Steve Jobs died tonight and a lot of my Facebook friends are acting as though a family member passed. That’s because, to them, he was the person who humanized computing. He made computers fun, elegant and above all, accessible to people who might otherwise hate them. If you are a fan of industrial design as pure art — and I am — Jobs might be your Van Gogh.
And for that, I salute him. As a PC user, I know that Jobs almost single-handedly forced PCs out of gray boxes and gray thinking and into an era of much better designs. Windows 7, a fine OS in its own right (at least until you look under the hood), would never exist without Steve Jobs forcing change upon Microsoft.
That is the Steve Jobs that his fans love. They choose the look the other way at the other Steve Jobs, the one who relentlessly fought for high-priced, high-profit, closed-source computing. Had Jobs won the PC war, we’d all be paying $2,000 for laptops instead of $500 or less (actually, many of us simply wouldn’t have computers). Had he won the software war, the open-source revolution probably wouldn’t have happened and you’d pay hundreds of dollars for a word processor. Had he won the music war completely (he certainly won most of it), DRM protections would be draped over every piece of music and video everywhere. He fell behind in the smart phone sales battle and Apple eventually will fall behind in the tablet sales battle for the same reasons — competitors will make machines that will be more flexible and more powerful at half the price. But Apple will make the more elegant machines, its customers will love its products and the company will continue to rake in enormous profit margins.
The only piece of Apple hardware I’ve actually owned over the years is an iPod, although I have used many fine Macs at work and have a work-issued iPhone. I always marveled at the iPod’s ease of use and the way it felt like an extension of my musical wishes. In contrast, other music players just play music. (I have a very different opinion of iTunes but eventually found ways to avoid or minimize using it.)
What I do own is a lot of Apple stock in my retirement account. I’d like to thank Jobs for the growth in value of that stock over the years, although a company with a 23.5 percent profit magin should pay a dividend to its shareholders, which Apple inexplicably does not. That was the dual nature of Steve Jobs — building great things with one hand, raking in cash and holding it close with the other.
So I guess we should mourn Steve Jobs the artist and respect Steve Jobs the businessman. But he never confused art and commerce, and when you think about him, neither should you.