Fittingly, the news came via iPhone. In an East Village bar a young woman shouted, “Steve Jobs died!” and soon the idle chatter turned from baseball and new love and the new restaurant down the street to the man who helped us keep track of it all. Despite months of clues — the rushed publishing of his biography, the conspicuous absence from this week’s Apple event, and of course his stepping down as CEO — it was still sudden. Steve Jobs, the manifestation of American possibility, was dead at 56 years old. The master innovator could innovate no further.
Jobs’s legacy was built on imagination and invention. Death offers neither. But we still have his artifacts. Wherever his family lays Jobs to rest is almost a formality. His tombstone has already been carved 130 million times over, most of them dressed in the appropriate mourner’s black, a memory we carry with us every day. And that’s just the iPhone. There are also the iPads, the iPods, the MacBooks, the iMacs, the apps, the Pixar movies, the Apple Stores, the catchphrases, the software, the operating system, the stock, and on and on we could go, endlessly touring around Apple’s infinite loop.
The eulogies started when he stepped down from Apple in August, marking the end of an era but not yet the end of a life. And yet this feels different, doesn’t it? Jobs’ resignation was just the next, bittersweet step in a remarkable career. But death — death is the one thing Steve Jobs never quite copped to. Even his failed products simply became something else. The Newton, a prescient but premature PDA, evolved into the iPhone; the Macintosh Portable led to the Powerbook; NeXT, Jobs’s company while exiled from Apple in the eighties, may be gone, but its software innovations live on within every Mac and iDevice sold. Iteration leaves no room for permanent rest.
There will be a lot of hagiography coming in the next few days (guilty as charged), and it will largely ignore that Jobs could be an irascible jerk, a man so devoted to his vision that there was no room for debate. It will forget to mention that his autocratic tendencies created a culture of corporate secrecy and censorship in the App Store. And it will ignore that Jobs created a seemingly endless amount of stuff, fueling a consumer culture obsessed with the new new thing without any regard to where the old things are going to be buried one day.
At some point this year, he surely knew that what was next was his own death. And yet he seems to have made peace with that years ago. In 2005, Jobs gave Stanford’s commencement address. It’s a status quo speech, a lesson here, a joke there. But near the end he begins to muse on death, just a year after his diagnosis:
To Jobs, death was his final, most glorious “one more thing.”