10/26/2011 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Steve Jobs: Hardly a Perfect Person, Perhaps a Perfect Icon

As Apple CEO Tim Cook noted again at last week's memorial service, Steve Jobs liked to say that he modeled his business after the Beatles. So it was interesting to have been around when the Beatles broke up, i.e., when Jobs was fired in the '80s from the company he so famously co-founded and led.

With memorials past and present and a new biography just out, Jobs is more omnipresent now than when he was among us. Perhaps that's only fitting. While he was an imperfect person, he may be a perfect icon.

When I encountered him in the early '80s, although it was not immediately apparent, Steve Jobs was coming to the end of his fabulous first act in life. The spectacular introduction of the Macintosh in January 1984, which proved to be as big a game changer as he and others thought at the time -- just not immediately and not immediately for Apple -- was followed in 1985 by the sensational ouster of Jobs.

In messianic mode, Steve Jobs unveils the original Macintosh computer for the first time, in January 1984 at Apple's annual meeting in Cupertino, California.

Always a disruptive force, a key to creativity, Jobs had become, in the regretful view of many who counted, a destructive force.

Jobs was only 30 when he was fired as head of the Macintosh Division and then forced out of Apple. His brilliance had spurred game-changing developments, but had run up against the limits of his expertise. And "I don't know" isn't something that's easy for a famous visionary folk hero to say.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed."

When William Gibson first started saying that, in the '90s, I flashed back to that day in January 1984 when I was fortunate enough to be on hand for the unveiling of the Macintosh. It was Apple's annual meeting, held at the Flint Center in Cupertino. I was there at the invitation of Regis McKenna, Jobs and Apple's longtime public relations and marketing counsel, with whom I later worked as Jobs had his breach with Apple. (Among many other things, McKenna's eponymous firm created the Apple logo, and masterminded the Mac launch with Jobs.)

Jobs was in vintage form, at his most ardently evangelizing, proudly removing the wraps at last from his "insanely great" product, as you can see in the video. I could write an entire essay about Jobs and this event, now clearly one of the seminal moments in technology and business history. It was simply electrifying, with Jobs channeling the current in both his public remarks and his private interactions.

From there, I went to the airport and flew to Des Moines for the four-week stretch run in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses of Senator Gary Hart, whom McKenna was strongly backing. Apple co-founder and Apple II inventor Steve Wozniak -- a great mensch without whom Jobs would have been lost at the beginning -- was a big supporter as well, quickly providing a helicopter when I needed to scout locations for TV ads following Hart's breakthrough in Iowa and New Hampshire, serving as a Hart delegate to the Democratic national convention, and backing Hart's think tank. John Sculley, Jobs's hand-picked Apple CEO, was also a Hart backer. But Jobs, while supportive, was not nearly the Hart enthusiast his colleagues were.

Perhaps because of his friendship with then former Governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown, Hart's Yale Law School classmate who occupied similar political territory, and aspirations. Jobs and Brown shared a passion for Zen Buddhism. Jobs had served on the state's high tech commission under Brown and was on Brown's non-profit National Commission on Industrial Innovation, which Brown chaired and on which McKenna served as president.

And perhaps because Jobs was simply too into his own monomania.

I was stunned to learn that Jobs, a natural master if ever there was one, had not heard of the word "spin," which had famously emerged in the 1984 presidential campaign. Jobs had been so focused on Macintosh that he simply hadn't noticed.

Jobs opens the momentous 1984 Apple shareholders meeting, featuring the introduction of the Macintosh, reciting Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing."

By 1985, Jobs was relying heavily on spin. The Mac, while way cool, was not insanely great. Not yet. It was friendly tech, perky even, with its own little chirping personality, like R2D2 in Star Wars. The Mac's graphical user interface, soon replicated in Microsoft Windows, saving the world from the even more bureaucratic MS-DOS, was radical in its elegance and ease.

But it was too expensive and simply didn't do enough, in part due to decisions forced by Jobs. His early insistence on uniformity and lack of expandability backfired.

Of course, those were still horse-and-buggy days, with tech's promise still largely in the future. The otherwise fabulous Regis McKenna Inc. office in Palo Alto was still using something called telex.

Nevertheless, the clunky, cheaper, corporado IBM PC did more stuff and was cleaning the Mac's clock. People were looking for scapegoats. Jobs, wistfully opining about Apple as dolphin and IBM as shark, blamed Sculley and tried to engineer a coup, only to run afoul of a counter-coup.

Bounced from his leadership of the Mac, essentially sidelined, Jobs left Apple to launch his next big thing, NeXT Computer. And there was Pixar, which Jobs bought from George Lucas in 1986 after Lucas's divorce. After years of struggle, it revolutionized movies through computer animation and made Jobs a billionaire. Not bad for the sidelight post-Apple venture.

The main post-Apple venture, NeXT, never became the next big thing. The computer was gorgeous, but far too expensive. While Pixar percolated and NeXT languished, Apple flourished for some time before falling on hard times. Meantime, Jobs was in the wilderness.

Jobs introduces the legendary 1984 commercial -- developed by the Don Drapers of Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott, played two days earlier during the Super Bowl -- counterposing Macintosh to the corporatist paradigm warned of by George Orwell.

