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Mourning Steve Jobs

In 1997, our friend Cary Lu, one of the pre-eminent Macintosh writers of the 1980s and 1990s, died of cancer (see “Cary Lu Remembered,” 29 September 1997). During his last few months, in which we spent more time with Cary than when he was healthy, he commented that some people reacted to his impending death by pulling away, whereas others became closer. The same was true in the immediate aftermath, with several of us collaborating to finish Cary’s final book (see “The Race for Bandwidth,” 21 September 1998).

With Steve Jobs passing away this past week (see “Steve Jobs Dead at 56,” 5 October 2011), I found myself thinking of Cary’s death, trying to figure out just what it was I did feel. It wasn’t exactly sadness, because unlike Cary, Jobs wasn’t a personal friend, and I was no more aware of his physical condition than anyone else. I met Jobs only twice, once in the late 1980s at the opening of the first public room of NeXT machines at Cornell University when Tonya and I were undergraduate student supervisors of the computer rooms, and once again briefly on the floor of Macworld Expo when he was walking around with my friend Jeff Robbin, whose SoundJam had been purchased by Apple as
the basis for iTunes. I don’t think I spoke to Jobs the first time, and if I said anything on the second occasion, it was a simple thank you.

So sadness isn’t the right emotion — I didn’t know Steve Jobs, and he didn’t know me. I have no idea if he even ever saw TidBITS, though it’s possible, since we do count other high-ranking Apple executives among our readers.

And yet, after the rush to post our coverage of Jobs’s death on Wednesday night, I had trouble accomplishing anything productive on Thursday and Friday, an experience shared by numerous others who have spent years orbiting Apple. While I couldn’t bring myself to write anything then, I couldn’t resist reading every article about Jobs I saw shared on Twitter, and I found myself wanting to collect and curate them, as if by bringing together the most eloquent and interesting articles I could somehow fill the void in my life that had opened up. You can see my efforts in the comments on our coverage.

Ironically, it was a Windows-using friend from college who made me realize why the loss of Jobs was so… unsettling. It was telling that such a friend, with whom we exchange email only a few times a year and see once a year at most, thought the event significant enough to send us a note of condolence. And in further discussion, he pointed out that Jobs and Apple were front and center in the computer revolution of the 1980s, such that he was an iconic figure for everyone who came to computers during that decade, regardless of whether they used Macs. Our generation wasn’t alone — while the founding of Apple was a pivotal moment in the computer revolution for the geeks of the 1980s, Jobs’s return to Apple in 1996 and Apple’s
subsequent success with the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad meant that Apple was, if anything, more prominent in the lives of many millions of people coming of age over the last 15 years.

It’s not that any of us really knew him, or even felt that we did, it’s that he was always there, always coming out with the next big thing, always offering a reliable touchstone for design and innovation.

That feeling was echoed by another friend, who reminded us that Tonya and I were the first people she knew who she met at Macworld Boston in 1995 after hearing that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead died. We asked, merely by way of making conversation, how she was doing and she replied, “I don’t know yet. I just heard Jerry Garcia died, and I’m a deadhead.” In her email to us the day after Jobs died, she said the feeling was exactly the same, that life had just changed and while it was hard to see how, it was, and always would be, different in some way.

None of this is to imply that I have any fear for the future of Apple, Inc. I have too much respect for the abilities of the people who work at Apple to think the company will change in any significant way in the foreseeable future. We’ve been through those arguments before, when Jobs took medical leaves of absence, and when he resigned from the CEO post, and there’s no reason to believe that Apple’s overall direction will change this time.

But the fact remains that Steve Jobs is gone, and regardless of how well he has inculcated his way of thinking and working into Apple, the technology industry has lost a much-needed part of its soul. At the risk of sounding even geekier than I actually am, Steve Jobs’s death truly is a disturbance in the Force. That’s why so many of us have felt aimless and unfocused since, and if you’re feeling a similar sense of loss, just know that you’re not alone and that it will slowly become the new normal.

After two days of being unable to work effectively at the Mac, I spent Saturday outside in the autumn sunshine with Tonya and Tristan. We shook hundreds of pounds of apples out of our trees, went over to a neighbor’s house, and pressed cider for the rest of the afternoon. I won’t pretend that I’m fully engaged yet, but working with the fruit of our land, preparing food for the upcoming winter, was a good reminder that loss — that feeling of emptiness as something comes to an end — is an essential part of the cycle of life.

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