I am in New York for some meetings, which, through divine ordinance, take place the same week the city is hosting the country’s second-largest annual comic book convention. Last night was Preview Night. The floor was open only to press, industry pros, and those who’d shelled out for the full four-day pass. So the crowds were a little thin. Nonetheless, I spotted plenty of people dressed as their favourite movie, comic, and cartoon characters.
If over the course of the weekend I don’t see at least three people dressed as Steve Jobs, I’m going to be very surprised and a little disappointed. At last year’s New York Comic-Con, I saw someone in a homemade Optimus Prime costume that was so true to the movie original that it, too, could out-act Shia LaBeouf. In comparison, a Steve Jobs costume is a snap: jeans, black turtleneck, and if you really want to go all-out, the right New Balance sneakers.
No, I’m being silly. I’ll definitely see some Steve Jobses here. And not because so many people already own most of the components: it’s because just like with the fictional pop-culture heroes, millions of people found something in Steve’s public life that was relatable and relevant to their own lives.
Steve has been gone 10 days, as I write this. His face dominates the glossies of the newsstand. Even the celebrity mags. This week, the cover of People features a guy who was responsible for taking abstract technology and turning it into real products the average consumer could understand and benefit from. In the minds of the editors of People, the celebrity that could sell the most magazines this week was an engineer who actually did things, not a fitness instructor who did the husband of an actress of whom People’s readership is exploitably fond. That’s very, very cool.
Though it feels weird to even think of Steve as a celebrity. The word is almost a backhanded insult, isn’t it? In Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s book on the screenwriting business, they describe a hierarchy. Tom Hanks is a movie star. He’s done so much great work in so many successful, high-profile movies that any script he wants to appear in will get made. One rung down, there are movie actors like Gary Sinese and Gary Oldman – and other people not named Gary – who are so good at what they do that they get to pick and choose from the roles that are offered to them.
And then there are... celebrities: Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are... celebrities. The reason we call them ‘celebrities’ instead of ‘actors’ or ‘writers’ or whatever it is that they do is that they don’t actually do anything. Their life’s work is their fame.
Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are probably the only celebrity engineers left. And here we define ‘celebrity’ as ‘well known enough that their names and signature accomplishments would be familiar to the average person’.
Celebrity engineers are rare because they have problems that no other celebrities have. First, people are always asking them to fix their computers, and second, nobody else is under lifelong pressure to always have a good answer to the question ‘But what have you done recently?’. Nobody ever complained to Tom Hanks that the movie he made this year was a crushing disappointment because he looked mostly the same as he did in the movie he made the year before.
Which is why celebrity engineers like Steve Jobs are so few. Kim Kardashian has a full-time job just trying to make herself seem famous. Engineers, however, have to actually produce things. We might never get another one of ‘our people’ on the cover of a major news magazine again, but that’s fine. We’re more happy with the tangible things that these people create.
When a loved one dies, first you mourn the loss, then you comfort the bereaved, then you celebrate the life of the deceased... and then you move on. I’ve spent much of the past week thinking about and writing about Jobs, a man who’s been an offstage, two-degrees-of-separation presence throughout my entire life.
On an iCloud
There’s plenty of accidental symbolism in the release of iOS 5 and iCloud a week (to the day) after his death. Steve had been pointing Apple towards iCloud since he was a mere Advisor To Apple’s CEO.
In a 1997 Q&A with developers, he was asked to be specific about certain transformative technologies that he believed Apple should be pursuing. He quickly leapt into a description of a system that NeXT had developed for in-house use: a massive server that backed up everybody’s home directory and could serve it to any NeXT machine anywhere. He spoke of a working environment in which being near ‘his’ computer wasn’t important so long as he was near ‘a’ computer, and he never lost a single file due to a hard drive crash because a server was handling backups constantly.
It’s iCloud, without the nifty name or the industry buzzword behind it. But the larger symbolism – at least to my eyes – is that iCloud and iOS 5 and iPhone 4S are the next things. Apple is moving on. As they should.
The worst thing for Apple would be if the lingering presence of the world’s most famous engineer poisoned every discussion of every future strategy with the question, ‘What would Steve do?’. Steve would be making decisions based on brand-new technologies and concepts that would require years to develop into practical products and services.
Copying the results of decisions that Steve Jobs made three years ago is traditionally the purview of Apple’s competitors... not Apple.