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Originally published Friday, August 26, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Steve Jobs' genius shaped lives, careers

Eleven years ago, nearly to the day, I wrote my first Seattle Times Mac story. It began with the words, "Bless me, Steve Jobs, for I have sinned." In it, I related how I'd told The New York Times in 1998 that I would never buy another new Mac, and how I recanted when I bought a G4 Cube. The Practical Mac column began a week later.

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Eleven years ago, nearly to the day, I wrote my first Seattle Times Mac story. It began with the words, "Bless me, Steve Jobs, for I have sinned." In it, I related how I'd told The New York Times in 1998 that I would never buy another new Mac, and how I recanted when I bought a G4 Cube. The Practical Mac column began a week later.

In the short time between Jobs's reassumption of the company's top role in 1997 and that article in 2000, he had managed to revamp the product lineup, make more affordable machines, produce profits, and reinvigorate interest among Apple owners in once again buying Macs. I bought another Mac because I knew the operating system had a future and the hardware would continue to be supported. My family and business have bought at least 14 since then, using them for three to four years at a stretch.

I reflected on that time after the news this week Jobs won't be returning to the top management role at Apple, a position he vacated on a medical leave for the third time in January. Instead, he ascends to the newly created position of chairman of the board — Apple improbably lacked such a position before — and the interim chief executive, Tim Cook, takes charge permanently.

One must read his resignation letter as a sign the constant responsibilities required for company chief vs. a board chairman are simply not within his current constitution. That's the extent his health is anyone's business, but his family and loved ones.

The end of the second era of Jobs has struck many people I know hard, as if a relative has died, even though it's the end of a job not his life. We've been trying to understand why. It arises partly because our lives were shaped by the technology Jobs brought to market.

My hobbies, academic degree and multiple careers would have taken a different path if Jobs hadn't co-created Apple in the first place, and returned in the second. It's hard not to think of him as a background figure in my life, like a distant uncle bestowing remarkable gifts at regular intervals — albeit, gifts I had to pay for, but which repaid me in creativity and professional growth.

My time with Apple starts in 1985, when a farsighted high-school journalism teacher switched the weekly newspaper from phototypesetting and paste-up to PageMaker 1.0 and a LaserWriter. The Mac bore Jobs' imprint, even though its acknowledged father was the late, irascible and brilliant Jef Raskin. The two fought like creator gods over its form and nature, and Jobs had the trump card and was able to bring to market at a price people would pay. I moved from typesetting into page layout, a degree in graphic design, and at one point managing 100 Mac IIfx computers on the coast of Maine at a Kodak creative-arts teaching center. I moved into making books and later into journalism, documenting how to use Macs and the graphic-design software that ran on it. In the past decade, I've spent a good portion of my time writing about Apple hardware and software from the how-to and business viewpoints.

During Jobs' absence from Apple, I still bought and used Macs, even when the products became shoddier and more expensive. I had had enough when Jobs returned, and I didn't believe he could turn around a company that, once 10 years ahead of the time, was now 10 years behind.

Fortunately, I was wrong, and he proved it quickly. His return to Apple had a different feel and nature to it than his initial leadership. In his first stint as co-founder and head until John Sculley became CEO, Jobs was a loose cannon and pursued aesthetics over engineering. He asked for and sometimes received the impossible, but often at the cost of a high price tag or poor outcomes.

His 14-year-long second life at Apple started with cleaning house, but it was necessary. His NeXT Computer's flavor of Unix became the new foundation for a modern operating system that would be faster, more capable and more crash resistant. Apple's huge product matrix was collapsed into a handful of products with simple names like the PowerBook G4 or the iMac.

Without being an engineer himself, Jobs managed to create a remarkable synthesis between design aesthetic and engineering capability, with several able lieutenants who remain on board, such as Jonathan Ive, the lead industrial designer, and Bob Mansfield, who runs Macintosh hardware engineering. Many companies have warring factions that can result in Frankenstein monsters. Apple, under Jobs' leadership, iterated constantly among the different disciplines that make electronic products so the finished product is as close to a seamless whole as possible.

One could argue the iPad is the ultimate product of that process. While many firms had made lightweight computers and capable smartphones (sometimes even with touch screens), the iPad was unique and it remains the overwhelming market leader because it combines so many different facets of Jobs' approach into one package.

Jobs' brilliance in leading tens of thousands of employees to produce products that anticipated needs consumers didn't know they had is tempered by his one-size-fits-all mentality. If you don't like how something works, you're welcome to find another peripheral or even operating system.

Jobs stuck to a one-button mouse far after human-interaction research showed it was suboptimal. The iOS mobile platform's closed-app nature means it locks out interesting products Apple deems unworthy. Jobs's desire to dominate every market Apple entered, like electronic books, sometimes leaves the company with egg on its face. And what was with that iMac hockey-puck mouse, anyway?

But I wouldn't be here without Steve, if I may call him Steve. He forged Apple into what feels like a compound, living organism that should withstand his moving on. His genius isn't in a single product, which is how many of Apple's competitors viewed each new item issuing forth from Cupertino — as flukes.

Rather, Jobs is a composer and conductor who cares about the least note and the entire orchestra's sound. I applaud as he leaves the stage, and listen politely as Tim Cook takes up the baton.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications.

Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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