A persistent and visionary entrepreneur

Published : 7 Oct 2011, 11:56 AM
Updated : 7 Oct 2011, 11:56 AM

No one realised the confluence of technology, entertainment and design in digital products and transformed them into objects of desire more than Steve Jobs. The co-founder of Apple, who passed away at 56 from pancreatic cancer, will be remembered for his seminal contributions to technology with such products and entities as the Macintosh (1984), Pixar (1986), iMac (1998), Mac OS X (2000), iPod (2001), iTunes Store (2003), iPhone (2007), MacBook Air (2008), and iPad (2010). The list is long and unique and sets him apart from other tech innovators who were lucky to hit the bull's eye with one or two products.

In technology, Jobs believed in revolution, not evolution. His obsession with the look and feel of a product down to the last excruciating detail often rubbed his underlings and executives the wrong way. He could be cruel with criticism and brutal in his appraisal of others. But in the end, everyone who worked for him and was influenced by him became his fierce acolytes. When relentless excellence is the goal, walking on eggshells is not a priority.

Jobs was an anomaly in that he extolled the value of a liberal arts education when only STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) were (and are) held up as the gateway to employability. Before dropping out of college at 17, the only course he found satisfying was one on calligraphy, an experience he later used in creating magnificent fonts for the Macintosh.

Jobs was neither a software nor a hardware engineer but he was the quintessential catalyst who made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. He created products from the user's perspective, not the geek's or the executive's. The mouse, the user interface, the built-in network, the playful and friendly computers, these innovations and more were designed with you and me in mind. He made the computer truly personal.

All these raise an intriguing question: Where did this unique synthesis of art and science come from? Perhaps the clue lies in genealogy, although the story is suffused with sadness.

Steven Paul Jobs was born out of wedlock to a 23-year-old Syrian Muslim immigrant from Wisconsin named Abdul Fattah Jandali and his 23-year-old German-American girlfriend named Joanne Schieble. In the conservative America of 1955, the baby didn't stand a chance of growing up with his biological parents, particularly considering that his mother came from an ultra-orthodox Christian family.

Joanne Schieble couldn't convince her parents of marrying an Arab Muslim and so moved to liberal San Francisco. Although the couple formally married later, Joanne put up the baby for adoption without letting her husband even know about it.

The Arab-American boy was adopted by an American-Armenian family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Clara Hagopian and her husband Paul Jobs had been married for seven years. She was incapable of conceiving, so the couple eagerly adopted the baby who was to change the world in unimaginable ways.

Jobs never showed any interest in knowing his biological father. In August of 2011, Jandali, now 80 and a vice-president of a Casino in Reno, Nevada, (he has said that he is not a practicing Muslim but that he is proud of his Islamic heritage) publicly reached out to his son, saying, "I live in the hope that before it is too late he will reach out to me. Even to have just one cup of coffee with him just once will make me a very happy man."

Jobs never replied.

While there was no reconciliation, is it not possible that the confluence of the East and the West played a decisive role in shaping Jobs into who he was? The keen eye for aesthetics, the flair for technology, the uncanny ability to sense the potential in people and mould them into a never-ending source of creativity, probably came from this mix of two distinct bloodstreams.

Technology has a way of making today's hottest products obsolete tomorrow. A new Jobs may appear out of the blue to create products that make the iPhones and the iPads look positively arcane.

But even if the digital revolution that Jobs spawned is supplanted by another, there is something else that he produced, or rather wrote, that I believe will stand the test of time. It is the commencement speech that he delivered at Stanford University in 2005. (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html)

It is among the most stirring and inspiring addresses ever, dealing with the fragility of life, the power of persistence, the elixir of creativity, and the inevitability of death. Everyone I know who has read it has been profoundly moved by it and resolved to make something of their lives.

"Your time is limited," he said in conclusion in that address, "so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinion drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Steve Jobs lived his own life. He moved confidently in the direction of his dreams and passions, always focused on the primary and never letting failures daunt him. There are lessons in it for all.

Hasan Zillur Rahim is a technologist and educator working in Silicon Valley, California.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher