NOBODY else in the computer industry, or any other industry for that matter, could put on a show like Steve Jobs. His product launches, at which he would stand alone on a black stage and conjure up a “magical” or “incredible” new electronic gadget in front of an awed crowd, were the performances of a master showman. All computers do is fetch and shuffle numbers, he once explained, but do it fast enough and “the results appear to be magic”. He spent his life packaging that magic into elegantly designed, easy to use products.
He had been among the first, back in the 1970s, to see the potential that lay in the idea of selling computers to ordinary people. In those days of green-on-black displays, when floppy discs were still floppy, the notion that computers might soon become ubiquitous seemed fanciful. But Mr Jobs was one of a handful of pioneers who saw what was coming. Crucially, he also had an unusual knack for looking at computers from the outside, as a user, not just from the inside, as an engineer—something he attributed to the experiences of his wayward youth.
Mr Jobs caught the computing bug while growing up in Silicon Valley. As a teenager in the late 1960s he cold-called his idol, Bill Hewlett, and talked his way into a summer job at Hewlett-Packard. But it was only after dropping out of college, travelling to India, becoming a Buddhist and experimenting with psychedelic drugs that Mr Jobs returned to California to co-found Apple, in his parents’ garage, on April Fools’ Day 1976. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” he once said. “So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.” Bill Gates, he suggested, would be “a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger”.
His on-stage persona as a Zen-like mystic notwithstanding, Mr Jobs was an autocratic manager with a fierce temper. But his egomania was largely justified. He eschewed market researchers and focus groups, preferring to trust his own instincts when evaluating potential new products. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said. His judgment proved uncannily accurate: by the end of his career the hits far outweighed the misses. Mr Jobs was said by an engineer in the early years of Apple to emit a “reality distortion field”, such were his powers of persuasion. But in the end he changed reality, channelling the magic of computing into products that reshaped music, telecoms and media. The man who said in his youth that he wanted to “put a ding in the universe” did just that.