Karen Heller: The wonder of Steve Jobs

At Apple offices in Cupertino, Calif., a memorial to Steve Jobs draws flowers and a mourner Thursday, a day after his death. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Few of us make a ripple in the grand river of time. We may leave descendants, some possessions passed along to subsequent generations.

Steve Jobs, who died Wednesday at age 56, was not that sort of person. What he did, who he was, changed our lives, altering the landscape of technology, communication, and entertainment. He was the bend in the river.

He imagined our future through brilliant marketing, making progress tangible and tactile. "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future," the college dropout said in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. "You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

Jobs made the essential gorgeous, modern, and playful. You have a phone; you lust for an iPhone. You crave the iPad with its clear, dazzling design that makes Nook and Kindle look small and dated. Nobody drools over a Dell.

Asked what market research contributed to the iPad, Jobs responded: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want."

Jobs was as linked to his companies as the great industrial pioneers, an iconoclast who appeared when he wished, holding center stage with new must-haves that arrived shrouded in secrecy and buzz.

Never a follower, known as a tyrannical boss, Jobs proved a genius at the American gift for invention and reinvention.

Like a multi-act play with its own arc of redemption, Jobs had three stellar phases of his career: Apple before he was expelled from his own company at age 30 by the man he picked to run the daily operation; launching Pixar; then his triumphant return to Apple 12 years after parting. Walter Isaacson's biography, pushed up to an Oct. 24 publication date, immediately scaled the top of Amazon's sales charts.

Jobs appeared to relish his role as great wizard, one in a black mock turtle and weathered jeans, whose oracular product announcements were treated with awe before he disappeared once more from view. The seclusion prompted by his pancreatic cancer fueled that myth.

Apple sells hipness, elegance, and fun. Pixar markets pathos and joy, Jobs making the creative team work four intense years on the first film that - magic and art! - rewarded us with Toy Story.

If Microsoft is about speed, technology, and commerce, Jobs' vision was about sight, sound, and amusement, making the brute work of technology visible and beautiful.

"The only problem with Microsoft is they have no taste," he said with typical bluntness. "They have absolutely no taste. And I don't mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their products."

When he was banished from Apple, Jobs said, "the heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." Being diagnosed with cancer in 2004 liberated Jobs again. "Your time is limited, 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."

I can't think of another business titan who could cause teenagers like mine to mourn his passing, appreciating the wonder and enchantment - from iPods to Woody - he brought to their lives. Many of their happiest moments of entertainment and play have been delivered through Jobs-sanctioned products.

Jobs helped change the way we look, tune in, and tune out, iTunes selling a staggering 16 billion songs in eight years. Tiny white earbuds became the ubiquitous jewelry of the age, providing personalized sound tracks to orchestrate our daily journeys. Apple became the apple of our eyes, our ears, all changes willed by Jobs' incomparable vision. Maybe we didn't know, but he anticipated our desires.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.