Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs 

Lots of talk about the passing of Steve Jobs. Certainly he was a key figure in the development of the IT revolution that took place in the seventies and eighties. In 1977, I took a course in "Basic Computer Coding." I was working off a Control Data 3300 at Oregon State University. I was not a student at OSU. I was a student at Oregon College of Education, twenty miles up the road. I sat in the computer room at an old military style teletype terminal. Processor time cost $25 for five minutes. But they gave you 5 minutes at the beginning of the class. I always figured out the logic of my program before I tried to run it, so as to minimize processor time. The teletype terminal had a punch tape dispenser that could print out your program on a punch tape. I rolled it up and put it in a Tupperware container. That was my data storage. Toward the end of that course, my professor told me that a company--I think it was Radio Shack, was coming out with a 4 K computer that could fit on a desktop. I was incredulous. Four thousand bytes of Random Access Memory in a desktop machine?? But it was true. The 4 K was followed shortly by the 16 K. Then the VIC 20. It was a small keyboard machine that you plugged into your TV. I was teaching in a country school in North Dakota when the school district purchased some Commodore Pet computers. Sixty-four thousand bytes, and a little cassette tape drive. Cool. I didn't have to type up the programs every time I ran a new one. Everybody was using BASIC in those days, but it was Apple that developed the Graphic User Interface with a mouse. It wasn't their innovation. Xerox engineers developed it at the Palo Alto research lab. Xerox paid big bucks for a research lab, but the powers that be did not appreciate what the engineers in that lab developed. Watch the movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley. Engineers from the Palo Alto research lab bring a mouse into the boardroom and demonstrate how it works. The executives each look at it quizzically and then pass it on. They rejected it as a useless toy. Big mistake.

Apple took the idea and developed it. Bill Gates saw what Apple had, and was determined to get it. So he formed an agreement with Apple, and copied the technology. There is a classic scene in the movie where Steve Jobs confronts Bill Gates for stealing the Windows technology. Gates said, "Xerox let the door open, and we just helped ourselves." The statement was technically true, but also disingenuous. Steve Jobs had not invented it, he had gotten it from Xerox, that's true. But Gates didn't get it from Xerox. He got it from Apple. This is a little bit of history that many people are not aware of. Microsoft would not be Microsoft without Steve Jobs.

During the early days of the microcomputer, I thought Apple was stupid for being so proprietary. Because they refused to license their platform, it became marginalized. But as time went on, I realized their wisdom. They had a very small corner, but what they had was all theirs. In those days, you either had a Mac, or an "IBM clone." I bought an IBM clone, as did most people. But IBM did not make a dime off my purchase. My computer was made by Hyundai. So IBM could boast that they had the most widely used platform, but what good did it do them? I made the mistake of judging Apple's approach based on market share. But the other night, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh on my old "home town" radio station from when I was in the trucking industry. He said, "Steve Jobs never cared about market share. He only cared about profit." That's the point. Market share and profit are not the same. And Apple's proprietary approach to hardware really paid off when they came up with the iPod and iPhone. They ruled the world. And created another revolution. Thursday night, Ahmed showed me his new Sony Ericsson phone running the Android system. Not an Apple product, but it was certainly inspired by the iPhone. Smart phones would not be smart phones without Steve Jobs.

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me about iTunes. I told her that I was not interested in buying an iPod. She told me the software, which comes on a CD with the iPod, could also be downloaded free. I decided to take a look. She had explained the podcasting feature to me, and I was curious. What I found changed my life. I had been going to a few websites and listening to or downloading news and information mp3 files. Now I go to each website once to subscribe, and after that, iTunes visits each website for me, checks for the latest program, and downloads it automaticallly.

I was not surprised to hear Rush Limbaugh praising Steve Jobs the other night. When I was a truck driver, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh almost every day. He was a Mac fan, and mercilessly ridiculed anyone stupid enough to own a PC. The other night, he said that people asked him how he could like Steve Jobs when Jobs was known to be a liberal. He said, "I have always been a fan of greatness."

I have never owned an Apple computer. I am a server guy, and a technical trainer, so I have had to focus on the systems that most companies use. But all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Apple and Steve Jobs for the innovations that inspired the graphic user interfaces all of us now take for granted. Steve Jobs was not always an easy person to get along with. He was a perfectionist, and was once fired by his own company. But he set the standard for what a nice computer was supposed to look like, and every personal computer owner has benefited in some way from that standard.

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