I’ve seen Jobs dozens of times as a reporter. I’ve gotten to ask him questions, and I’ve had a chance to see him chat up VIPs at product demo stations after he’s unveiled something great. I’ve read pretty much everything written about him, and spoken to many people who’ve worked with him. Still, he’s always been a mystery to me. I’ve never been able to understand just why he was at good at spotting and creating the best things in tech.
Last weekend my wife and I were taking a walk with our baby not far from downtown Palo Alto, and I realized that we weren’t too far from Jobs’ house. I’d only ever seen it from the car, so I wanted to see if we could get closer. Part of this was plain nosiness. But I was also curious to see if I could somehow get closer—to get some insight into some part of his world. We walked a bit out of our way, then turned a corner onto Jobs’ street. There were some big guys who looked like security guards outside, as well as Jobs’ license-plate-free silver Mercedes. It’s a beautiful house, though nothing as grand as the other multimillion-dollar residences on his street. The most obviously Jobsian touch were the half dozen apple trees in the yard. We walked slowly past the house, but I wasn’t feeling any closer to Jobs.
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But I was going about it wrong. For decades, Jobs was nearly alone in the computer industry in his belief that it was better for users if a single company made every part of every device. In an age ruled by mediocre modularity—where one company makes your hardware, another makes your software, and another bundles ads and crapware onto the machine—Jobs saw electronics as an expression of a fierce, if inscrutable, artistic vision.
It’s that vision that defined him, and perhaps it’s only through the products his company made that we can ever hope to understand him. The major touchstones of the Jobs aesthetic are obvious—in hardware, software, retail, marketing, and even office design, he believed in elegance and minimalism. From a broader perspective, he believed in fighting against inertia. This was true of his plan for Apple—in 1997, he wouldn’t stand for its obsolescence—as well as for the gadgets he delivered. When I look at my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook Air, or the beautiful Apple keyboard that I’m typing on now, I see more of Jobs than I could have ever hoped to glimpse outside his house. These products came about because one man understood that machines didn’t have to be the way they were. Steve Jobs didn’t just want technology to change. He made it happen, and thanks to him the world is a much different, much better place.