“No, but I did touch his iPod,” I answered when someone asked if I shook Steve Jobs hand. It happened quite by chance. Jobs was addressing a small group of journalists at the Apple Expo in Paris in September 2005 a few weeks after he had launched the latest, thinnest iPod nano. The British journalist behind me was asking about it and Jobs nonchalantly threw it into the crowd.
I was sitting at the aisle and instinctively put my hand out. Luckily it turned out, as the reporters had two left feet for hands and it sailed right through them. I caught it, gave it to him and he played with it briefly. Then he flung it back at Jobs, missing him completely and it cluttered into floor behind the low stage.
It was a smallish group interview – Jobs only did one-on-ones, if at all, with the New York Times, Washington Post and the like – and it had taken weeks to set up. Jobs, who wore his trademark black turtleneck and blue jeans, was a commanding figure. As legendary as his much larger public launches, Jobs was even more fluid and deft in a small room. I’ve interviewed many CEOs and seen many more in action. None were as masterful as Jobs, nor as respected, however begrudgingly. People left that room with unanswered questions, but still admired him and gave Apple a good write up.
He answered my own question about ease-of-use with a clever line: “We’re good at making very state-of-the-art technology and making it easy to use for mere mortals who don’t want to read manuals.”The PR handlers told me afterwards they thought he was very sympathetic towards me, unusually so for a journalist he’d never met. They remarked on it several times. At the time, my late brother’s wife was battling cancer and I was wearing the bright yellow Livestrong band when I put my hand up. I can only imagine Jobs, the cancer survivor, saw it. I can’t say I noticed a difference myself, but the PR people were enchanted by it. At dinner that night, one called me “the guy Steve spoke nicely to”.
Amazingly, I remembered this story in the Business Times newsroom the day before Jobs died. In a strange twist of fate, two weeks after returning from Paris, I heard the other Steve, Microsoft CEO Ballmer, at a launch in Johannesburg. They couldn’t have been more different. As much as there is a halo effect around Apple products, Jobs has the same effect. His urbane, chatty style, tinged with a cheekiness – that seems to say “we’re only got five percent of the global PC market but we’re just so damn cool” – is a crowd pleaser. Ballmer by contrast is tall and booming. He is the quarterback to Job’s cheerleader.
That day in Paris, I was impressed by Jobs, perhaps a little awestruck. It’s always remarkable to see great men up close and personal. Love him or hate him, Jobs has done more than most people ever do to change the world. No person has held the technology, cellular, music and film industries in thrall as Jobs did. He revolutionised all four industries, leading Fortune magazine to name him CEO of the Decade. And that was before he virtually invented the tablet market with the iPad, and paved the way towards this post-PC era everyone is so excited about. And before apps took off as the newest economy.
He was famed for waiting until the end of his launches to drop the bombshell “one more thing” line, and unveil the new iMustHave. After the iPhone 4S launch this week, which was the first major announcement since he retired in August, it feels almost as if his long-expected, but sudden, death was just that. Timing was one of his greatest strength, even in this most tragic of personal moments.
In his famous Stanford address (read it if you haven’t: http://j.mp/p10Ihs), he said: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
Sadly, that was this week. Goodbye Steve Jobs. The world will really miss you and your genius.