Steve Jobs gets sick, and Wall Street has a panic attack

From The Irish Times, Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

MOORE’S LAW, the prediction that computer chips double their performance every 18 to 24 months, underpins progress in the industry. But perhaps it’s time to coin a new law of computing, which we might call Jobs’s Law: every profile of Apple’s co-founder and chief executive, Steve Jobs, must invoke a religious analogy to demonstrate just how successful Jobs has been.

The comparisons, in fairness, are just too tempting to resist. Casting Apple as an organised religion is easy, what with all those pristine, minimalist Apple stores acting as chapels and churches. There is the legion of faithful users, evangelical about the products, investing their hopes in the latest creation. But most of all there is Jobs himself, and the arc of his history with the company – giving birth to it in 1976, before being cast out of his Eden in 1985, wandering in the wilderness only to return as a saviour in 1997, magically transforming the ailing computer firm’s fortunes.

And as the US Christian writer Andy Crouch points out, Apple’s early logo “slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure – the bitten fruit – and made it a sign of promise and progress”.

The analogy is trite, of course. Steve Jobs makes gadgets, often magical, always beautiful, occasionally revolutionary gadgets, sure, but gadgets all the same. Despite his “Reality Distortion Field” – the ability to persuade everybody of his infallible rightness – he has no special powers, just vision, good taste, huge quantities of obsessive perfectionism and a punishing work ethic. And above all, unlike the deities he is compared to, Jobs is a mere mortal like the rest of us.

A sharp reminder of Jobs’s mortality came with the news last Monday that he was taking another medical leave of absence from the company. Jobs was diagnosed with a rare, treatable form of pancreatic cancer in 2004, and required a liver transplant in 2009. The reaction to Monday’s news was one of shock tinged with mild panic. The next day the front pages of both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times were dominated by the 55-year-old’s gaunt face, alongside questions about whether Apple could survive.

The saying goes that if China sneezes, the US catches a cold. Now it seems that if Jobs suffers from any unspecified ailment, Wall Street has a panic attack.

There has been a lot for tech investors to be worried about this week, with the news that Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was being replaced by co-founder Larry Page. Schmidt, a former Apple board member who fell out spectacularly with Jobs over Google’s plans for an iPhone rival, is in many ways the anti-Jobs, with a capacity to say the wrong thing at any time, consistently failing to convince people of his rightness.

Page is closer to the young Jobs, returning to the chief executive position he held in Google’s early days, though he never had to leave. Without Schmidt to blame, it will be harder now for Google to ignore its “Don’t be evil” mantra.

The reshuffle at Google is testimony to Jobs’s unrivalled position as a consistent and visionary innovator over the past three decades. It is also a reminder of how unusual he is. There are plenty of successful businessmen, innovators, salesmen and leaders, but few combine all those roles so well. Jobs is the great autocrat of modern industry, an iconoclast with a quick temper and high standards. Yet the memo announcing his leave included the unusually emotional line: “I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can.”

That declaration is touching but also indicative of how much the company is not merely his greatest creation but in some ways also his corporate incarnation. For three decades we have been moving towards a technological future that is in large part straight out of Jobs’s imagination. How many others have had such a tangible influence on so many areas of our lives? He has transformed a bunch of industries with Apple and Pixar, the animation film studio.

The way we now consume music owes a huge amount to his creations. It’s hard to imagine the phones of the future resembling anything other than iPhones. Personal computing strictly followed the graphical-user- interface paradigm Jobs pioneered, at least until he shifted that paradigm once again with the creation of the iPad.

But what drives someone to such extraordinary achievements? According to Jobs, it was an early awareness of his mortality. In 2005, at a commencement speech to the graduating class at Stanford University, Jobs delivered one of the most eloquent and hopeful discussions of death you are likely to hear. From the age of 17, he told the crowd, he asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart . . . Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but some day not too long from now you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”

Coming from a Buddhist who had faced death recently, it transcended the realms of motivational cliche and had the ring of profound insight.

Contrary to Jobs’s Law, that Stanford commencement speech was probably the closest he ever came to being a religious leader, offering instruction to his flock. Despite the lessons of the sermon, many of us hope Jobs is not quite ready to make way for the new just yet.

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