A Great Technologist Passes
I only saw Steve Jobs twice, but he had a huge influence on my life at about 5 points that come to mind. I am very proud that such a person would come from Northern California, and Steve Jobs certainly represents the best you find in humanity. Really, the culture of Steve Jobs and the technologists somewhat like him (Charles Goldfarb, John Warnock, James Gosling, Larry Ellison, etc.) are to me one of the few positive spots when you look at global culture in this day and age: I’m sure there are plenty of common souls around the world, yet not nearly enough. Such people would stay up late envisioning new ways that humans would communicate, persist information, and render media, and their visions are keen enough that they become reality.
But it isn’t just the technological genius of Steve that is amazing, it is also his integrity as a human and his devotion to his work. If those things were present in more humans around the world, we would have no war or hunger.
I got into computers early in life, first doing a little bit of programming at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley in about 1974 when I was a kid. I even ran into home-built computers at the time: at summer camp there was a man there that taught us how to build a computer from a minimal set of chips. If this same guy wasn’t part of the Homebrew Computer Club (which is perfectly possible) that Jobs and Wozniak were part of later, he might as well have been, it was inspiring to be able to say “I built a computer” even though it was pretty useless. I wasn’t really interested in such things at the time, but the memory comes back when I read about early Apple history.
Looking back, any great invention will appear obvious, like it would have inevitably happened, but there are at least two dimensions to any major technological advance, the concept and the implementation. Steve Jobs had a very fundamental concept of the personal computer that might not have been original, yet he had such an ingenious vision of its implementation that for all practical purposes he is owner of the conceptual advance.
Once the conceptual battle is won with a new invention, the implementation and evolution provide a lifetime of potential work, and Steve took this on as few others in the history of science. So many scientists who push forth a new idea are blind to its repercussions and unable to produce further advancement, yet Steve was the opposite extreme, re-thinking technology even in the last years of his life, 35+ years since his fundamental breakthrough.
The Apple II
I first encountered the work of Steve Jobs when I saw the Apple II computer, which I learned to program in 1980. Concurrent with this I was working on a DEC-20 mainframe, and the difference between the two was night and day. The personal computer liberated one from the centralized system, from punch cards, from the ridiculous sharing of sparse resources such that you might wait 24 hours to see if your program had compiled or not. It is impossible to explain to young programmers of today just how bad it was pre-PC, but I had a glimpse of it and it definitely sucked.
While I was in awe at the fundamental chasm between PC and mainframe, I didn’t appreciate the design of the Apple II in relation to its competition until I looked back, as I later saw Apple’s computer design evolve through the variants of the Macintosh over the years. Yet with hindsight I can see that the Apple II already expressed the phenomenal design ambition/insight of Steve Jobs.
At the time I used the Apple II, it was simply one of the few options available, and given that I was using it for digital audio at a time when processor speed and availability were so anemic, it still felt more something like the time I had played with a home built computer; certainly there were some use cases for which this was already a practical device, yet it had extreme constraints compared to what would come next.
The second time I was impacted by Steve’s work was when I started using and programming the Macintosh, back when it was that single box with a keyboard and mouse circa 1984. It is amazing to look at this compared to the Apple II and compared to today’s Macs… at the same time it looks advanced and ancient. That is how far we have come with personal computers, and shows the incredible speed at which Steve’s innovation went. The early Mac was also interesting not just in terms of design, always Steve’s obsession, but also in terms of the early adoption and focus as a tool of expression as opposed to a business device. Once there was the IBM PC to compete with it, the vision of Apple could be seen clearly, and here was the expression of Steve’s great mind. The Mac was what one used for art or music, right from the start. And here we saw digital audio (my obsession back then), which had been completely painful with the Apple II and IIe, find a home. Ever since the first Mac, the personal computer as a tool of artistic expression has been owned by Steve Jobs.
There was a whole evolution of the Mac from the mid 1980s to the late 1980s, where it seemed to get more powerful, yet while the continuous incremental improvement in terms of things like processor speed and monitor/video card power, coupled with the evolution of the software on top of it suggested evolution, the form of visionary transformation that had happened between the Apple IIe and the Mac left Apple, along with Steve Jobs.
