Like most writers on the technology beat today, I am cancelling all plans and dumping all prepared copy to address what is, without question, the most surprising and important development in the technology world at the moment: the passing of Steve Jobs, the recently retired, visionary CEO of Apple Computer.
There was, of course, nothing surprising in the death itself. Jobs had been publicly and visibly losing a struggle with pancreatic cancer for several years. But the swiftness with which it followed his retirement came as a shock to those of us not in the inner circle of this professionally very showboating but personally very private man.
But maybe we should all have seen it coming.
For years, at his annual Mac World appearances, Jobs had a standard schtick in which he would host a pretty good show, feature a bunch of cool new computers and features, and then say, “Oh, and one more thing,” and bring in the real wow-factor, show-stopping development he had till then kept behind the curtain.
In his passing, he worked that routine one more time, for good and all.
I have already used this space to talk about Job’s retirement from Apple and its implications for that company and for the information technology industry and society in general. What I had to say was pretty much of a piece with what most people had to say: Jobs had his faults as a corporate leader, but was a business impresario and technological visionary of world-shaking proportions, and would probably prove to be an impossible act to follow.
This time out, I am going to indulge – though I hope not self-indulgently – in some more personal reflections on the career of Steve Jobs, and its effect on my own, completely unintentional evolution into becoming a techno-junkie and computer nerd.
Though I have lately been in rebellion against Apple (largely because it has followed up its huge commercial success with absurd implementations of digital rights management lock-downs in programs like iTunes), I have spent two decades or more being an unrepentant acolyte of the Jobs technological vision.
Had it not been for Steve Jobs, in fact, it is unlikely that I would have become a computer nerd at all, and my life, for better or for worse, would have followed a completely different path – probably into the God-forsaken wilderness of academic literary criticism.
Though most people will remember him for either one or both of his two career high points – the first release of the Apple Macintosh computer, or the release of the home-friendly little iMac – the Steve Jobs I will always remember most fondly is the one of his obscure middle period, when he had left (or, more accurately, been forced out of) Apple, and developed the NeXT computer system.
(No, my keyboard has not gone into blow-out: “NeXT” was Jobs’ stipulated spelling for the rebel computer company he founded, and for its flag ship, jet-black computer systems.)
By a sequence of happy accidents and chance acquaintances, I became an early adopter of the NeXT computer system, and employed it for about three years as my primary work tool in an unsuccessful spell as a freelance writer and desktop publisher.
Though they ultimately proved out to be a corporate folly, the NeXT computers were physically lovely and operationally sweet, and at least 10 years ahead of there time (which was why they were so expensive, so software-poor and, ultimately, commercially unviable).
The NEXTSTEP operating system (again, not a problem with my keyboard, that was the NeXT-approved way of typing the name of their operating software) was essentially Unix with a human interface – and it was that interface, together with the sales bravado of Steve Jobs, that a floundering Apple Computer bought out and absorbed in 1996.
The OS X interface you see on your Mac today is the grandchild of NEXTSTEP.
I was one of about a dozen Yukon NeXT users (just the right number for a set of disciples, as it turns out) who formed the NeXT Users Group, Yukon Territory around 1992.
We were the standard computer-nerd organization, munching Timbits and slurping coffee and showing each other cool new apps or cool new NeXT tricks. But we were fated, without knowing or intending it, to make some fairly big noise in the territory.
The core development group that initiated and project-managed the first installation of internet connectivity in the Yukon came out of that group, and its unassuming desire to see their super-cool NeXT boxes communicating with each other at distance.
The very first internet domain name registered in the Yukon, in fact, was nugyt.yk.ca – the acronym for our users group.
The very first computer handling the password authentication and network management of the Yukon’s internet connectivity was in fact an HP Gecko computer, running an Intel-chip-based version of NEXTSTEP (which it did not do very well, unfortunately).
So, whatever complaints I have about the way Jobs handled Apple’s current world-beating success, I cannot help but have a nostalgic lump in my throat, and a flush of regretful gratitude for a guy I never met, but who taught me that, just like literature, computers could be beautiful and life-enhancing, too.
That’s all, folks. I don’t have one more thing.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.