steve jobs: an appreciation

Steve touched our lives in so many ways.

When I first started hearing about personal computers in the last 1970s, the term itself wasn't yet in general use. A few hobbyist kits were available, but the Apple II was the first commercially successful computer. Tandy and Commodore had entered the field, trying to undercut Apple with cheaper knockoffs, a pattern that would repeat itself many times over the coming decades.

A friend advised me that if I were interested in buying a computer, I should go with the Apple — the others would only disappoint. I've kept that advice to this day.

I didn't buy a computer then, but I knew that if I were ever going to get serious about writing, I'd need one. I do a lot of revising, and when I heard about electronic cutting and pasting, I knew a computer would be a necessity.

In early 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh. In the fall of that year, I took a programming class in which we worked with menus and mice on non-Apple engineering workstations.

I used my first Macintosh while working in one of the computer labs on my college campus in the spring of 1985. The following summer I bought my first computer, a Mac Plus. It had a whopping 1 megabyte of RAM (the original Mac had 128 kilobytes). By contrast the 2011 Mac Mini I'm writing this piece on shipped with 4 gigabytes of RAM, representing a twelve-time doubling in twenty-five years.

I paid $1,700 for the Mac Plus. That's $3,500 in 2011 dollars. But I like say that if you divide the purchase price by the number of hours of use it got (I figure at least 4 or 5 hours a day, seven days a week), it comes to about 25 cents an hour.

Speaking of the student discount, Steve went way out his way to make his Macs available to college and high school students. Despite not finishing college, he believed in education. He believed that the next generation was going to do great things, much greater than anything our generation has done.

I loved my Mac and when I sold it four years later, it was still able to run the latest version of the operating system.

Meanwhile, I was providing technical support for a research project in hypertext, one of the forerunners of the worldwide web. It was there that I got my feet wet in serious computing. We were supporting three platforms, Unix, Macintosh, and PC. Like many of my colleagues, I don't care for the PC, but I did learn to love, or at least respect, Unix. It was for serious computing, and personal computers were still glorified toys.

Unix and Mac OS couldn't have been more different, but in a strange way, they complemented each other.

Unix is a terse and arcane but fast command-line driven operating system that has its roots in universities, the military, and corporate research and development. It's powerful and robust for large-scale computing and ideal for souped-up engineering workstations. Today it's the common language of the Internet, a testament to its exceptional flexibility, stability, durability, and scalability.

Unix syntax, however, lent itself to a culture of jockery that tended to be exclusionary.

The Mac, on the other hand, was graphically oriented and didn't require the memorization of commands. Then, real men didn't waste precious CPU cycles doing something silly like drawing pictures on a screen. Clock cycles were meant for calculations, and user experience be damned.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, had designed the Mac from the ground up as a graphics machine. The CPU from Motorola was optimized for drawing pictures on the Mac's high-resolution, 9-inch black-and-white screen.

In the end the Mac under OS X would end up on a solid Unix base, and all would be right with the universe.

Mac versus PC

Over the years, I've had trouble even looking at Microsoft Windows. It hurts my eyes. It has all the charm of a factory floor, which explains its great success in the stupifying, suffocating, and imaginationless world of big business. Steve has said that Bill Gates could have put more culture into his products, but the sad truth is that Gates was perfectly well attuned to the dead and deadening world of corporate culture.

Supporters of the PC platform usually talk about the price difference. Yes, you pay more for a Mac, and you get more.

The Steves and the counterculture

Much has been made of the countercultural aspects of computing in the Seventies and Eighties. Steve Jobs sold his VW Microbus to get the money to start Apple. The argument went something like this: After the Sixties, the love-ins and peace marches were over. In the future people would be liberated not by copious amounts of LSD but by copious network bandwidth. The Internet was designed to be an inherently wild and free place that could never be tamed.

And once information was democratized, politics and society would follow.

We now know that all it takes to tame or neuter the revolutionary aspects of the Internet is to allow private ownership of the pipes. And we're now back to many of the same landlord-tenant, boss-worker issues we've been struggling with forever.

Macs over the years

I've had a Mac on my desktop for 25 years. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Mac has been my desktop for most of my adult life.

In 1990 another all-in-one unit — I don't recall the name of the model — became my second Mac. Around 1995, I bought a blue-and-white G3 Mac, which I kept for many years, and around 2007, my first Mac Mini.

