Intimations of Mortality

This week has been one for me of ‘intimations of mortality’, to slightly mis-quote Wordsworth. From the news last weekend that a friend and industry colleague has been diagnosed with cancer, through to the death of Steve Jobs, this week there has been too much bad news. Even between those two items came the news of the death of a guitar-playing hero of mine, Bert Jansch, also from cancer.

Jobs was a passionate man whose philosophy was ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day), to quote the Roman poet, Horace. The BBC played an extended segment of a speech in which Jobs explained that he tried to ‘live each day as your last – one day you’ll be right’, in its main radio news programme.

To quote George Bernard Shaw, ‘Reasonable men adjust themselves to their environment. Unreasonable men attempt to change their environment to suit themselves. Therefore, all progress is the work of unreasonable men’. Jobs certainly met that description.

Although I never came closer to Jobs than sitting in a theatre while he made one of his messianic speeches (in Paris), he certainly changed my life for the last thirty years. I put all my savings into buying an Apple ][ computer around 1980. It seemed to me then that computing was going to change the world and I thought that if I was to progress in the business world, I needed to understand them. Everyone thought I was mad – “Why would you want a computer at home?”, they asked. I spent nearly a year saving and choosing which PC to buy. The Apple 2 was an amazingly open system and better engineered than the others then in the market and I used the owner’s manual to design a peripheral board to create sound effects and music. I turned that into a product and that experience helped me to get my first job in the computer business. That changed my life for ever.

Two of my friends had some personal contact with Jobs. One was involved with the development of Apple ‘clones’, an idea that was being pursued when Jobs was out of Apple. When Jobs came back, he attended the progress meeting of the clone makers who had invested a great amount in technology and design. He unceremoniously threw the delegates out of the building with extreme language. The project was over. That was one side of the man.

Another worked for Apple. He described a (rare) meeting that included Jobs. During the meeting, someone mentioned a planned change in a supplier roadmap, if I remember correctly, of a display. My friend described how Jobs then used a large whiteboard to create a complete product roadmap for Apple products that could exploit this change. The Apple roadmap was complete with specifications and prices and demonstrated an amazing level of knowledge of technology, of product marketing and of the consumer. That was another side.

Jobs changed a lot of lives forever. Without the Apple, there might not have been an IBM PC. Without the Mac, a lot of creative people might not have taken to using computers and they could have remained the province of geeks. Without Pixar, the world of movies would not have been the same. Even Job’s ‘failure’, Next, was turned into the operating systems that ran Macs from OS X onwards. Without iTunes, the shift from physical media to online media and the massive changes in the music business would have been much slower. Without the iPhone, we might not have had ‘apps’ in the way we have. Without the iPad, tablet computers might still be an industrial niche. Without the MacBook Air, there might not have been Ultrabooks.

That’s quite a list of achievements and evidence that Jobs ‘walked the talk’ of making the most of every day.

And that’s the message that I’m going to take from this week. To quote Wordsworth’s poem,
“The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet”

Carpe diem.