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Sunil Sethi: Why Steve Jobs is my hero

Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Of the many computing devices Steve Jobs and his team produced that were revolutionary in technology and sleek in design, the one that changed my life was the advent of the mouse. Its effect was both exhilarating and liberating. As someone brought up on the use of the typewriter (how distant the world of Remingtons, Smith-Coronas and Olivetti portables seems now!) who progressed from bulky desktops to short text portables, this simple inexpensive attachment speeded up and reshaped the art of writing. It reordered the way we work. Gone were the messy days of correction fluids, of deletions and changes marked in ballpoint. By reducing the use of the space bar, it gave the cursor fresh impetus and energy. Smooth to the touch, easily navigable, the mouse freed the rearrangement of words, sentences and thoughts. Its interface with the screen clicked as an extension of the brain.

Among the many stories told of Mr Jobs’ brilliant reinventions is of how he first encountered an early version of the three-button mouse in Xerox’s research centre in the late 1970s, took it home to Apple, got it redesigned as a single-button device and brought down its price from $300 to $15. Last year, I chucked my wired attachment for a cordless version operated by a small battery. It cost a few hundred rupees but its manipulative magic was yet more transforming. What would life be like without it? What was life like before? The thoughts don’t bear contemplating.

Mr Jobs features in a drawing on the cover of The New Yorker magazine this week; with his back to the reader in his trademark black shirt and blue jeans, he is facing St Peter at the Pearly Gates — the white-bearded and winged key-holder to heaven is seen taking down Jobs’ entry details on an iPad. The sardonic cartoon fittingly sums up the reach of Mr Jobs’s influence: the scope and beauty of his inspirational innovations were world-changing and truly inter-generational.

Last year my 24-year-old daughter bought an iPhone and treats it as an adjunct to her breathing apparatus. This summer my wife presented her 87-year-old father an iPad and he is equally addicted. Being unwell or lying in bed is less of a trial: a heaven-sent antidote to loneliness and illness. He can scan the news stories in any size he wants, Skype his sister in Michigan, finish his accounts, read a book or play dummy bridge — all at the flick of a finger.

Mr Jobs’ ceaseless quest and hard-driving perfectionism to launch new products apparently made him not a very nice man to know. He was notoriously tough on colleagues and impatient with friends. In the pages of The New Yorker devoted to Mr Jobs – his life, work and irascible temperament – a number of the magazine’s specialist writers analyse aspects of his genius, from his business and marketing acumen in music and movies to inventing smart phones and tablets, often in the form of answers to questions posed by readers.

Why is it, the business writer Ken Auletta is asked, that Steve Jobs, who was the ultimate elitist in out-pricing rivals and creating product monopolies, is loved by people while others with the same characteristics are loathed? “When you think about the Wall Street demonstrations,” answers Mr Auletta, “they are largely protests against economic elitists — against the bankers and corporate executives who people feel have too much control over their lives ... Jobs’ elitism was meant to make better products for them; that his perfectionism, his high standards, were not to make money – though he did and he charged higher prices than his competitors – but to help them. And so though he was an elitist and a corporate giant, he stayed cool.”

The reason why Steve Jobs is hero to me and millions of others is that though many of his creations were original, expensive and stylish, they improved productivity and enhanced pleasure. Without the mouse this column would have taken longer to write and robbed me a little of the joy.

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First Published: Sat, October 15 2011. 00:26 IST