Oct 182011

Article first published as There Goes The Neighborhood on Technorati.

I didn’t expect to feel this bad about Steve Jobs’s death, but then, I didn’t know he was going to die so soon. Although I never liked him too much, I always admired him. Many famous people who earned a reputable name in a hypothetical who-is-who of their time didn’t get there by being nice guys, but there’s no dispute Steve was a visionary. I don’t like Apple because of their strict and closed architecture and their recent legal bullying of the competition in a patent war which may slow down innovation and drag this country even more towards stagnation and recession, but I have to admit that under his leadership they shone like the sun.

It’s Fall now. The trees are switching their colorful groove on and they are hard not to be noticed. The morning after his death, driving home from my kid’s school I saw a huge tree in a perfect shape and I thought to myself, look at this thing, so big and beautiful, so much bigger than me, and yet, I can start or even build things immensely bigger than it. That tree has only one degree of freedom and moves only in one way – it grows. Unlike that tree, we act however we want and we move wherever we want, some more and some less, but just like it, we also grow, only in more directions. Steve never hesitated to move and act upon an idea and he built an amazing empire on ideas.

So during that short drive and its few minutes of introspection I thought that our lives could be compared to trees. Add time as the fourth dimension, and add the consequences of our actions and people we influence, and some of our trees start to differ a lot in their size, shape and form. Nevertheless, there’s no telling whose tree is bigger, is it the our socially-conscientious visionary geek’s, Dennis Ritchie‘s, or one of his best engineers’, teachers’, his adoptive or real parents, or one of his calligraphy instructors’. Influence is a mighty thing. Steve’s contribution to the tree of the entire humanity must be much bigger than of those who, as he used to say, died the richest men in the cemetery. But again, just as he said, it’s very hard to connect the dots going forward, and the dots of the rest of us remaining here in this valley of gears and fears are still to be connected, so if you’re reading this, take out that old idea from your (mental) closet, work on it and perhaps you could still become the new Steve Jobs. Carpa diem. We need people like him.

And that leads me to the practical side, the reason why I feel so much at loss, the gap which will be felt not only by Apple and its fanboys, but also by the rest of our geek world. You can say whatever you want about Steve Jobs but you can’t say he didn’t have the vision and you can’t say that he couldn’t drive a project. These two virtues haven’t just kept Apple close to the top throughout all these decades. They have also pressured and driven Apple’s competitors – whenever Apple introduced a trend-setting new device or service, most other technology entrepreneurs were following, studying, some blatantly copying and figuring out how to provide same or better service. Unfortunately, most of them failed miserably. Unlike many others, Steve was not focused on copying other people’s inventions and following the lead. Yes, he did use things and features he found useful, but he was doing it before they were in wide use. He would first have them improved, then he’d take advantage of them and make them famous in the process. Zuckerberg did the same.

Take the tablet market for example – it seems that the tablet manufacturers are driven by a bunch of good engineers who know how to repeat an experiment or how to reverse engineer a device, but they also seem to lack the vision to innovate and improve beyond known limits, and lack empathy to perceive how they’d feel in end user’s shoes. Mostly every tablet that’s seen the light of the day so far is lacking the umph to beat the iPad and the reason is not in incapable engineers or in bad technology. It’s in the nature of those who follow. They don’t have Steve’s drive, as their motive is to satisfy shareholders and secure the piece of the market by following what’s already known. This is why we get so many inapt and sophomoric designs. Steve’s goal was to do things the best possible way and he did it using his unique combination of vision and drive. He had it. Some of us have one of those, but both? Very few do. This is why I’m scared – now that he’s dead, the pressure is off of both Apple and its competitors. There goes the neighborhood.

When Steve Jobs introduced a new product it often felt like he was bringing it straight from the future. With exception of the Intel processors in Apple laptops (lagged behind PC laptops until recently), the aura around every new device he presented seemed to have skipped ahead a few years as the Macintosh, the Newton, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad were all ahead of their time. Now let’s reflect for a moment on how big this company is and how much time and effort it must take huge entities like that to move – that’s what makes it amazing. In order to be a few years ahead at its time of release, each new invention had to be several years ahead in the making. Who knows, we’ll connect the dots later; Apple may be in trouble without him, but perhaps Steve Jobs has left a lot of ammo for the future so they don’t lose the edge for a while. Still, there goes the neighborhood. Unless there’s a new Gates or Zuckerberg on the block…

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