Steve Jobs is knocking on my door tonight
Halloween is a time for people to dress up in costumes. At comic book conventions, people dress as their favorite movie, comic book, and cartoon characters. Halloween is like one giant comic-book convention. And if over the course of tonight I don’t see at least three people dressed as Steve Jobs, I’m going to be very surprised.
And a little disappointed. At last year’s New York Comic-Con, I saw someone walking around in a homemade Optimus Prime costume that was so true to the movie original that it, too, could out-act Shia LeBeouf. By comparison, a Steve Jobs costume is a snap: Jeans, turtleneck, and if you really want to go all-out, you need the right New Balance sneakers.
No, I’m being silly. I’ll definitely see some Steve Jobses. And not because so many people already have most of the components in their closets: it’s because just like the fictional pop-culture heroes, millions of people found something in Steve’s public life that they found relatable and relevant to their own lives.
Steve has been gone for less than four weeks. His face dominates the glossies on the newsstand. Even the celebrity mags. Last week’s People magazine featured a guy who, throughout an unusually productive life, was responsible for taking abstract technology and turning them into real products the average consumer could understand and benefit from. In the minds of the editors of “People,” the celebrity that could sell the most magazines this week was a man who actually built things, not a fitness instructor who did the husband of an actress of whom “People”’s readership is exploitably fond.
That’s very, very cool.
Though it feels weird to even think of Steve as a celebrity. The word is almost a backhanded insult, isn’t it? In Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s book on the screenwriting business, they describe a hierarchy. Tom Hanks is a movie star. He’s done so much great work carrying the lead roles in so many successful, high-profile movies that any script he wants to appear in will get made. One rung down, there are “movie actors” like Gary Sinise and Gary Oldman—some of these people are not named Gary, I should say—who are so good at what they do that they get to pick and choose from the roles that are offered to them.
And then there are… the celebrities. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are… celebrities. The reason why you call them “celebrities” instead of “actors” or “writers” or whatever it is that they do is that they don’t actually do anything. Their life’s work, the one passion that informs every choice they make, is their fame.
Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Dean Kamen are probably the only celebrity technologists we have left. And here we define “celebrity” as “well known enough that their names and signature accomplishments would be familiar to the average person.” Woz would be on that list, but since leaving Apple, he’s happily shifted his public pursuits away from building new technology and towards education. Jeff Bezos, too, but for the fact that he seems to shun the spotlight.
Celebrity technologists are so rare because they have problems that no other celebrities have. First, people are always asking them to fix their computers, and secondly, nobody else is under lifelong pressure to always have a good answer to the question “But what have you done recently?” Nobody ever complained to Tom Hanks that the movie he made this year was a crushing disappointment because he looked mostly the same as he did in the movie he made the year before.
Which is why celebrity technologists like Steve Jobs are so rare. Kim Kardashian has a full-time job just trying to make herself seem famous. Technologists, however, have to actually produce things. We might never get another one of “our people” on the cover of a major newsmagazine again, but that’s just fine. We’re more happy with the tangible things that these people create.
(Also: none of us want to see a technologist’s sex video. I imagine that the whole thing is just bad skin and efficient technique.)
When a loved one dies, first you mourn the loss, then you comfort the bereaved, then you celebrate the life of the deceased…and then you move on.
I’ve spent much of the past month thinking about and writing about Jobs, a man who’s been an offstage, two-degrees-of-separation presence throughout my entire life. It’s important to consider the complete dimensions of his life—the very good, and the bad—but at the end you’re still left impressed.
There’s plenty of accidental symbolism in the release of iOS 5 and iCloud a week (to the day) after his death. Steve had been pointing Apple towards iCloud since he was a mere Advisor To Apple’s CEO. In a 1997 Q&A with developers, he was asked to be specific about certain transformative technologies that he believed Apple should be pursuing. He quickly leaped into a description of a system that NeXT had developed for in-house use: a massive server that backed up everybody’s home directory and could serve it to any NeXT machine anywhere. He spoke of a working environment in which being near “his” computer wasn’t important so long as he was near “a” computer, and he never lost a single file due to a hard drive crash because a server was handling backups constantly.
It’s iCloud, without the nifty name or the industry buzzword behind it.
But the larger symbolism—at least to my eyes—is that iCloud and iOS 5 and iPhone 4S are the next things. Apple is moving on. As it should.
The worst thing for Apple would be if the lingering presence of the world’s most famous technologist poisoned every discussion of every future strategy with the question “What would Steve do?” Steve would be making decisions based on brand-new technologies and concepts that would require years to develop into practical products and services.
Copying the results of decisions that Steve Jobs made three years ago is traditionally the purview of Apple’s competitors… not Apple.