Where Steve Jobs was wrong; often great, but stubbornly wrong

Mourning the loss of Steve Jobs' potential for greatness more than the man himself

Within minutes after Apple released the news last night that Steve Jobs had passed away the Internet began to fill with sorrow and tributes of a kind that would be alien and inappropriate for most other big-business CEOs.

Almost as soon as the news seeped out – even before it hit any of the news services -- #ThankYouSteve was trending upward on Twitter.

In New York pepper-spray-and-shoving matches between protesters and police sparked a micro-panic among supporters on IRC channels and the live video feed that kept messages flowing so quickly they were almost impossible to read and participants begged for moderators to thin out the traffic so updates didn't scroll offscreen too quickly to be read.

Even in that gabble of outrage, concern, reports of injuries or arrests, expressions of support and advice – in a multicast conversation focused in real time on events, people and issues that had nothing to do with Apple or Steve Jobs or the PC revolution or the iPhone counter-revolution – people found time and space to express very personal sorrow at the loss of the iMaster.

An astonishing number sounded as if they had suffered the loss of a close relative or family friend, not the CEO of a computer manufacturing company, a reserved and quirky man with a reputation for being difficult to work for, awkward to talk with who displayed among strangers little of the warm, fan-friendly personality he displayed on stage.

No other figure in computing would prompt so sincere and personal a response. The response to a tragedy befalling Bill Gates, despite a second career as philanthropist and do-gooder that may become as successful as his first as a rapacious, monopolistic software mogul, wouldn't even compare.

Even those who are not raging Apple Fanboys seemed to feel a personal connection with the man, with the social and technical revolution he helped to launch.

Some of that comes from Jobs' personal history of vulnerability – born to an unwed mother, given up for adoption, growing up feeling alienated and awkward, searching for a way to make his life matter in ways too big for the college education he cut short to play with nerd toys in a garage with his friend Woz.

By rights Jobs should have been a satellite to Woz, whose talent designing and building smart things out of dumb ones was much greater than Jobs'.

Jobs saw it all as more than just making hardware smarter. He saw personal computers – or at least promoted them – as a way to become more than what he was, to reach places he would otherwise not be able to go.

Against the naysaying of anyone who knew anything about computers at the time, he convinced other people that, with some help from a smart machine to handle the complicated bits, anyone could do great things, or at least things far greater than they could do on their own.

That was the power of Steve Jobs. He seemed to really believe what would have been just an advertising slogan in the mouth of other proto-moguls in the growing PC business, all of whom – Jobs included – wanted the revolution they were launching to make them rich and powerful, not just free the untutored masses.

Great, but not good?

I never got that connection with the actual Jobs.

I could see, historically, how important he had been and how consistently he was able to force great ideas, great design and real, actual inventive creativity into objects that are chained to the mundane in both appearance and operation by the laws of physics, size of components, battery power and ability to hold or use information.

Jobs was no stellar engineer; he did little of the real inventing. But there is no question he was great at creating great technology – or at least getting others to do it which, in many ways is much more difficult.

His perfectionism, his obsession with making his creations work exactly the way he wanted them to produced contradictory tidal forces that could have – should have – broken up Apple and its fan culture.

That need for control directly contradicted every principle of freedom, unrestricted thinking and creativity he preached as his core principles – which, to all appearances, they were.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life," he told graduating seniors at Stanford in 2005. "Don't be trapped by dogma, which is [what it means to live] with the result of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your inner voice."

That's great advice for living your life, but Jobs used the opposite approach when it came to technology.

Apple fell irretrievably behind clunkier rival Microsoft early in the PC era because Jobs refused to license his much-superior operating system to run on machines built by other companies.

The result wasn't up to his standards.

Perfectionism isn't always a virtue

His high standards caused the creation of dozens of top-flight products and a few that were truly great.

They also put such tight restrictions software that could run on those creations, content that could be distributed to or through them and what customers could do with iPhones, iPads, iTunes and other triumphs that customers complained their right to speak was being taken away by the same technology that was giving them a voice to speak and an outlet for their thoughts.

I never felt empowered using a Mac. I felt restricted and patronized. If something went wrong, there was no way for me to fix it.

If I didn't like, or found it awkward to do things the Mac OS or Mac app wanted me to, that was just too bad.

I had to do it the way Steve Jobs wanted me to. In return I got to pay a premium price for the hardware itself and was saddled with a dozen major and minor headaches, from the additional effort of making Macs work with the computers everyone else was using, to the shape of the proprietary plugs Apple continues to use, rather than standardizing on something that makes life easier for customers.

For all the greatness Apple and Steve Jobs brought into the world, for all the beige-box mundanity he fought against and the design aesthetic he eventually convinced the rest of the business was worthwhile, for all the personal empowerment Jobs brought to so many people, it was the need for control, the perfectionism, the refusal to give customers the same freedom he demanded that became, to me, the dominant characteristic of both the company and the man.

There is no question about Steve Jobs' greatness. In an industry that not only made itself a lever long enough to move the Earth, but made a business out of selling other people their own levers, Jobs stood out as a radical among revolutionaries.

The outpouring of grief at his passing is testament that many of his obsessions were more liberating to others than they felt confining to me.

Ignoring his flaws makes his accomplishments seem smaller

I don't want to criticize the dead, or criticize Jobs at all.

I do want to point out that the greatness that came out of Apple, NeXT and all the other quirky, avante garde things Jobs brought into the mainstream all became great not because of his tendency to abuse underlings, his arrogance, his obsession with control, but despite them.

Steve Jobs was a flawed genius, and his flaws robbed both his creations and his customers of some of the flower of that genius.

To me that makes the man more interesting, his creations more impressive and his potential even more amazing than if he'd been the saint he seems in a Twittered flurry of emotional eulogy.

I wondered in a blog a few weeks ago if Apple could really be Apple without Steve Jobs. I don't think it can. I think the greatness died with the man. More than anything else about Apple, Jobs or the things either one accomplished, the things he might yet have accomplished is the loss I mourn.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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