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Steve Jobs in September, 2009 at an event in San Francisco to announce a new version of iTunes.
Steve Jobs in September, 2009 at an event in San Francisco to announce a new version of iTunes.

Steve Jobs: the engineer of human dreams

Apple Computer's co-founder made machines that people wanted to use, not just as tools but as totems. His company designed products that worked fluidly and intuitively and that looked beautiful - and Jobs saw them coming years before the rest of us did.

As with so much from Apple over the years, the announcement, when it came, was long expected - but this time it was received with sorrow rather than excitement.

"We are deeply saddened to announce that Steve Jobs passed away today," said the short statement yesterday morning from the company's board of directors.

Steve Jobs, the visionary businessman who had founded, been fired from, and returned triumphant to Apple had lost his long battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 56.

As testimony to how much the computer giant he founded is still identified with the man, the front page of Apple's global website was changed to a simple black and white photograph of Mr Jobs, along with the dates 1955-2011.

Tributes to Mr Jobs flooded in across the airwaves and online, starting with the US president, Barack Obama, who said: "He transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world."

Such praise was not overblown. Mr Jobs's reputation rests on three periods of his life, each of which redefined the industries in which he worked.

The first period was the decade after 1976, when he founded and grew Apple Computers, releasing the world's first mass market personal computer.

The second was his so-called wilderness years from Apple, when he founded the animation studio Pixar and created extraordinary cinematic hits such as Toy Story, films that refined what an animated movie could be and paved the way for the completely computer-animated movies that are now a staple of Hollywood releases.

His third and last period is the most familiar and arguably the most enduring, an astonishingly productive period from 1997. During this time, Apple released the iPod (a media player), the iPhone (a smartphone) and the iPad (a tablet computer). Along with supporting services such as iTunes (an online store for music, games and films), these products redefined the landscape of communications and music.

Steve Jobs was born in San Francisco to a Syrian Muslim father and a Christian German-American mother. He was later given up for adoption and was brought up - and named - by a different couple.

In his 20s, Mr Jobs tracked down his biological mother and through her discovered that his biological parents had had a second child some years after he was given up for adoption. This daughter was Mona Simpson, a highly successful author and today a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Simpson - who admitted in an interview that she wished she had gone back to her original surname of Jandali - dedicated her 1987 novel Anywhere But Here to "my brother Steve".

As with his heritage, Mr Jobs did not make much of his personal life, saying publicly of his sister only: "We're family. She's one of my best friends in the world."

Mr Jobs started his career in personal computing inauspiciously. He dropped out of his university studies and spent about 18 months in limbo. As he told it, he slept on floors in the houses of friends, attended lectures intermittently - he later attributed much of the design of the original Macintosh computer to calligraphy lectures he attended - and went to a Hare Krishna temple for free meals.

In 1976 he launched Apple Computer, a start-up business based in his parents' garage. He partnered with a childhood friend, Steve Wozniak, who provided the knowledge of building computer chips and circuits.

The following year, the first Apple computer was launched and became a moderate success. It was the second computer, the Apple II, launched later in 1977, that became a mass-market success and created a new niche.

By 1985, Mr Jobs was about to enter the second phase of his career when, aged just 30, he was forced out of the board of Apple and departed the company. Mr Jobs founded another computer firm, which was not successful, and Pixar Animation, which went on to pioneer full-length computer-animated films with the 1995 release Toy Story.

But by 1997, the Apple faithful were delighted as the prodigal son returned. Mr Jobs joined as interim chief executive and set about ushering in Apple's most fruitful phase.

In rapid succession, the company released a new self-contained computer (the iMac) and - exactly a decade ago this month - the first iPod. This was soon followed by iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad. Coupled with the explosion of the internet, Apple came to dominate this new landscape. Earlier this year it was briefly the most valuable company in the world.

Apple has faced enormous criticism for its way of doing business and Mr Jobs faced personal criticism for his dictatorial instincts.

Yet part of his genius - and there will be millions of words in print and online devoted to dissecting what his particular genius was - was in recognising that consumers wanted technology to be more human. In an interview in 1984, Mr Jobs remarked: "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."

Apple designed products that worked fluidly and intuitively and that looked beautiful, at a time when technology was thought of as simply useful. Apple's products became an extension of fashion, rather than of function.

What defined Mr Jobs - and through him, Apple - in the last decade was his ability to recognise how people would interact with technology before people themselves understood. Near the start of his second tenure at Apple, he told a business magazine: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

As a maxim that proved to be true. The idea that people wanted a large screen without a keyboard to read things on seemed ludicrous even a few years ago, but the iPad has sold in enormous quantities and reshaped computing, book sales - even journalism.

As early as the 1980s, Mr Jobs recognised the coming connectivity revolution, before most of its parts were even invented. In an interview with Playboy in 1985, he said: "The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network. We're just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people - as remarkable as the telephone."

Mr Jobs realised the integration between technology and people was the most important part, a use of technology as an extension of themselves.

Even just a few years ago, the logic of the industry was that consumers used different devices to listen to music, watch movies, make telephone calls and buy things over the internet. Apple integrated these into one product.

That process has not only been led by Apple, but the company best capitalised on it. Apple didn't simply invent a product which consumers then purchased and did things with. Rather, it provided the product at broadly the right time and gradually people adapted their behaviour to the product. Apps are a perfect example of this. Not only were people ready for a wireless device on which they could do many things, but the technology was also ripe - wireless networks were sufficiently fast, secure and easily available.

Even those outside the industry had heard the criticism of Apple's CEO. Mr Jobs was notoriously difficult to work with, at times arrogant, single-minded and could be tyrannical in managing his staff. In the weeks to come, some will argue that made Apple, others that it held the company back.

But the passing of Steve Jobs is the time to remember the immensity of what he achieved. In an era of large corporations and design by groups, He stood out as an important figure, a genuine visionary who both predicted and brought about great changes in the way communities interact. For that he will be remembered not solely as a businessman or technologist, but as an Arab-American whose products transcended nations.

falyafai@thenational.ae

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