I remember seeing him at the 1990 funeral of Bob Noyce, the co-founder of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit, the foundation of Silicon Valley. Jobs had sought out Noyce, another McKenna client and friend, looking to learn from a high tech pioneer. Noyce, a preternaturally cool character intrigued by youth culture in general and the wunderkind in particular, had reciprocated. Now he was dead, of a sudden and surprising heart attack at 62.

At this point, Jobs was more former than current, well into his wilderness years, his future disproof of Fitzgerald's famous dictum that there are no second acts in American lives by no means assured. Not at all the center of attention, Jobs was saddened by Noyce's death and chastened by life's ephemeral nature.

Though it was not the next thing, NeXT had an impact and kept Jobs in the game and continuing to learn as technology evolved. When Apple stalled out in the '90s, acquiring NeXT as a means of revamping Mac system software -- and bringing back Jobs -- became a compelling option. "Special advisor" Jobs, the prodigal son with the Promethean touch, returned. He quickly became "interim" CEO, making the title permanent a few years later in 2000.

This time, Jobs was ready to be CEO. He made the moves which proved to be not only revolutionary, as the original Mac was, but highly profitable and very synergistic, which it took years for the Mac to become.

The early game changers of Mac and Pixar were followed in rapid succession by iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad ... and whatever Jobs was working on when he died earlier this month. Each proved to be disruptive technology in a mostly positive sense, altering the arcs of the computer, music, movie, and communications industries and in the process providing elegant new tools to empower people around the world.

Why the amazing outpouring for Jobs? For starters, in this age of disastrously financialized capitalism, he was a business figure clearly more interested in making products than in making money.

Jobs narrates the "Think Different" ad, something of a manifesto for his return to Apple.

In a largely dour time of encroaching chaos, Jobs is an icon of a future that works, the impresario -- for he always had outstanding people working with him, making it all possible -- of devices that delight and provide windows on a wider world.

Jobs, a rather private person even before his illness, clearly wasn't interested in being in the middle of the crowd, soaking up market share and conventional acclaim. He wanted to be out at the edge, and to turn that edge into a wave of change.

The product of a Northern Californian brew of high tech, higher ed, and getting high, Jobs added the simplicity, quirkiness, and elegance he acquired from Zen, his own passage to India, and the study of great product design.

When many experts thought that computers would get bigger, Jobs and Wozniak had the opposite insight, that they would get smaller.

Where Wozniak wanted a computer that he could play with and love, Jobs wanted computers to become truly personal, to become not simply devices that were useful or even fun, but to become an integral part of one's life.

Then he had the insight that the computer could shrink ever smaller, into what we now call a phone and into what Star Trek called a PADD (Personal Access Display Device).

Yet the perfect icon was hardly a perfect person.

As interesting and charismatic a figure as he was, Jobs had the rock star arrogance associated with someone who becomes very rich and very famous at a very young age. He didn't suffer fools gladly, which is fine, but he doesn't seem to have had much of an edit function, either.

Though a family man who chose to live in a relatively down-to-earth home, especially for a billionaire, if Jobs was a philanthropist it's escaped public attention so far.

And he pursued his revolutionary product vision by driving up Apple's profit margin through manufacturing in China, where working conditions are frequently terrible.

Originally, Jobs was committed to manufacturing Apple computers in America. He had Apple build a big manufacturing plant in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Fremont in the '80s.

But when he returned to Apple to begin its resurrection and rise to heights few had imagined it could achieve, he didn't linger long on his old Made in the USA trope.

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs discusses life.

Of course, the manufacturing was shifting before Jobs returned. I look now at my trusty old Mac SE from the late '80s, as well as an original Mac I have on display, both with "Made in the USA" emblazoned on the back. But looking at the PowerBook 5300ce, briefly the most powerful laptop in the world, having saved it in 1996's Independence Day, I see that it was "assembled in Singapore." By 2002, my pretty little white iBook reads: "Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in Taiwan." And now, of course, we have the ubiquitous "Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China."

Jobs certainly didn't create off-shoring, having fought against it early on. But in his 2.0 days at Apple's helm, he didn't act against it. Creating his vision of the future was the key. If there was collateral damage, there was.

Mr. Jobs's neighborhood was, by choice, in a different place. He lived, as he frequently said, at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.

In 2001, a fatefully resonant year for any child of the '60s, Jobs announced that Apple would provide the digital hub for its customers' lives. In that iteration, all one's devices would be coordinated through the Mac. Now it can be an iPhone or an iPad that acts as the hub, especially with the advent of cloud computing. It might even include a new sort of television.

It is a powerful vision, and it's quickly coming into being. Perhaps it is the elegance and efficacy of it that is so appealing. Perhaps it is the sheer pleasure that using Apple devices (except when they go wrong) and even just looking at them can bring.

Perhaps it is that, with so much going wrong with the future we were promised, the slice of the future promised by Jobs not only works, but generally delights.

Steve Jobs made it his mission to develop, design, and diffuse the stuff of the future, today. Recovering from early mistakes in as dramatic a fashion as possible, he delivered. It's not perpetual world peace, but it's enough for one person.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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