I’m sitting with a Macbook Air on my lap. My iPad is close by, as is my son’s iPod Touch, and my iPhone. The latter is no surprise. I have my iPhone with me at all times. Unless I’m actually in the shower, then if I’m awake it’s within a yard of me at the most. I make or receive hardly any phone calls. The device isn’t about communicating, at least not for me. It’s far bigger than that. It enshrines my entire life – my attempts to organize myself, my fascination with the English language and attempts to learn others, stuff about the countries I’m living in or wish to visit, my news about the world, the music I listen to, the photos I take…

But you know the score. You’ve probably got an iPhone too (though you may not own over two thousand apps). The iPhone is a very recent love affair and  obsession, however, if you’re a long-term Apple diehard. I wrote my first short story by hand back in 1987. After that, from the second story onwards, every single thing I’ve written has been on a Mac. My father scored a Mac Plus on an academic subsidy, and it ended up under my control almost immediately (he knew I’d started to harbor ambitions to write, and quietly let me have the thing, with the subtle kindness that’s always been his hallmark). That was back in the days when you could put the entire OS, a word processor and your files on a single 400k disk. The first Mac I encountered was running, I believe, System 4.2 – I certainly recall System 5 coming in, and being a big deal. I kept using the machine at home to write stories, and then, when the company where I worked as a day job decided to bring the magazine they produced in-house, I convinced them to do it on a Mac, in the face of spirited and bitter resistance from the deputy director, who wanted to do it on some piece of crap called 3b2 (which quickly vanished without trace). Since then, in two decades, I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t used one.

I spent a number of years supporting myself as a half-assed designer, coasting solely on the fact that few people realized how easy the Mac made tasks that had previously been hard and time-consuming. I did colour work on a greyscale screen – that’s all there was. I used Photoshop and Quark when they didn’t have numbers after them, when you’d set the former to do a simple Gaussian blur on a small image, go off for lunch, and find it had still barely started on your return. I scammed typefaces from setting bureaus. I sent off for shareware disks from America – the mecca of all things Mac. I went on a comedy tour of US universities immediately after college, and the most exciting thing that happened was at Harvard when I managed to score a disk with some new sounds for SoundMaster. I spent hours and hours using ResEdit to hack the system, including trying to allocate individual icons to folder when it was all in black and white (and it was actually impossible, it turned out). When I side-stepped and started to screenwrite for a living instead, it was on a Mac. I wrote my first novel on it (and all subsequent ones). I even wrote a story on a Newton, for God’s sake. I rediscovered how much I like music through the iPod – early-adopting, as always, from the very first one. I like to think I have personally funded the research and development of at least one tiny Apple innovation, down the years.

And when the iPhone and the iPad came along I thought hell yesthis is what I’ve been waiting for. More than once has it been pointed out to me that a device I put into my first novel, ONLY FORWARD, bears quite a resemblance to the iPhone. Throwing out that kind of idea in fiction – and I was nowhere near the first – is easy. Actually making the thing happen… that takes a Steve Jobs. Anyone can speculate the future. He made it so.

I met my future wife when I went to work for her as a graphic designer. I later put my marriage proposal together… on a Mac.

I could go on and on about the way to which the Mac OS and Apple products are bedded into my personal timeline, but I’m sure you get the picture. If you’re a Mac user and have Apple in the blood, it’s doubtless been the same for you. I make no apologies for the personal nature of this piece, because something the anti-Apple brigade have simply never understood is how unbelievably personally Apple people do take their computers. We love our Macs, love them to bits, and we always have. Some of us have been with Apple for a very long time, weathering the dustbowl years when there was little or no software, when they were outlandishly expensive and crashed the whole time, when the company seemed to be losing its way and falling apart.

The faithful stood firm – and yes, when it comes to Apple, the parallel with a religion is wholly apt – and felt justifiably triumphant when the company came back from the dead and kicked the tech world’s ass. It’s still kicking it. It doesn’t matter that the adverts are sometimes kind of annoying and that a touch of West Coast smugness creeps in from time to time. What matters is that the company represents a unique way of joining technology and design, beauty and functionality, fearsome power and effortless ease of use… into products that became central to our existence. Jobs was sometimes exasperatedly accused of operating a ‘reality distortion field’, but the fact is that yes, he really did change our realities. Apple – and Steve Jobs in particular – turned the computer into something we want at the core of our lives, rather than merely tolerate there. That’s the step from the past into the future. Jobs was the guy who got us here.

The near future seems a lot less bright tonight. It doesn’t seem as easy to believe that something new and insanely great will always be just around the corner. The next few years will show whether Jobs was able to leave enough of a legacy to keep Apple lighting up our personal and working lives with nuggets of wonderful technology – and if there’s someone with the vision and bloody-mindedness to steer the ship after him. I hope so.

In the meantime, RIP Steve Jobs, sleep well: thank you for all the very cool stuff, and also for changing my life.

2 Thoughts on “Yes, Insanely Great

  1. I told my wife the news this morning, and my wee girl asked me who I was talking about. When I explained, she said “but Daddy, who’s going to make the new iPhones now?”

    It’s very sad. 56 is hellishly young.

  2. turricaned on October 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm said:

    Sad news, as is any loss, especially that young. As someone who was recently faced with a (thankfully curable) form of cancer I know what a bastard the disease in all it’s forms is. – however…

    OK, so I’ve never been the biggest fan of Apple for two reasons. First, as an Amiga user (who as a breed loved their machines every bit as much as Apple devotees) I was mortified at Apple’s insensitive chutzpah following the bankruptcy of Commodore, taking out two page spreads in every Amiga magazine one month later that effectively said “Hey, now your platform’s dead, why not spend 3 grand on a Mac?”. I was 16, 3 grand was way beyond my means, and I knew from the MacLE in school and the new Quadra and Centris machines in my saturday job in a computer store that they were barely as capable as the 400 quid wonder I called my own (Indeed, for a while in 1994 the fastest Mac in the world was an Amiga 4000 with an 060 accelerator running Shapeshifter). That said, we’re talking about Apple under Sulley rather than Apple under Jobs.

    Incidentally, this is the period during which I was introduced to Only Forward, and it remains to this day my favourite novel ever, not least because of how much it spoke to me as a nerdy, insecure teenager back then! I spread the word too, and I’m now on my 15th copy (The danger of spreading the word is that I don’t think I’ve ever got the loaned copies back).

    The other reason is that while their later products were definitely very nicely designed (though I’ve always found MacOS backwards) and did their jobs well, the markup compared to similar devices was so extreme, that I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that if Apple, rather than the motley band of Wintel clone makers, had come to dominate technology in the ’90s and onwards then computers, along with the gadgets that we all love would have been priced out of the reach of a lot of the people who now see them as everyday items. Steve Jobs was always four-square behind keeping Apple products at premium prices, even after the switch to commodity PC hardware in the Macintosh line. When I had to switch to a PC in 1997 to get my Uni work done, I built my own machine for about 800 quid. There’s no way I’d have been able to afford a Mac, and there’s no way Apple would ever have allowed the self-build route to continue.

    So yes, as the core of the philosophy running through all your stories says, losses are sad, often traumatic – and we have to pick ourselves up and move on. We lost Dennis Ritchie last week, without whom there would be no C (and by extension no Objective C), and no Unix (and by extension no MacOS X). Time to take the good parts of what these people did and forge forward, but always remember that they were human beings – often flawed as are we all.

    Oh – and one last thing… I recently re-read One Of Us, and forgot how good it was. It was amusing to note that Hap’s organiser and cellphone were still two separate entities in the 2020s! :)

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