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Steve Jobs and the limits of genius

With his death, Steve Jobs leaves a hugely successful company and a history of innovation. His legacy may not be the one you think
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Written by Rupert Goodwins on

As an Apple user, on and off, since the Apple II, a former technical editor on Mac User magazine, the owner of three Macintoshes, and a current iPhone 4 user, I have a confession to make.

I'm not a fan. I shed no tears when Steve Jobs died, and in my life as a journalist I have found his company giving me far more pain than pleasure.

Those are thoughts for another time. For now, I'd like to recall three times in my life when I felt the magic — and say why it never quite won me over.

Scene 1. A young Rupert, perched on his first moped, was puttering across Dartmoor to visit a friend for an evening's tea and cakes. Apart from a few encounters at school, I'd yet to spend any time on a computer. My friend, I discovered, had an Apple IIe set up in his basement.

He later forgave me for the evening: the planned socialising failed to happen. I drank his tea and ate his buns, but was entirely, utterly fixated by the experience of Colossal Cave, with the first high-resolution graphics I'd ever seen — a dragon in cool green pixels. There was more; even in text mode, the characters were beautifully rendered, and the keyboard was so pleasurable to employ that the machine begged to be used, to be experimented with.

I got a ZX81 as soon as I could afford one, and sank gratefully into the depths of digital technology wherein still I swim, but the abiding memory of the Apple IIe was one of more than just the technology. It had a presence. And a price tag that kept it out of my reach for a long time.

Scene 2. Older, if not by much, I was working in a lab in Cambridge, helping to build computers. A co-worker appeared, fresh off the plane from San Francisco, clutching a beige box. We plugged in the keyboard and — there's daring — the mouse, turned it on and watched as the screen lit up a pure white. Then a tiny smiling image of itself and, a few moments of muted floppy later, the desktop.

There was a precision to everything it did that set it apart from anything else: once again, the feeling of very advanced technology was amplified by the attention to detail. Firing up MacPaint was enthralling; using Fat Bits to work with individual pixels was more so.

We also discovered that a single floppy 128k Macintosh wasn't actually very useful, and the price seemed too far into the luxury bracket to be worth chasing. The company I worked for went back to designing cheaper, cruder, but more useful computers. It didn't last much longer.

Scene 3. Around 20 years and various lives later, I'd hung up the compiler and breadboard for good. Someone put an iPhone in my hands for the first time. It too had that ineffable sense of being about four years too advanced for its time, yet about two years away from being useful.

The aesthetics were gorgeous: the thinness, the colour, above all, the fluidity of the interface. The cost was painful, the performance — well, it didn't have 3G, and the processor was too fond of the juice. But it was a beautiful thing. And an expensive one.

I'd like to say that putting beauty into technology will be Steve Jobs's legacy, but it's not true. Few follow, nobody follows well. Neither is it true that he was an inventor: he had a deep insight into technology, but not an engineer's practical appreciation of it. That was important and gave him freedom: he saw something that it might be able to do, even if it couldn't, and sometimes made it happen anyway.

What is true is that he was a genius, in any way that makes sense of the word. Most particularly, it works in its original senses — a spirit, the light of the fire, a unique, primal, driving intelligence. Nobody else could do what he did, not even after 30 years of seeing him do it. There has been no Macintosh killer, no iPod killer, no iPhone killer. There have been plenty of derivatives, but nothing with the spark, the genius inside.

Which makes today doubly sad for Apple; it has lost its leader, and it will not find another like him. For it is in the nature of genius that it cannot be replicated or synthesised; it cannot be built or controlled; it can only be copied, and badly.

How did he do it? He was a visionary, a catalyst and a motivator. He saw things that nobody else could see; he made them happen; he took us all along for the ride. I felt all three things at those three times in my life, felt them instinctively just by touching the technology, and I was not alone. That is unique, and uniquely important.

But his skill at business, won the hard way through multiple failures, meant that for many, including myself, that magic was never democratically distributed. For me the magic of technology only truly works once it touches everybody. Inclusive, not exclusive; open, not closed; enabling, not disabling: these are the things that make me a fan; they are not the way to run a very high-margin business selling gadgets. They may be Apple's marketing message; they are increasingly not its way of life.

Steve Jobs was a superb technologist but a better businessman: that is his legacy, and it leaves us a lot to talk about now that he is gone.

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