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Here's to the crazy ones: a farewell to Steve Jobs


We knew. We may not have wished to know, and perhaps it was easier to push away that sense of impending sadness, the awareness that time was short, but we knew what was coming. After August, after the resignation, we knew. And yet, it's still shocking. It still hurts.

Steve Jobs was a father and a husband, and the loss for his family -- having suffered with him through the acute, chronic and finally terminal phases of his illness -- is simply unfathomable. For those of us who have seen a family member or loved one taken away decades too soon by this loathsome disease, who know intimately the costs of cancer and its consequences, this is far too familiar. We feel the bereft emptiness they feel now as an echo of our own pain, a sharp pull on the cord of sorrow that connects us to our own absences of the heart.

As for the rest of us: perhaps we had briefly encountered Steve at Macworld Expo in years past, or been privileged to see him deliver one of his legendary keynote addresses in person. Perhaps we got a terse reply to an email about a problem, or heard from an Apple support team member that Steve had personally escalated an issue on our behalf. Perhaps the connection was entirely one-way, and our perception of Steve was delivered at a distance. It does not matter. For all of us who were touched by his life's work, we feel a sense of loss that is surprising in its intensity.

Part of that feeling is anger. Fifty-six. Fifty-six years young and you imagine, you try and simply fail to imagine what could have emerged from a full lifespan, from that kind of creative force. The world is poorer for the lack of another twenty years of Steve Jobs's brain, his energy, his judgement, his almost uncanny power to force reality to conform to his expectations rather than the other way around. Selfishly and callously we are angry, for what was taken from us, but that is part of grief too; part of knowing that you had something wonderful that you never properly appreciated until, suddenly, it was gone. Imagine how difficult it was for Tim Cook to introduce the iPhone 4S on Tuesday when he certainly knew that his own iPhone would be ringing soon with such horrible news. We are glad Tim is there, but we are still very, very angry Steve is gone.

Another part is awe. How many second acts in business lead to the kind of success that Apple has found over the past decade? One, really; what Steve did in returning to Apple is unique. After wandering in the wilderness, fired from the company he created with Ronald Wayne and Steve Wozniak in that legendary garage, Steve did astonishing things again and again.

Pixar, created from the unsuccessful Lucasfilm computer animation group, set free the remarkable creativity of John Lasseter and his band of perfectionist maniacs as they became the heir to Walt Disney's legacy -- and eventually, the artistic core of Disney's animation division, in the process making Jobs the entertainment megacorp's largest individual shareholder. Jobs's longstanding admiration of Walt Disney found its natural conclusion as Steve was effectively granted the keys to the Magic Kingdom.

NeXT, built around the idea of a desktop computing experience without compromises in performance or ease of use, may not have taken over the world with hardware sales: the machines themselves were perhaps too good for the market, too expensive for business or home users. But they gained popularity in academic and scientific settings like CERN (where a NeXT workstation responded to the first http:// prompt) and Wolfram Research (where the flagship product, Mathematica, named by Steve himself, was bundled with the NeXT computer). The NeXTStep OS, in the end, built atop Avie Tevanian's Mach microkernel and with a GUI powered by Adobe's Display PostScript, begat the modern Mac OS X and the now-ubiquitous iOS. Lots of 'failed technology companies' would be thrilled with that kind of legacy.

Finally, there is appreciation, there is gratitude. For all his notable faults, his temper, his intolerance for half-baked efforts, for all the people who both loved and hated working with and for Steve, we still cannot cherish and thank him enough. How many of us owe our livelihoods to the ecosystems and industries he helped create? How many of us spend our days intimately connected with the products he envisioned and shepherded to the market? Today you can walk into hundreds of Apple stores and thousands of other outlets around the world and walk out with a chunk of the future that fits in your pocket. The teams that build the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are legion, their numbers in the tens of thousands. If not for the vision of one man -- one man who simply refused to accept that good enough was good enough, and who made whole industries over to be right by his exacting standards -- where would we be now?

It is perhaps not all that remarkable that America's president delivered a statement on the passing of Steve Jobs, as the former CEO of the country's (and the world's) most valuable business. It is remarkable, however, to note that the emotional impact of Jobs's death is the same for Barack Obama as it is for all of us. The two men shared eerily parallel origins; both children of foreign fathers and young American mothers, both raised outside their birth families (Obama by his grandparents, Jobs by his adoptive family), both somehow marked by heritage and circumstance to be destined for the history books and to do things that had never been done before. Now one of them is gone, but just as the world cannot be the same after the election of America's first biracial president, the world cannot be the same as it was before Steve Jobs.

Namaste, Steve. We remember you with fondness and delight. We wish for your colleagues and for Tim Cook the wisdom and energy to lead Apple the way you would have continued to lead it for many years, if not for the harsh unfairness of cancer and the inevitable tick of life's clock. And we hope and pray that your wife and children may find a tiny seed of solace in the knowledge that their beloved was our beloved too.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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