I never actually used a NeXt box, but I dreamed about one and read about it for 2 years. I was at that point starting to realize how incredibly important a visionary like Jobs can be. It was no accident that stunning advances in technology were now happening over here instead of at Apple. NeXt was quite innovative in so many ways, and it was of interest to me through my interest in computer music (that was my only interest in computing the first 15 years or so).
NeXT was in some sense vaporware: academic departments across the US (around the world?) made plans around it, based on promises of free/cheap NeXT machines for academia and a significant amount of testing/input from academics. Computer Music Journal would present the NeXT audio capabilities as second to none, right above the digital audio and multimedia that at the time was starting to fully work in the Macintosh, with all the newer more expensive models that iterated throughout Steve Jobs’ absence.
Many have spoken of Steve Jobs’ “failures” and some would cite NeXT as such. The complaint is similar to complaints about Larry Ellison, that he has a loose concept of “we’ve done that” equal to his ability to think through how one might do something. But technology is fragile, in many senses the concept *is* the advance, as long as you have the integrity as Jobs and Ellison do to fulfill the implementation of the concept.
Apple Computers Reach Developers: JavaOne and OS X
The Mac kind of left my life when Steve Jobs left Apple… I dreamed of a NeXT box but it never materialized as such. Eventually, everything in NeXT showed up in Apple products.
I saw Steve Jobs in person the first time at the JavaOne conference in 2000, when he showed a preview of OS X. It was quite stunning, and the Unix underpinnings, NeXT features, and built-in Java ended up being quite compelling for developers, who really hadn’t been enamored of the Mac other than in specific cases (those developing multimedia software, for example). At subsequent JavaOne conferences mac laptops became increasingly prevalent. This and some of my work requirements led me to start buying Macs again in the early 2000s.
Apple Computers Attain Performance with the Intel Chip
I saw Steve Jobs for the 2nd and last time a the Apple WWDC in 2006. I had been using Macs more often, yet was not impressed with the performance of pre-Intel Macs, even with OS X. When my company worked on benchmarks for Adobe of InDesign Server across Windows and Mac servers, the results were unreportable because the Mac performed so badly compared to Windows boxes and nobody at Adobe wanted to make this public (they still had hopes for the Mac/fear of Microsoft at that time). The G5 chip was nothing to write home about, and Apple noticed and moved to Intel.
The move to Intel proved to be brilliant, for at least two reasons: performance surpassed windows, and running virtualized windows proved good enough that I could stop lugging around 2 computers. I was impressed that as an Apple developer, they shipped Intel-based hardware to me prior to the official announcement of the move. From the time of the Intel chip and Mac OSX, Mac has once again been my primary operating system and all my laptops since 2006 have been macs: Windows is still there when needed on the VM, but I have needed Windows less and less.
Of course the impact of iTunes, iPods, the iPhone, and the iPad has been another aspect of Steve’s incredible vision influencing the world. My family has become an Apple ad, with iPhones, MacBooks, etc.: my one-year-old knows how to swipe the iPhone, open apps and use them. I am not completely fond of Steve’s vision of tablets (I’m still expecting more freedom and computer-like features, not just a large phone), yet I have to acknowledge he got it right enough to finally reach the public with such a device footprint, and Google is too dumb and fat (they are clearly as arrogant and inept as Microsoft) in trying to compete. On first glance his staunch opposition to Flash looked somewhat tainted by a monopolistic tendency, no doubt gained in his ongoing rivalry with Bill Gates (certainly he took on a few traits of the enemy along the way) yet I think he ultimately had a positive impact on Adobe by challenging their overconfidence in the Flash “platform” and at least partially supporting standards.
If I had to pick the greatest technologist born in the 20th century it would either be Steve Jobs or Charles Goldfarb: I am very thankful to have been able to live in their general neighborhood (Northern California) and enjoy the technologies they have brought us. I am glad Steve died now rather than two years ago, as only in the past two years did he truly “win” in the Jobs/Gates war by every last objective metric.
I loved the dialog from Pirates of Silicon Valley:
Steve Jobs: “We’re better than you are, we’ve got better stuff”
Bill Gates: “That doesn’t matter”
I am glad that Steve hung in there despite his health battles to show once and for all that right can triumph over might, and the best can prevail. He will always be a great inspiration for us all.
It does matter.