Steve Jobs Passes Away at age 56
Technology innovator Steve Jobs had been a driving force in many of the significant developments in desktop computing over the last 35 years.
Sometimes running mate, sometimes sparing partner Bill Gates summed up Jobs' acumen by saying, “His ability to always come around and figure out where that next bet should be has been phenomenal”. That’s exactly right - he was a master of making sure that he had the right idea, but more importantly, presenting it at the right time and in the right way. Almost every major project that he invested time into over the course of his career deserves to be called a milestone.
Although, like his partner Steve “The Woz” Wozniak, he was an engineer, Jobs preferred focus on the creation of a product rather than technology for its own sake. The first significant tech project that he helped to create was the original Apple home computer. While perhaps, technically, not the first true home computer, it was was one of the earliest that made average geeks contemplate computing as a thing that they could participate in.
Following on from the resounding success of the Apple Computer came the Apple II, introduced in 1977. Unlike the earlier Apple, the Apple II came pre-assembled. A true all-rounder, it could handle business applications, games, programming and scientific work, amongst other roles. The flexibility of the machine was enhanced by its internal all-purpose expansion bus. Its expandability meant that it was not only an early entry into the world of single-box home computers, but it was, in many ways, an early glimpse at what people would later call a PC.
The Apple II family, which continued to be updated into the early 90s, was so beloved to its users that many of them felt, emphatically, that it should remain the flagship architecture of Apple branded computers. However, Jobs had a different idea, and instead, unleashed the next important development in desktop computing, the mouse and GUI equipped Apple Macintosh.
As with a lot of Jobs’ innovations, the success of the Mac came from fine tuning the right elements and releasing them at the right moment. Much of the research into user interfaces for personal computers had already been carried out by Xerox and implemented in its Alto and Star workstations. Apple themselves had released an earlier GUI based workstation called the Lisa that never really caught on. The difference? The Lisa was, arguably, overly ambitious, lacked personality, and perhaps just as importantly, it wasn't really Jobs' baby.
Subsequenly, most personal computers took up the application of a mouse coupled with a bitmap display in order to implement a desktop metaphor and a WIMP interface like the Mac.
Having left Apple, Jobs went on to form a company called Next. The main product of that company, the NeXT workstation, is a device that should be of interest to all desktop Linux users. Apart from laying down many new and influential concepts, it also proved the viability of a mass-produced Unix powered workstation with a friendly GUI on top. These expensive machines found particular favor in universities around the world. It was the workstation that British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee first developed the World Wide Web on. Gnustep is the open source implementation of the GUI and application programming interface of the NeXT. Ironically, much of the NeXT operating system technology was later rolled into Mac OS X.
Although a technical triumph, the NeXT workstation family never broke into the mainstream, and Jobs’ next slew of successes came when he rejoined Apple. Arguably, Apple’s presence on the desktop was floundering at this point. As ever, Jobs’ displayed a pitch perfect sense of what middle class professionals and media content creators would consider cool. The single box monitor/computer combination that constituted the iMac is perhaps the epitome of this early stage in his second tenure as Apple’s guiding light. Even non Macintosh users have to admire a hardware design such as the Cube series of Power Macs (see a guy opening one up in this video to see what I mean). It’s elegant, functional and generally droolworthy, and it was products such as these that transformed Apple from a struggling computer maker to a leader in innovation with a cult like following.
A figure as prominent as Jobs was bound to attract some controversy. His critics pointed out that many of his products had earlier antecedents. Some even called him a master of hype. It was true that he had transformed the Apple brand into one that guaranteed favorable media interest in its new products. To his admirers, this was sometimes called the “Halo Effect”. To his detractors, it was sometimes called a the “reality distortion field”.
Y’know, in many ways Jobs was like the maverick hero of a US TV series. In such a series, week on week, the star of the show is nearly always right, and yet, he is constantly second-guessed by superiors who are tired of defending his crazy antics. However, in the real world, the technology industry, like the audience of one of those TV shows, came to realize that Jobs’ gambles were nearly always going to be on the mark. This created a situation of self-fulfilling prophesy: Periodically, Jobs would appear on stage (clad in stylish turtle-neck apparel) to announce his latest shiny, stylish take on technology, and subsequently, the media would launch into a hype overdrive. In turn, this meant that Jobs could afford to do what he excelled at, to put forth a design which was bold.
The final set of devices that Jobs worked on exemplified this approach. Before the iPhone, the iPod and the iPad, there had been other smartphones, media players and tablet computers. However, Jobs always had a knack of taking a paradigm that didn't quite ring true with his core audience and successfully retuning it into something that they simply had to have.
I remember first covering the announcement of the iPhone in 2007, and I had this to say:
“Apple competes on style, and it makes good computers because its form of style is not style-over-substance. Most of the rest of the computer industry regard style as a dirty word and they shouldn't [...] Style can refer to ease of use and ergonomics - in other words, how something fits into a person's life. [...] In short, style can mean putting the user before other considerations.”
I wonder what Linux would have been like without his influence? The technology scene certainly won't be the same without him.
UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.