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Goodbye, Steve Jobs

Over the next few days, and probably for years to come, many people will write superlatives about and tributes to Steve Jobs. And most of them will be brilliant and thought-provoking and entirely true and worthwhile. There's nothing I can say here about the great Steve Jobs that somebody somewhere else isn't already saying.

So I'll just tell a story. This might seem like a post all about me, but it's not. Circa 1982, my father brought home some huge boxes around Christmas time. (In case you've been wondering, I'm only 37.) In one of them was something almost nobody else I knew had: a computer. In the others were a monitor and a dot-matrix printer. The price tag for the whole set would buy a crate of iPads today. It was an investment.

And it was incredible. The computer was an Apple IIe, which had 64 KB of memory and ran on floppy disks (the big kind from the '80s, not the smaller kind from the '90s). It had not one but two disk drives. It was a marvel. We turned it on for the first time, and it spoke to us. Well, sort of -- words showed up, letter by letter, on the color screen and said something like, "We're in here, and you're out there." And it went on from there. Absolutely astonishing.

Over the next few years, I used the computer for school -- something downright revolutionary in the days when most kids couldn't type and wrote everything longhand on notebook paper. I wrote reports on it with Bank Street Writer, possibly the worst word processor of all time but still way better than pen and paper. Once, in the fourth grade, I wrote a report on the lives of frontier lawmen. (Hey, I'm from Texas. We did that sort of thing.) It was full of formatting errors and might have even been typed in all-caps. Still, when I brought the printed report to school, kids marveled at it. My teacher looked at it almost in awe. A typed report? From a computer? This was a first, at least in my little hometown around 1983.

That computer got a lot of use. A lot of use. My mother, an English teacher at all levels of school in my hometown, used the Apple IIe for nearly two decades. When we had finished with it as a family, she took it to school, where her students played little word games on it. She used it in her classroom into the 2000s before she finally retired. In fact, I think she gave it away after that -- somewhere, somebody might still be using an Apple IIe from the first Reagan administration.

I can say without hyperbole that the Apple IIe changed my life. It changed the way I studied, the way I thought about working and the way I played. It helped me learn to type, which was a big deal at the time. It became a magnet for the kids in the neighborhood. My dad used to talk about having the first TV on the block in 1949. Well, in 1982, I had the first computer in the neighborhood, and everybody wanted to see it. I'm convinced that some of my grades in elementary school and junior high were higher than they should have been just because a typed report looked so good next to something handwritten.

Many machines have come and gone for me since then, some of them Macs and some of them PCs. (And then there was the PC that crashed for the last time circa 2000, prompting my ex-wife to hand me the phone and say, "Call Apple and buy a Mac," which I did. We used that computer, an original iMac, for six years before I sold it and actually managed to get decent money for it. It might be in use to this day, too.) But the Apple IIe will always be special to me.

I don't know if I ended up in the technology industry because I used such a great computer (which it was for the time) at such a young age, but it didn't hurt. The old Apple certainly got me interested in computers. I do know that being able to type on the IIe rather than having to scratch things out longhand or clang on a typewriter encouraged me to write, and that definitely helped lead me to a career in journalism. (In case you're wondering, I consider that a good thing.)

I remember the Apple IIe probably more fondly than I remember bygone pets and maybe even a few old friends. Say what you will about that, but I think of it the way some other folks think of a first car or a first baseball glove. It sticks in my memory. And that's because of Steve Jobs. He created it, along with much of computing as we know it today. The funny thing is that most people today will write about iPads and iPods and Macs, Jobs's most notable accomplishments. And that makes sense.

But I was just a kid in small-town Texas when something Steve Jobs invented -- before he was 30, incidentally, which I now realize is amazing -- had a significant impact on my life. The Apple IIe was formative to me in my childhood. Steve Jobs helped change my life; he helped make it better. When I think about how many people he did that for all over the world for years -- when I think about being just one of millions his creations positively affected -- I'm staggered by the impact he had on humanity. Seriously.

I never met Steve Jobs. I've hardly ever covered Apple. But Jobs transcends mere industry notoriety. He'll be in textbooks -- or whatever textbooks will end up becoming -- for generations to come. Kids decades from now will know his name. Scholars and business students will study his life. I just hope he enjoyed his run on this planet because it was tragically cut way, way too short. He never got a victory lap; he had to leave when he was on the top of his game. To me, that's the saddest part of this story. But I'd like to thank Steve Jobs, again, for everything he did for me.

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Posted by Lee Pender on October 07, 2011 at 11:57 AM