Monday, October 10, 2011

American Pie

"Steve Jobs died," someone yelled in the San Francisco Hilton lobby. First a wave of sadness descended upon me and then I got angry at myself for giving in to celebritis. Yes, he is a big part part of the tools I use daily to get my work done and he is part of the many Apple gadgets around the house as well as much of their content, as so many people today. And it is likely he will sorely be missed in the coming years for not providing his constant stream of innovations. Every death is sad because something is lost forever but the death of a well known figure should not feel like someone close to you died. So why was it so hard to shake of this sadness?

There is of course the identification: Steve Jobs was only 3 years older, he worked in the same industry, and in moments of grandeur I have envisioned myself as a Steve Jobs if only I had been born a bit earlier and in the US instead of Rotterdam. When someone that plays such a role for you his death confronts you with your own mortality. So was this sadness only caused by a rather solipsistic fear of death?

I guess there was his constant presence through my career. When I soldered my first computer, he made the Apple II. When I designed our newspaper page make-up terminal in the eighties we got inspired by Smalltalk and Steve Jobs was inspired by the Alto, both closely related results from Xerox' PARC Place. Also Postscript, another result of PARC Place, was a shared inspiration though admittedly Apple made it viable with their LaserWriter. Around 1985 I developed an object oriented language called CO2. I had been inspired by Brad Cox, the inventor of Objective-C. So when Steve Jobs came up with the NeXT, largely based on Objective-C, I had to get one. A mind blowing experience only numbed by the excruciatingly slow optical drive.

So maybe the reason for the sadness was not egocentric but more the loss of the rare someone that shared the same enthusiasm for the combination of computers and esthetics. Someone that struggled with the same problems (though he admittedly much more successful than I ever did) in the eighties. Maybe the sadness is caused by losing the subject of a my rather rare envy. Though I share his focus on tomorrow but I do lack his ruthlessness and risk taking nature that is required for great products. His gusto to break backward compatibility only so that tomorrow's product could become better than anything else. I unfortunately tend to cave in because the others really seem desperate to want to have that feature ...

Of course I can rationalize that the almost absolute powers granted to a Steve Jobs are an anomaly and that in general we have to balance the interest of different parties. The route I've taken in my life is to find a better way to develop software, software based on collaboration and open environments like the OSGi Alliance. In such an environment compromises are inevitable but maybe the sadness is caused because Steve Jobs' death shines such a harsh light on all the compromises I agreed to only for backward compatibility and special interests.

And maybe one should not analyze those feelings to deeply and just accept the sadness, it will pass. And maybe after all it is just celebritis; for someone with very few heroes I guess am just not used to it.

Peter Kriens

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