The Day I Talked With Steve Jobs

As far as I can remember, I began following Steve Jobs around 2005, when he announced that Apple would be switching to x86 hardware. He really impressed me in 2006, when he announced the MacBook Pro and iWeb.

My infatuation with the iPhone

In 2007, I was a summer intern at Google Santa Monica when the iPhone was released. At 6pm, I finished my work. I wondered whether the iPhone was going to sell out. I asked a colleague, who had just come back to the office with his amazing new iPhone, whether they still had any left. “Yes, I think so,” he replied.

The new phone had just become available at 5pm, but with all the hype surrounding it, I felt it might disappear quickly. The amazing device was too much for me to resist: it was truly an astoundingly capable computer that fit easily in a pocket. It was everything that I had hoped for when I got a Cybiko handheld computer about six years prior. A snappy processor, a revolutionary mobile OS based on Mac OS X, a touchscreen that actually worked well, a real web browser (Safari), not WAP or any other “baby” internet. It was simply mind-blowingly awesome to me.

So at 6pm, a full hour after the iPhone had officially launched, I literally ran down to the local Apple Store, just a few blocks away from Google’s Santa Monica office.

There was a massive line, but I was assured there would probably be enough phones to go around. I had to wait in line for about an hour; at about 7pm, I had bought my shiny new iPhone, and started heading back to the office. I couldn’t resist using it right away, and it needed to be activated by connecting it to a computer, using iTunes.

I generally have a bad memory, and my recollections of my past are often hazy. But this was a moment that I’ll never forget. It’s as vivid as if it happened yesterday. I plugged in the iPhone, amazed by its beautiful appearance and enormous touchscreen display. This was the first device in the world — phone or not — that had a decent touchscreen. I was enthralled. I remember going through the process, and seeing the activation message in iTunes. I was already using AT&T (previously, I had been a very happy Cingular customer), and the process of switching my number to the iPhone was a breeze.

I read that some other people had some issues, but it went quite smoothly for me.

When I used the iPhone for the first time, I immediately knew this was going to change the world. It was by far the best portable computer I’d ever touched. It was exactly what I’d been imagining for at least six or seven years, especially after the Cybiko sparked my imagination and gave me a glimpse at the future.

Of course, I’d also been following the iPhone closely, ever since Steve Jobs announced it earlier that year, in January 2007.

Again and again, I spot technology trends before they become big. I was reminded of this today, when I remembered how impressed I was by the quality of Burbn, the first (failed) product that was made by the team that later created Instagram. If I had the opportunity, I would definitely have invested in them back then. I saw that they really knew what they were doing, especially when it comes to practical design and development.

But I digress.

All that to say, Steve Jobs was an impressive presenter who was able to get things done. It was not really that innovative to make a touchscreen phone. There were probably touchscreen phones before the iPhone. But the key is that the iPhone’s touchscreen was simply the best. It had the best accuracy, precision, response time, feel, and integration with the software.

It’s not so important to be first. And it’s not so important to have an innovative idea. The important thing is execution: how good is your final product?

Of course, you also can’t be too late, or a mere rehash of what’s already been done. Even a great final product won’t save you from taking too long to get to market. You do you need move fast, and Steve somehow managed that, too.

The day I talked with Steve Jobs

On April 3, 2010, I went to the Apple Store in Palo Alto and lined up to buy an iPad. I had submitted my iPad app, Whiteboard HD: Collaborative Drawing, some time ago, and it had been approved. My app was a launch title for the iPad, even though I’d never touched a real iPad myself. Developers, myself included, were given access to iPad-specific APIs, and the iPad Simulator, but no real devices. So I was eager to see my own work running on a real device.

As soon as I got the iPad, I opened the box, plugged the iPad into my 15″ MacBook Pro, and activated it. I immediately went to (yes, iOS was still called iPhone OS back then — it wasn’t renamed until later that year), and added it to my Device List. I generated a new Provisioning Profile to include the iPad, so that I could deploy apps to it.

It was about this time that I noticed Steve Jobs talking on his iPhone, walking around near the back of the store, to the left of the Genius Bar. He was all by himself, with nobody around him. Nobody was even near him. Nobody seemed to notice his presence!

Of course, I recognized him instantly, having watched several of his presentations.. albeit always on video, not live. Even though I knew it was definitely him, part of me wanted to doubt. Could it possibly be a Steve Jobs lookalike? Would I be an idiot for assuming this was the Steve Jobs? He does look much skinnier than usual..

Well, to be fair, he WAS in the middle of a phone call, so perhaps that deterred others from disturbing him. It seems that Steve really loved making phone calls. I suppose it was one of his favorite communication methods.

Why not show him my iPad app?“, I thought. I hit the button to compile and deploy Whiteboard to my new iPad. A few nervous minutes later, and I had my Whiteboard app running on my new iPad.

My, it was a beauty. I was very excited.

The moment Steve brought his iPhone away from his ear, I confidently walked right up to him with my new iPad, leaving my MacBook Pro unattended on the table, not thinking of anything else except this unique chance to pester Steve Jobs.

“Hey, Steve?” I started off timidly.

I don’t remember exactly what he said. I was petrified, but energized. He looked at me, probably greeted me, but not paying me much attention.

“I’m Elliot. I just want to show you this is my iPad app that I made.”

Steve looked at my iPad. “Cool.” He might have said something more, but I don’t remember exactly.

“See, it’s a drawing app. I can choose a brush color like this. And then draw like this.” I made a scribble that looked like nothing in particular. “I love the iPad, it’s really nice,” I continued.

“That’s great. I need to go. My daughter’s here now.”

I believe that’s what he said to me. Understandably, he wasn’t interested in me.

I could have asked to take a photo with him, or have him autograph something. But at the time, the idea didn’t cross my mind. I was just glad to have a moment face-to-face with Steve.

I didn’t want to annoy him, so when he started to turn and leave, I simply said something like “Okay, bye Steve.”

He walked toward the front of the store, and tended to his daughter.

I believe I saw her too, but I don’t quite remember. I didn’t recognize what she looks like. Frankly, I was a little surprised. I didn’t know anything about his daughter, and didn’t expect her to be there. But she was.

And that was my brief “talk” with Steve Jobs.

Later sightings

The first time I saw Steve Jobs, I just described above.

At WWDC 2010, I could have seen him in person (on stage), but I lined up too late. So I had to watch him give the keynote on a big screen in an overflow room. If you count that — which you might, because it was live — then perhaps I “saw” him three times.

At WWDC 2011, I saw him on stage, in person. That was the time my friend Thuy ran up to the crowd afterward, just to take a quick photo of him :)

So, I actually saw Steve Jobs in person, with my own eyes, just twice.

Of course, despite having only “really” seen him twice, I feel that I knew him pretty well, much like the millions of people who have written about him, many of whom didn’t even meet him once. I watched his presentations with utmost attention. I was impressed by the way he framed his products for average consumers, maintaining tight secrecy, and rarely revealing anything technical (like clock speed or RAM) that normal people should not care about anyway.

Though I’m truly saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs, I’m also glad for what I learned from him. And I fondly remember the time I talked with him, in Palo Alto on iPad launch day.

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