How to make a great computer

Steve understood that a great product had to have great hardware engineering, great software engineering, great design, great marketing, and above all, the integrated whole had to be more than the simple sum of its parts. The difference, of course, is the magic that surrounds the product, its cultural meaning.

Other manufacturers put out products that are exactly the sum of their components, so much RAM, such-and-such a CPU. There's no magic, so why bother?

We've all heard the cliche that there's a sucker born every minute. Steve understood its often-forgotten corollary, that there's a curious, creative person born every second, too. He aimed his products at the latter group. The audacity of the man is that he truly believed that other people were already, or could be persuaded to become, like him, strongly attracted to great, innovative products.

Steve withstood enormous pressures to commoditize his computers. To turn them into a product like the raw silicon wafers and copper wire they're made of. He knew they could be much more than that.

Steve the salesman

Steve was the consummate salesperson. But unlike the conventional super-salesperson who can sell ice to an Eskimo, Steve only sold you what he himself believed in, what he was passionate about, and what he had invested himself in heart and soul. There's a big difference.

Thinking it through

Henry Ford was right when he said that thinking is the hardest work there is. A great product must be thought through from top to bottom, especially the user experience.

Elegance and simplicity

My training is in math, so I'm familiar with the distinction between an ordinary, tedious proof and an exceptionally elegant and simple one. The latter contains no extra lines or characters. It's a joy to read and it's easy to understand. It's beautiful. It reminds you why you got into the field.

Steve as leader

Like all good leaders, he found something in you that you maybe didn't know was there.

Interviewing at Apple

I interviewed twice at Apple. The first time, which was when I was still in school, the interviewer asked how I would change the Mac. Totally unprepared for the question, I played the role of the penniless student and said, "I'd make a cheaper Mac."

I didn't get the job, but I think I understand better now why Steve didn't make a cheaper Mac. If you want a cheap computer, you're going to get yesterday's technology. Steve was in the business of selling you tomorrow's technologies.

My second interview was a decade later in Cupertino, and again I was underprepared. They were looking for a networking expert, and I wasn't up to speed for what they wanted.

Design, Design, Design

Maya Lin, the designer of the highly acclaimed Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, said that her wall was not meant to be complete in itself. Rather, it needed to be completed by you, by your thoughts and feelings. In much the same way, Steve designed tools, which may have been useless by themselves, but which became powerful when placed in your hands.

Like Maya's highly polished granite wall, Steve's glossy displays of various sizes tantalizingly double the size of our worlds, even though we cannot enter the world on the other side of the glass. Or can we? The virtual world isn't real, but it complements our world and makes imagination and change possible.

I was fortunate enough to hear a lecture Steve gave when I was in college in the late 1980s. It was in one of the biggest halls on campus and the turnout was amazing. The crowd didn't consist only of techies, the liberal arts people were there, too — everyone was there to hear the rock-star technologist.

Steve, who was then at Next, admitted during the Q&A that he didn't have the staff he needed to fully realize all his dreams. If someone asked about music applications, for example, he would challenge them to take up the task themselves. Steve knew he couldn't do it all himself.

After returning to Apple, he would hire the musical staff he needed, and the world is now different thanks to iPod and iTunes.

If I were in charge of Apple

There were many things I thought Steve could have done better. He should have set the standard for the industry by taking back all Apple products at all Apple locations for proper recycling. He could have exerted more control and authority over the labor and environmental practices of Apple's overseas parts suppliers and assembly plants.

Apple without Steve

This is not a theoretical question, as we already know what happens to Apple without Steve. From 1985 to 1997, the Macintosh gradually became a niche computer for artists and graphics professionals, rather than an everyday machine for you and me. The company steadily lost market share and almost went under.

It's tempting to close with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniac, who said in a CNN interview after the death of his colleague, "It's so sad for all of us, because now we're worried that we're going to miss what [Steve] would have brought us in the future."

But perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Steve Jobs himself would have insisted that the best is yet to be, and that it will come from your imagination, your dreams, and your hard work.

Nothing would please him more than the knowledge that somewhere there's a nine-year-old gazing out the window, when she should be doing homework, and dreaming big dreams of new, more exciting world.

cactuspear home
comments to comments at cactuspear dot org