Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Impact of One Man - Part II

Part one of this was written a few months ago, and really talked about two individuals, who were highly influential in analog electronics, and how they touched all of our lives.

Today, that one man is Steve Jobs.  Let me start by saying that I am not an Apple fan-boy.  I've only owned one Apple product in my life, my current iPhone 3GS.  I've always regarded Apple's products as good examples of industrial design, but overpriced and hard to live with because of their closed architecture.  When I first saw a Mac, I was disappointed to see its monochrome, amber display, when the PC world was going increasingly into full color displays.  Windows?  Point and click interfaces?  I was happy with a command line.  When the first generation iPod came out, I thought it was simply a re-packaged version of the 1980 Walkman, with random access because it used a hard drive instead of a cassette - handy, but hardly revolutionary.  But there is no denying that Steve Jobs had a massive impact on our world.

Over the years, I've seen many stories of the development of the iconic Apple MacIntosh.  You'll be excused for not remembering that the product before the Mac was the Apple Lisa, which was, to be charitable, quite forgettable.  You see, the name Lisa, was officially an acronym for "Local Integrated Software Architecture", but was also the name of Steve's daughter.  It's my opinion that Jobs was stung by that failure and was determined to make the Mac the greatest computer to ever hit the market.  Stories go around of Jobs driving the development crew to the ends of their wits and ability to stand the pressure, throwing prototypes and destroying weeks worth of work.  The often quoted line was that it had to not just be great, it had to be "insanely great". 

If I had to sum up Jobs in one phrase, "insanely great" would be that phrase.  I see I'm not alone, judging by today's press

I'll let others wax about how Steve's visions of how we should interact with the digital universe shaped our world, or how their 1 year old is able to turn on an iPad, sort through the folders and start their favorite game.  I will note that the most unexpected place I ever encountered a mention of Steve Jobs was in a book about the eradication of smallpox, "The Demon in the Freezer", wandering around in India in the 1970s before the birth of Apple, and then contributing money to start a medical charity, the Seva Foundation

To re-phrase what I said last time, what's the impact of one man?  The philosophers argue that Jobs may well have changed the way people interact with computers, but if he hadn't been there, someone else would have come up with these ideas.  Skeptics point out that the Mac interface really came from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Apple just popularized it.  But how do we know?  Anyone who has done math has likely had the experience of struggling to solve a problem, only to have it look clear and obvious when the teacher solves it.  Oftentimes, the hardest part in solving a problem is not the mechanics of solving the problem, it's the vision to see a way that it can be solved.  I am always in awe of the impact that one determined engineer can have, and how much they can change the world for the better.


  1. Great post. I agree with you about Jobs' impact. He was the driving force behind a lot of really well-designed products and he set high standards for user experience. I have to give that to him.

    We know Lisa/Mac UI was inspired by Xerox Parc's pioneering work because Larry Tesler worked for Xerox before Apple:

    Larry Tesler

    Jobs visits Xerox PARC

    There's plenty of supporting evidence, and I don't think Apple ever denied having been inspired by the Xerox people, as PARC was actively trying to spread the mouse/window religion outside their campus.

    (This should not be construed as taking anything away from what you said, as the Xerox PARC stuff probably would have just died a quiet death without someone like Steve Jobs to drive a company to produce something like the Lisa/Mac.)

  2. You might recall the elder Bush (GHW) once referred to "the vision thing" - as in "I don't have it". Steve Jobs did. That second link you posted has a wonderful quote from Steve, where he says that within 10 minutes (of a demo at PARC) he was convinced every computer would have a mouse and GUI someday. That's the vision thing.

    Even people like me who aren't Apple fanbois can see that and admire it.

    One characteristic of people with vision is to assume everyone else sees what they do and just don't act on it. I get that impression from what I know of Steve. But it's not true. He really did "think different".

  3. True enough.

    I always thought of Jobs as kind of a jerk (I've met and known enough people who've worked at Apple and attest to it), but I'm sure that was part of what got him through: he was in many ways a very unreasonable man, and unreasonable people change the world.

    Jobs did that in spades.

    And yes, I admire that, just as I admire Bill Gates, though for other reasons. I admire people who trudge on despite all the reasons to give up, all the naysayers, and all the endless bad news.

    Now, to carry on with your original premise: will a brilliant visionary engineer type conjure up some radical liberty from the ashes of America version 1.0?

  4. That "addendum" link "Creation Myth" is a must read. A bit long if you're a casual visitor, but well worth it.

    As for the last question, I think we need to find some gentlemen farmers. I'm still amazed by how well the last group did, a couple of hundred years ago.

  5. For sooth, I hie to prepare for ye coming change. America Verfion 2.0 should iust be starting in XIII months, when elections are cancelled for 'good of the nation.' It be then yat "gentlemen farmers" living among the teknocracy today must be ready. When the students are ready, the sensei(s) will appear.

    Meanwhile, Sun Tzu, Flavius Publius Vegetius Renatus (De Re Militari), Machievelli, and other similar authors/readings should be added to one's PT, and marksmenship regimen. The time is obviously coming; be ready.


  6. Apple definitely got their stuff from Xerox. Some years ago I talked with someone who was actually there. Jobs and Woz were given all the source code and hardware specs that Xerox had for the PC that they had built, free of charge and obligation.

  7. BobG - FWIW, that article link that BS Footprint left says that Apple agreed to let PARC buy 100,000 shares of their pre-IPO stock if PARC would let them see everything. I can't confirm that, but it does make sense.

  8. There are quotes attributed to Jobs saying that he'd been inspired by what he saw at PARC.

    "They showed me three things. One of the things they showed me was object-oriented programming. Another one they showed me was a networked computer system ... they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc. I didn't even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me which was the graphical user inter:face. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen in my life. Now remember it was very flawed, what we saw was incomplete, they'd done a bunch of things wrong. But we didn't know that at the time, but still though, the germ of the idea was there and they'd done it very well, Within you know, ten minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day."
    Steve Jobs, Apple Computer
    commenting on his visit to Xerox PARC.

    Source: A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation

    IIRC, this stuff all came out when Apple sued Microsoft over the Windows UI -- Microsoft proved pretty convincingly that there was lots of prior art and thus Apple's copyright/patent claims were bunk. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Let me be clear (heh) -- this is to take nothing away from Jobs and his crew for what they brought to market despite all the naysayers (of which I was one.)