For those - especially the computer nerds among us - of my generation, two men stand out as the giants of our age. They were not politicians, warriors or athletes. They became, in the course of their careers, fabulously wealthy. But it was not their wealth that appealed. They were not money-movers or even businessmen in the traditional sense (though each was a great businessman). They were builders in technology. Hands-on visionaries with a passion for the incredible promise of intelligent machines.
I speak, of course, of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
When my daughters 5th Grade class last year produced a play called "Great Americans of the 20th Century," I wondered how the two most salient men of the late century had somehow been left off. Perhaps the play was old or perhaps it was just the inevitable cultural bias to a certain sort of public figure.
I grew up at a time of deep intellectual ferment - not in philosophy (my other great love) or art or politics, but in technology. I still remember the incredible excitement of the personal computer. I remember my mail-order Z-80 based computer with its 16K of memory, it's 8" inch floppy drives, and it's bank of register switches on the front. I remember going to a Computer Show (and oh how geeky we all were) and seeing the Apple II with its slim, elegant design and bright, friendly logo. Oh what a precursor of genius that was. For Steve Jobs turned out not be just a prophet of technology, but perhaps the greatest hand at electronic design that has yet lived. And all the wonder of the many beautiful, striking, elegant and rigorous products that were to follow were visible in that amazing first machine.
While others built PCs into desktops like furniture, cast them as typewriters, or, most often, imprisoned them in iron cages, Jobs had his own aesthetic. He was to become famous, even infamous, for trading off function for simplicity and elegance. Sometimes it was the wrong call but often enough it produced a striking beauty not just to the eye but the touch and to the mind.
I'm not an Apple guy or a PC guy. Well, I'm probably more the latter. I see in the products each founder built and the approaches they took what I surely believe are reflections of the genius of their respective creators. And while my own practical interests kept me heavily on the PC side, I never stopped admiring the work that Jobs was doing. Even his failures were wonderful. I loved the Next machine - one of the most beautiful computers ever be built. I loved it's language - Objective C - and mourned (unnecessarily as it turned out) it's demise with the sad fate of the company.
I watched with scorn as Apple squandered Job's legendary vision and wondered, on his return, if he could once more lead the company. I even, in a rare feat of prescience, bemoaned Apple's stubborn commitment to the desktop computer when their strength (as I saw it after the iPod) was really as a consumer electronics company. I even saw the hand of Steve Jobs in the brilliance of Pixar - how accurately I cannot say.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were/are, I assume, driven men. Tough. Perhaps not likable, though certainly both much loved. What do I know is that they each had/have a genius, a gift for the art of technology. A genius and gift for something that I too love and that I can admire existing at a level I could never attain.
We honor artists (as we should), politicians (far too often), entertainers (rather too much), and our builders, I think, much too little. We honor them more, it seems, for their wealth than their craft, which certainly misses the point. Especially with a man like Steve Jobs. To think of him as a businessman is not wholly erroneous but no more comprehensive than to think of Michael Jordan that way. What made him great made him money; it was never money that made him great.
What I remember most of Steve Jobs is not the brilliant product innovations of this past decade, but that first simple, clean, beautiful machine. I remember the crazy excitement of two guys and a garage and vision of technology that would change the world. We all believed that. We were all in love. Most of us grew up. Our passion mellowed. The vision changed and became, if more human, less clear and less compelling. For Steve Jobs, perhaps, that never happened. He never lost the lover's eye.
I think we miss most the men who never quite grow up.