A tale of two decades

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of two pivotal events in the early 21st century. One is perhaps the darkest day America has faced since, at least, World War II. The other was the seemingly inauspicious debut of an electronic device that would soon herald an era of unprecedented advancement in consumer technology.

That I should even place the World Trade Center attacks and the introduction of the iPod into the same blog post, much less the same sentence, is surely offensive to some and perhaps befuddling to most of the rest. But I think it cannot be denied that, while September 11, 2001 ushered in one of the darkest political times in American history, at least the darkest in my lifetime, October 23, 2001 — the day Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod — was perhaps the day that we formally entered “the future” as I (and many others like me) envisioned it in childhood: dazzling technological devices that we can carry around in our pockets and, increasingly, seem capable of doing just about anything.

As New York solemnly builds a monument to the tragic loss of over 3,000 lives on that Tuesday morning, an event that will surely be commemorated in countless ways by millions of Americans next month, we technophiles are learning about more sad news, with the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple. Though he’s intensely private about his personal life, it is well known that Steve Jobs underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, had a liver transplant in 2009, and has had limited involvement with Apple’s day-to-day operations since he took medical leave this past January. His resignation yesterday may mean his health has suffered further declines, but that is not for us to dwell on. Leave Steve alone to enjoy his life as best he can, for as much as he has left of it.

Personal concerns aside, the departure of Steve Jobs marks the end of an era. It would be little exaggeration to declare the past decade “The Decade of Apple” in terms of technology. Apple didn’t invent every technology it sells; like any modern company it relies upon the past developments of others, just as it outsources its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn in China. But the thing that Apple has done, largely due to Steve Jobs and his visionary leadership, is invent ways to turn these technologies into compelling, “magical,” transformative devices. And along the way he has transformed Apple into a finely tuned machine itself, capable of creating these products of unparalleled originality and unlimited usefulness, at highly competitive (sometimes unmatchable) prices, with such efficiency that the company has gone from “90 days away from bankruptcy” (as it was so famously described just before Jobs’ return at the end of 1996) to vying with Exxon to be the most valuable publicly traded company in the world.

I’ve read plenty of gloom-and-doom speculation about the future of Apple without Steve Jobs, especially in the last 15 hours or so since the announcement of his resignation. Most of it is utterly ludicrous. New CEO Tim Cook and the rest of his executive team are more than capable of carrying on producing great products without Steve Jobs (or with him in a far more limited role as Chairman of the Board). Whether, over the longer term, they’ll be able to continue inventing new products as transformative as the iPod, iPhone and iPad (and whether they’ll all have to have names starting with “iP”), only time will tell. But now is clearly not the time to sell Apple stock, if you own any. (And if you don’t, maybe you should buy some… which is what I should probably be doing right now instead of writing this.)

A tale of two decades. While the September 11 attacks, and the wars, economic turmoil and political polarization that followed them, have made the last decade one of the most difficult in our nation’s history, Steve Jobs and his work at Apple have led the way for the past decade to become one of the most exciting and transformative we’ve ever seen in terms of technological advancement and, in particular, what technology can do to improve people’s everyday lives.

So, thank you, Steve Jobs, for providing a counterpoint to what was otherwise a dark decade of foolishness, incredulity and despair. Thank you for bringing to the world your wisdom, belief and hope. I spend much of every day relying on Apple devices, from using the C25K app on my iPhone during my morning run, to building websites in BBEdit on my MacBook Air, to relaxing in the evening watching “Mad Men” on Netflix with my Apple TV.

There are plenty of things going on in the world right now that are cause for sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, and despair. But the simple joy and unprecedented utility of these devices that Steve Jobs and the rest of the minds at Apple have created give me hope. If people can produce things so well-designed, so incredibly useful, so delightful, then perhaps, someday, we can get all of the rest right too.