who did that one thing once. So what does Jobs do? Boom. iPhone. And as if that whole mobile-phone-industry’s-heart-pulled-out-of-its-chest-while-still-beating wasn’t enough, a few years later Steve Jobs delivered, at the very end of his life, his Pieta.

Only a couple of years ago “tablet” was PC-speak for dog shit. A horrendous million-dollar mistake never to be repeated by anyone who wanted to stay alive in CE. A failed concept given a half-hearted try by a few brands like Toshiba (remember them? They used to make computers, and now they’re mostly a RAM supplier for Apple). Tablet PCs were low-end laptops with swiveling EZ-break plastic hinges for people who wanted to scratch up their soft LCD laptop screens with little plastic sticks. Bill Gates got up at a CES launch to declare The Year Of The Tablet with a Windows Tablet Edition laptop he clearly had just been handed by some Dell rep right before he got onstage and it was like he was trying to make orange juice with a toilet brush. Tablets died as fast as they appeared and the category became a cautionary tale never to be spoken of again if you wanted a job in CE.

So of course Steve Jobs invents the iPad blah blah blah. The Jobsian cycle of everyone else taking crappy stabs at a concept and then Apple with its first try not only creates the one magical product everyone in the world must own and in multiples if possible but so dominates the category that nothing else can be reasonably considered a legitimate rival.

Look, I like competition. It spurs companies to greater heights, heights they wouldn’t normally have achieved without the fear of being beaten by someone else. But clearly Apple never needed a rival to smack its nuts till it ran faster than a horse should technically be able to for a quarter mile. It had Steve Jobs.

And that’s what’s left as the Big ? hanging over Apple now. Everyone, even little kids not even in pre-K yet, knows Tim Cook has been the real CEO for years, is the reason Apple’s trains run on time, both out of the Apple Stores and into the Chinese factories that need more more more aluminum shells, static RAM, and LED backlit IPS, is a genuine genius and not just some interchangeable SilVal execubrity like Meg Whitman or Jon Rubinstein or Dabney Coleman or Garrett Morris. Cook’s the real deal, the reason I’m sitting on my Apple stock with lead weights in my Man-Spanx.

But is Cook a nut smacker? Will he walk up to Jonny Ive and literally whack him in the testicles if iPad3 has some imperceptible surface curve that isn’t exactly what Dieter Rams would’ve done on a Braun 8-track player? I don’t work at Apple so I don’t know. I can only hope that he has this essential quality in him. Because without it, the greatest team of engineers, designers, coders, and supply chain Yodas is only capable of burping up a Zune a month before Xmas without someone screaming at them to get that godawful piece of shit out of his sight before he jerks his gun out of his desk again and everyone dives to the floor like the last hundred times they showed him what they thought was great but turned out to be only sanely so.

I started to write about my thoughts today on SJ’s passing and here I am mining my old crappy turf of ha-ha techyak with a picocule of actual useful data surrounded by a metric ass ton of EZ-read filler. Only Steve Jobs could get me to sit down and “write” again after swearing off it years ago as a pointless exercise in futility best left to the young and less embittered.

So yeah, I’m sad. He’s a big-time hero of mine. We won’t see the likes of him again. You’re not college grads and I’m not Tom Brokaw bullshitting you that the future is whatever you make it. Enjoy your harrowing, bleak ride, because you are not Steve Jobs and neither am I and there’s nothing about that to make a fellow toss his hat up in the air so his parents can miss the shot of him doing so because they’re holding a Sony piece of hammered shit they got free with AmEx points instead of an iPhone.