Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Coolest Show on Earth

Computing is a young, heedless industry unused to reflection. The tragic death of Steve Jobs at 56 is the first event that has ever forced this hyperactive industry to sit still, pipe down, and think about what matters. Nearly everyone in the technology world is moved by his death, as we were all moved by his life.

Jobs was an original, but he was also the latest of a long line of seers all carrying the same message: Technology is design. To be great, technology must be beautiful.
Whatever his formal titles, at Apple and the other companies he created, bought or shook up, Jobs was always designer-in-chief. He knew from the start that his task was to tell engineers, here's how it should look, sound, feel; here's how the controls should work; it should be this big and cost that much. Now do it. Let me know when you're finished. 

Steve Jobs and the original Macintosh personal computer, 1984

Jobs brought about the invention of some of history's most elegant machines: the iStuff—pods, phones, pads—the handsome and influential Next Computer of 1988 and, above all, the Apple Macintosh of 1984, prototype of virtually every desktop and laptop computer in the world today. He always saw himself as an artist. The first Macintoshes shipped with the designers' and engineers' signatures molded inside the case. Jobs transformed the computing industry from a specialist supplier of complex, expensive machinery for businessmen, engineers and scientists to the coolest show on Earth, a world-wide force whose products touch nearly everyone, everywhere. 

He told the computing industry: Take off that lab coat, lose the plastic pocket protector, stop fidgeting with the damned calculator, shake out your hair. Who would have thought it? You're beautiful! He turned the industry into a supermodel: elegant, classy, incomparably desirable, with money to burn.
He and Stephen Wozniak founded Apple in 1976. Mr. Wozniak was an engineer of soon-to-be-legendary brilliance; he was obsessed with the elegance and beauty of the electronic circuitry he designed. 

As for Jobs, no one could figure out what he was. He was no engineer or technologist. He was no conventional businessman either. Like everyone who counts most in the world, he made himself up as he went along, improvised himself out of scratch, occupied a job category whose total size was always one.

For several decades the tale has been told around technology campfires of how Jobs (like Jason of Greek myth) led a famous band of adventurers in 1979 from Apple—already a big, successful company but still scruffy and oddball—into the heart of Xerox research. They emerged with the ideas that transformed the industry. 

At Xerox in the 1970s, a group of brilliant researchers invented the personal computer—they called it the Alto—complete with onscreen windows, menus, icons, graphics and the mouse, all more-or-less as we know them today. Alan Kay was foremost among these genius innovators. Mr. Kay built, in turn, on the 1960s inventions of Douglas Engelbart. Mr. Engelbart was first to develop the mouse, the onscreen window, and the whole idea of computers that did more important things than compute. He wanted computers to solve everyday problems, do word-processing and make pictures and graphs instead of (only) performing complex numerical calculations, controlling intricate machinery, and keeping inventories and payrolls up-to-date.

Corporate Xerox was unimpressed with the Alto. It was expensive, and who needed a personal computer anyway? "Personal computer" sounded like "personal aircraft carrier." The market had to be smallish. Xerox accordingly made a deal with Apple whereby a group from Apple was ushered into the top-secret research boudoir in Palo Alto and allowed to look and ask questions. Jobs led the Apple group, and he understood right away that the Xerox researchers had done something tremendous. They had made an easy-to-use computer that spoke pictures instead of numbers. Jobs saw that a cheap version of this elegant computer might be gigantically popular and hugely important. And he ran the project that rolled out the Apple Macintosh in 1984. That Mac was a milestone of modern history.

But in the short-term, the Mac was a loser. IBM's PC—which had no onscreen windows or menus or icons, no mouse, no cuteness or easy-to-use-ness and zero elegance—slammed the Mac during the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jobs quarreled with Apple management, and in 1985 he was asked to leave. (In 1996 he made his triumphant return.) 

But one man who had been an outspoken admirer of the Mac from the very start was Bill Gates of Microsoft. When Microsoft finally managed to build a Mac look-alike in 1990, the Mac vision triumphed—either in Apple's original form or Microsoft's cheaper, nearly-as-good version. Douglas Engelbart's vision, improved and perfected by Alan Kay, refined and selected for greatness by Steve Jobs, purveyed to the teeming masses by Bill Gates, became the desktop computer—and a full generation later, 27 years after it was born (which equals about 27 million in this breakneck industry), it still is. 

The 1984 Mac was catastrophically slow, had a laughable 128,000 bytes of memory, and a tiny nine-inch screen. It looked like an upright shoebox plus keyboard and mouse. But if you were to sit down at that ancient, obsolete museum-piece of a machine today, you would be right at home. The windows and menus, icons and mouse, onscreen rectangles with rounded corners and casual, easy-going pronouncements when the machine made a mistake or you did would all be familiar.

Steve Jobs had a genius for seeing what was good and refining, repackaging and reselling it with dazzling panache. He knew what engineering was for, he understood elegance and he made machines that were works of art. We miss him already.

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