Thanks are not enough, Steve

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not news that one of the founders of Apple Computers and the visionary behind a plethora of Apple (and other) products died yesterday. Even people who don’t usually tune in real news tuned into the news of Steve Jobs’ passing. There’s a good chance when they got the news, it appeared first on their iPad, iPhone or iMac, just a few of Steve’s many inventions. (I got the news on my iMac.)

The more attached you are to Apple’s products, the more the news affected you. Part of your feelings was also the anguish that the iPad or iPhone you held in your hand may be the last cool product you would own. Unquestionably, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary inventor and creator. It will take a couple of decades for it to sink in just how greatly his life impacted humanity.

To call him the Thomas Edison of his generation is not enough. In reality he was some combination of Edison and Sir Isaac Newton. Edison’s genius was that he could figure out how to make inventions that seemed beyond our technical grasp. (He also patented many inventions that never took off.) The need for a more reliable and cleaner source of light was understood in his time. Someone just needed to figure out how to do it. That was Edison’s genius. When the Apple computer was unleashed on the world, it filled a void we never knew existed. Like Sir Isaac Newton, who discerned order behind the forces of nature, Jobs could model a usable version of the information centric age the rest of us simply could not even imagine. Jobs could do that with almost any product he invented. Jobs’ genius was pulling our inchoate needs right from our id, figuring out a way technology could fulfill them, then designing irresistible products that could realize them. But he could also turn an invention that had been done before into something everyone suddenly wanted. The iPad by all rights should have not succeeded because it had been done before. The problem was that no one had built a tablet computer so easy to use and so sexy that we would be pulled to it like a moth to a flame.

I have a particular reason to mourn Steve Jobs’ passing and to be thankful to the guy. It wasn’t because I thought Apple products were particularly cool. I am typing this on an iMac, which is pretty neat, but not all that much neater than my Windows 7 computer at work. Rather, I am grateful to Steve for the Apple 2 Plus computer that he helped create. It literally changed my life. It did not make me a wealthy man, but it did make me a well-moneyed man. In part because of Steve’s Apple 2 Plus, I changed to a career I found that I loved and which paid much, much better than my old career. I became an information technology geek.

Sometime around 1983, the management where I work purchased an Apple 2 Plus computer and put it on a table near my desk. No one really knew what to do with it, but there it was all shiny and new. It was mostly ignored, but when my work was done I’d sit down at it and start playing with it. I was not entirely new to computers, but I had never experienced a personal computer before. I had experienced a mainframe computer, which in 1975 meant tediously constructing Fortran source code using a keypunch machine, delivering a stack of cards to an operator behind a glass wall, and waiting for a couple of hours until your job was run. Invariably you made some sort of syntactical error in your code, so you’d redo the cards that were coded incorrectly, being careful not to disturb the order of the cards. And you’d go through the cycle many times until with luck your program ran correctly. You would get a printout from a wide dot-matrix printer with sprocket holes on both sides of the paper. In short, programming computers could not have been more difficult, tedious and time consuming. I got through the class but if I had an idea of doing computer programming for a living, it went away. Programming was for masochists.

The Apple 2 Plus changed that. It had a keyboard and a monitor, and it ran a computer language called BASIC that was simple enough for even a novice to pick up. More importantly, it was personal. I could use it in real-time and get immediate feedback. At the time I was using pink copies of handwritten forms to track the movement of “service requests” through the printing plant I worked at. I kept them in a binder. With the Apple 2 Plus, I figured out a way to do away track these service requests on the computer. I stored the data on five and a quarter inch floppy disks. I impressed my bosses and I recall getting an award. The award included lunch with other award winners and our director in the director’s conference room. I was onto something good.

The details of what happened since then are not important except to say I wiggled my way into a journeyman’s computer programmer slot. Since 1986, I have made my living first through computer programming and later more advanced information technology stuff. The Apple 2 Plus totally changed my life. It made computer programming fun and profitable at a time where anyone with modest computing skills could get a job. My income soared, my sense of self worth and job satisfaction went through the stratosphere and eventually I had the income to live a larger and more comfortable life I craved.

That was what the genius of Steve Jobs’ mind did for me. He gave me wealth and he gave me work that was both creative and mattered in the real world. He did it by making a computer actually personable. It was a long time between that Apple 2 Plus and my 2008 purchase of an iMac, twenty-five years in fact when I lived mostly in a Windows world. I followed the market, which were machines running MS-DOS and later Windows. However, it was inventors like Steve Jobs who made computers relevant to the masses, in fact they became must have items, which stimulated demand, drove us to email systems, and then the web, and more lately into social networks. Steve was not only a creator and inventor; he cemented us into the information age. He personally connected us with technology and each other in ways that had never been done before.

He died way too young at age 56, but he could not have died without knowing the huge impact of his life. He deserves monuments and museums, cities renamed for him and, if we ever build an American Pantheon, perhaps the biggest statue in the room. I am quite certain I will not live long enough to see the rise of another man or woman of his caliber. Quite frankly, I believe that Steve Jobs may ultimately prove to be one the most influential Americans that ever lived, ranked right next to Lincoln. Through intelligence, foresight and boundless energy, he invented a broader and more connected future for all of us.