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.

On Steve Jobs, illness, and the future of Apple

Steve Jobs (vintage)The tech world is abuzz this week over the news that, despite his open letter from last week stating that he was going to stay on the job, Steve Jobs has announced that he will be taking a six-month leave of absence from Apple.

For those of you who don’t know, Steve Jobs has been battling pancreatic cancer since 2004. He underwent a surgery called the Whipple procedure in which large portions of various intestinal organs are removed, and has appeared mostly healthy since then. However, throughout 2008 he was observed to be losing an alarming amount of weight, which as he described in last week’s letter, is not (directly) related to the cancer.

I’ve been reluctant to delve into this topic here, because I have a personal connection with pancreatic cancer. Someone close to me has been battling the disease since 2005, and in fact underwent the same surgical procedure as Jobs. It led to a remarkable recovery, allowing her to travel internationally in 2006 and 2007. She’s still with us, but it’s been a hard-fought battle against both the disease and the effects of chemotherapy. So, in short, I probably have a better idea than most observers of just what Jobs is up against.

His cancer may or may not have returned, and he may or may not return to Apple in June as he has promised. But regardless of his health, it’s true and obvious that eventually he’ll be leaving Apple, regardless of the reason. And despite his role as the company’s founder, prodigal son, and visionary leader for the past dozen years, Apple will go on without him. But a lot of people seem not to be able to imagine how.

Apple went on without him from 1985 to 1997. It struggled, yes, and was the butt of many jokes. But I became a loyal Apple user in the darkest of those dark days: 1993. I witnessed the foibles of Gil Amelio, and yet Apple managed to soldier on.

Then of course came the return of Jobs. The past decade since his return as CEO has seen the company vault from laughable also-ran in the computer business to an innovative leader, not just in computers but in portable music players and now smartphones (though that name does a disservice to the fact that the iPhone/iPod touch is really a brand new, pocket-sized computing platform that defies the currently available categories). Their computers are more popular than ever for home users, and they’re even making inroads into the business world.

And yet, Apple fans are still viewed as something of a cult. It’s a cult of personality, largely, focused squarely on Steven P. Jobs. So, what happens to the cult of Apple without His Eminence?

It’s true that Steve Jobs is a uniquely skilled CEO. He’s a visionary without peer, he’s a ruthless businessman, a shrewd leader, and a great showman. So who can fill that void?

Well, as it happens, Apple has some pretty impressive leadership in its other corner offices as well. I think the situation at Apple, and whether or not to be worried about Jobs leaving, is best expressed in pseudocode:

if (Cook + Schiller + Ive < Jobs) { panic; } else { do_not_panic; }

There are three people at Apple who really stand out from the crowd, besides Jobs himself. They are Tim Cook, the Chief Operating Officer, who was largely responsible for the outstanding success of the iTunes Store; Phil Schiller, the showman who more than adequately filled Jobs’ shoes at this year’s Macworld Expo keynote; and Jonathan Ive, the visionary designer who has been at the heart of just about every new product offering Apple has introduced since Jobs’ return and the world-changing original “gumdrop” iMac design.

In short… these are some brilliant, talented guys. What’s more, together the three of them are at least as responsible for the current state of Apple as is Jobs.

Apple is in good hands.

A glimpse into the musical sketchbook

Last Friday night I spent a few hours playing around with some new musical ideas. I worked on some acoustic guitar parts for some earlier songs (including a possible re-recording of my 2003 track “Tai Chi for Oafs”), and I also worked on a couple of brand new ideas.

These may never see any further attention than what they got that night, and they’re presently fairly repetitive, but that’s why they fade out mercifully quickly. Enjoy! (Or not.)

Don’t Limit Me, Steve!
The working title of this track is aimed squarely at Mr. Jobs. As much as I love all things Apple, especially GarageBand, I do find it aggravating at times that the software makes you select a time signature, tempo and key before you can create a new song project. It makes it difficult to just play around with ideas because if you want to change any of these attributes, it permanently alters the playback of any tracks you’ve already recorded. I’ve retaliated by creating this song with an unnatural 11-bar chord progression and a bass riff that strangely hits a major 6th where the listener (myself included) would normally expect to hear a minor 7th.


Just a mellow electronic thing. And of course, given the name, I had to put some Mellotron in it.