What will we do now?

TWENTY-FOUR hours after Steve Jobs died, there is still a flood of tweets, and blogs and comments. Personal, sad conversations and phone calls continue, and regretful e-mail messages, and we are all still processing the information, even though there was plenty of warning.

The surprise is how clueless the traditional media have been. Just like with Diana, they misjudged the impact of the loss on regular people. CNN and the rest piled on with witless observations from people who had never even met the man, when all they needed to do was go the front of any Apple Store and ask some customers what they were thinking. Jeff Jarvis on Twitter mercilessness pilloried the pointless, premature “What will Apple do now?” segments.

The New York Times came out in the national edition with their typical dead tycoon obit in the lower right corner of the front page. At least they “bled” a three-column photo of the Occupy Wall Street occupation, but the lede was another handwringing story about the European debt crisis. But wait. Replate! In the Late Edition, the obit was moved to the lead position. Perhaps a reporter happened by an Apple Store and saw the flowers laid at the door.

Why don’t these guys instinctively understand why Steve was so important?

Well, I was at The Times when the Macintosh appeared, and they wouldn’t even let one in the building. Gary Cosmini, then art director of the Science Times section, had to smuggle in his own Mac in a shopping bag!

The old line media ranks news in a 20th-century order: War and statecraft / Politics / Natural and man-made disasters / Murders / Business and finance / Social issues / Local / Fine arts / Entertainment / Food and lifestyle / Fashion / Celebrities. . . .

Did we leave out Technology? Oh well, we’ll put it in Business. How about Design? It can go in Lifestyle or somewheres. How about Social Media? I don’t know. Is that important? How do we cover that?

What about Personal Technology, to which people have become so utterly attached? The iPods, iPhones and iPads were put into the world by Steve Jobs. Now people are so glued to them that they run into walls while walking on the sidewalk—or worse when driving. This sphere of personal communication—Twitter and Facebook, e-mail and Flipboard, You-Tube and FaceTime, the RSS feeds and Google search—has taken over the world and the legacy media hardly recognizes it.

(At least Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist and now Time have put Steve on the cover.)

While sometimes we are happy to go back to reading a printed book or magazine cover-to-cover (on our Kindles with the share annotations turned off), we now expect the social layer, insist on it, and we’re just never going back to the totally passive printed page. The media has become aware of this, but doesn’t like it.

Of course Steve did not invent all of these things. In fact, despite all the Apple patents, almost everything they have put together started somewhere else. They didn’t make the PC; the Commodore and Trash 80 came even before the Apple II. The first Mac was copied wholesale from Xerox PARC’s personal computer, which had a window interface, WYSIWIG display, a mouse, and an Ethernet network. Later, the iPod was not the first digital music player. The iPhone was not the first smart phone. The iPad was not the first computer tablet.

But Apple came out with vastly better design and superb marketing. And iTunes, the App Store, and the Apple Store.

It’s the design that is at the heart of Apple, and even there the hardware and interface designers took inspiration from the whole culture. Much has been made, at least since they sued Samsung, about how Apple devices look like props in the movie 2001—or old Braun radios or calculators designed by Dieter Rams. But these are designs with a tip-of-the-hat to Rams. Jobs didn’t copy, he absorbed. And he took in not just the visual design profession, but basic human behavior and global popular culture. The Times did have some insight on this in a story early last year.

Great products, according to Mr. Jobs, are triumphs of “taste.” And taste, he explains, is a byproduct of study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.”

—Steve Lohr, The New York Times

Job’s relentless quest for the insanely great was successful because he consistently hit the cultural mark. Apple made an experience, not a just a machine. He didn’t sit and look at the competition’s hardware and software. He looked at the world, and the human race.

He didn’t code, he didn’t design, he didn’t build. He just thought. And then got people to build his ideas.

Some time I’ll tell the stories of the times I met Steve. The elevator story. The story about Next and Quark. The font wars. Some of these are not the sweet memories we’re getting right now; not everyone benefited from a close relationship with Steve and Apple. But hell, even Wozniak is waxing elegiacal today.
And all of us Apple users are wondering what we’ll do without him. Will Apple be as good? How can they be as good? That genius, that leader, that great impresario who staged an exponential synthesis of culture—the very essence of great design—is gone.