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Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs: Say What you Want About Him, He's Left the World Changed.

Steve Jobs is gone now, but the engine of change he built is still there, and still changing the world.

I met Jobs and Wozniak once, in the mid-seventies when they demonstrated the Apple 1 at a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford. Jobs seemed pretty intense to me, especially as I thought at the time that the Apple 1 was not powerful enough to be a useful computer and so was not worth the intensity. At that same meeting I had conversations with Victor French and Lee Felsenstein, and a long discussion about portable computers with Adam Osborne (and tried lifting an Osborne 1 prototype; at 25 pounds it was not by my definition a "portable computer").  At the time, Jobs and Wozniak faded into the background for me.

Over the next few years I worked with some of the technologies that went into the Lisa and the Macintosh1, so when they were released I was a lot more sympathetic to their strategies. Since then I've owned 7 Macintosh desktops and laptops, as well as numerous iPods, and an iPhone, and I've very carefully watched how Jobs has used the advance of power and functionality to aid his main goal: producing computers which are intended to be used by people who are not technologists, as tools to get their work and play done. This goal is one of the reasons I became involved with personal computing in the 70s, and why I continued to work with computers of that class and the software that runs on them. It's been inspiring to watch how Jobs and his associates have grown these technologies to the point where they can be used as part of life's routine by average users, and as part of dealing with life's more special challenges by not-so average users2.

A lot of words have been spilled about Apple's superior product design; there's a lot more to this than just good looks or good mechanical design. Apple's engineers and designers approach each product as a system, where good design has to include digital electronics, software, mechanical design, thermal packaging, noise management, and other aspects of the device as interacting and interdependent components. Several years ago I bought a flat-panel version of the iMac.  My first act, after booting it up and confirming that it worked, was to open it up to upgrade the memory to its maximum.  I took the opportunity to give the interior a careful examination, and was impressed to find that for engineering and design purposes, the iMac was a laptop with a slightly larger form-factor.  All the lessons about mechanical and thermal design, and reliability that Apple had learned in the 5 or 6 generations of laptops up to that time had been applied to the iMac. This emphasis on systems design was a part of the demand of excellence that Steve Jobs made a point of in defining and marketing Apple products.

Many people have talked and written about Steve Jobs' eager grasp of the methods of marketing and capitalism, and his use of closed systems to increase his products' sales and profits. But I see all of the dealing and conniving and pursuit of profit as ways to bring to the market the tools that he envisioned as the basis for a widespread and long-term application of computers to the daily problems of large numbers of people. And I think that attaining this objective, and leaving behind an organization that will continue to follow his path for some time to come, is quite a bit of success for any one human lifetime, and certainly worthy of admiration.

1. I got to use some Xerox Parc machines, including an Alto and a Magnolia, and (briefly) a Xerox Star, as well as several Tektronix computers based on the Parc designs.  So I got early looks at bitmapped graphic displays with window GUIs using mice.  And in 1983 I was hired by Tektronix to design a window-managed graphic system for their line of computer workstations.

2. Since the late 1980's I've had a vision of a handheld computer that could effectively amplify the intelligence and memory of a user, whether to give people with special needs a boost up to more effectively live in the wider world or to give average people the tools to overcome some of the obstacles placed in their paths by the upper classes3; the iPod Touch/iPhone is that computer.

3. One of the nastier tactics in the Class War is the way in which lower class people are pushed and persuaded to not use their money effectively; there are a number of apps for iPhones that make it easy to search for needed products and services at the best prices, and to budget money and find the best ways to pay for needed purchases so as to avoid usurious loans and gouging fees.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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