Why Steve Matters

Why Steve Matters

It seems like Apple-related subject matter is the only thing that brings me back to this blog to write. In fact, the last (and solitary) post on this blog was about Steve Jobs’s open letter explaining why Adobe’s Flash technology would never make it onto the iOS platform. I’ll get back to why that’s interesting, especially in light of what happened yesterday.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and perhaps its solitary prophet, passed away leaving a gaping vacuum in the world. Many lyrical things have been said about him today, in ways that I won’t even try to match. The moments I didn’t spend working today, I spent reading the touching anecdotes and obituaries written by so many friends, admirers and even competitors (see links to some of my favorites below). I won’t try to copy them, the people who wrote them often knew Jobs, had spoken to him and shared some moments with him. So I’ll stick to what I know: the impact he has had on my world.

I think it’s fair to say that most people who know me even a little bit wouldn’t hesitate to label me an Apple ‘fanboy’. But I’d be the first to admit the various problems I’ve encountered with Apple products, the issues I see with the way they do business and the fact that the greatest CEO of our times was frequently painted as an ogre. Still, I am a fan, y’know? Here’s why.

IIe or not IIe

My first computer in 1987 was a PC, an 8086 processor, with CGA graphics, 2 x 5¼” floppy drives and (I think) 496 KB of memory. I’d had run-ins with computers before then at a small school I went to: the BBC microcomputer, the Commodore 64, the Atari. But it wasn’t until I switched schools later that year that I first encountered the Apple IIe (probably the enhanced IIe), and straight away, it changed my life.

The school I was at had an elective computer science class for which I’d enrolled. Their workhorse of choice was the Apple IIe. At that time, it was just another computer to me. I didn’t have any particular appreciation for the craftsmanship of the thing, or any notions of how it might have been better than other computers I was using. I was looking forward to learning how to program computer games and to my utter and five-minute-lasting delight, a computer game is precisely what we started with: Typing Tutor II, to be precise.

I learned to type on the Apple IIe, I got to about 70 words a minute in a few months, speeding up from there. The very skills I picked up then are the ones I’m using now to write this blog post. Having learned to touch-type, we went on to learn how to use a word-processor and a spreadsheet (AppleWorks, anyone?), then how to program in Logo (I did eventually make a text-based adventure game based on Tim Burton’s Batman) and played ‘Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?’. Our computer science teacher converted an Apple printer to a line-scanner, and scanned in photos of our faces which were then converted into ASCII art. The 2 Macintosh computers that made it into the lab were misappropriated for all sorts of fun (including playing recess sessions of Sierra’s Space Quest 2 and Balance of Power). It was a time when Apple products seemed to make anything possible.

These were tools. And I didn’t for a second stop to think about what it had taken to create them. Or the struggle for perfection that had birthed them. They worked, and they let me get on with it and focus on working and playing.

In the years and many schools that followed (I was an expat kid, roaming the world), I logged more time on PCs than I did on Apple computers. Although they were always around in the background. It was the early 90s, and in the parts of the world I lived in Microsoft was making its rapid ascent.  I’d always liked the Mac, but found the classic OS elegant yet far too limiting.  Point and click was great, but I lacked the feeling of raw ‘power’ a command line could give me. Apple was a fading dream, half-remembered.

It wasn’t until the advent of the 21st Century, with Steve Jobs back at the helm, that I started noticing Apple again. It started of course, with the iPod, but quickly I started to notice the Apple laptops and iMacs. I’d been delving into UNIX and Linux and suddenly I was seeing these posts on the net that Mac OSX had been based on a UNIX kernel. All of a sudden, my craving for command line power gelled with my craving for the sexy Apple hardware and UI and I knew what I wanted: I had to get a Mac!

I will resist the urge to detail all my reasons for falling in love with OSX, the Mac, iOS and the iPhone. There are enough elegies on those topics out in the big, bad world. Looking back at my convoluted history with the Apple product line, I realize something astonishing. Apple has been with me at almost every turn in my development on the computer. These are some of the things I first came into contact with on an Apple:

  • Typing
  • Laserdiscs and a digital encyclopedia with multimedia
  • Space Quest 2 (sorry, it’s a landmark game)
  • Balance of Power (also a landmark game and taught me about the intricacies of the Cold War)
  • Spreadsheets
  • Procedural Programming (learned to program Logo)
  • Graphical User Interface
  • GUI Programming (created my first ‘Paintbrush’ program on a Mac)
  • Hypertext (using Hypercard)
  • Voice synthesizing

Apple, Jobs and the Knowledge of Good and Evil

There’s something Steve Jobs knew. Something so basic to his thinking and to the DNA of the company and products he created, that it’s hinted at in the very logo of the company itself. The bite out of the apple, hearkening to that fateful bite that Adam took of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Steve knew right from wrong. When it came to his product line, he seemed to unerringly cut through the dross, mercilessly paring away anything non-essential to leave something pure, something clean, something so deceptively simple that everybody believed it _was _that simple. In fact, many techies still criticize Apple products for being too simplistic, too confining. I can’t fault them for it. But to quote one of my own teachers: “True freedom arises only when you have no choice.” Apple users know that the fact that they do not need to select from a myriad of options keeps things simple and efficient. In most instances, Apple has done a great job getting rid of the lesser alternatives and given you the cleanest way to take care of something. Is this draconic? Yes. Is it limiting? Sure. Does it make you more productive? You bet!  As Steve himself has said, “Focus is about saying no”.

This focus and unerring commitment to staying ‘on message’ was what disappeared from Apple when Jobs was ousted. Like Adam and Eve exiled from Eden because of their new-found knowledge of Good and Evil, Steve was sent out into the wilderness of the tech world.

When he returned many years later, an older and perhaps wiser man, that original spark of vision still burned strong in him. While he was out there, he’d worked a few more miracles: he created the company NeXTStep (whose software code still runs through the veins of OSX), and helped launch Pixar, the first studio to release a fully digital film: Toy Story. Each one of these endeavors benefitted from Steve’s unerring vision of what was important and, more critically, what was not.

That same clarity and focus is what he brought back with him to Apple. The interesting thing is that people were surprised by Steve Jobs time and again. This was a man, like any other, who grew and evolved with time. Still, he was also unflinchingly consistent in his expression of what he found to be important. It’s not that Steve changed, it’s that nobody was prepared for how far he was willing to take a principle. For most people, there’s a certain limit beyond which being ‘reasonable’ and being ‘realistic’ take over.  But Steve never stopped being hungry and being foolish, as he liked to put it. No matter how perfect something was, it could be more perfect in time.

If Steve had a superpower, it was that he held on to his convictions with an iron grip. It was the key to what came to be described as his ‘Reality Distortion Field’. Steve believed with unwavering strength in the principles he injected into Apple. Even in the face of insurmountable odds and nerve-shattering risk, Steve would not budge an inch if he thought he had the right of it. Most of us don’t have convictions of that strength, which is why his vision won the day.

It’s a good thing he had such a great vision.

Flashback

Which brings me back to Steve’s bombing down of Adobe’s Flash technology. For a detailed discussion, see my earlier post on the subject. This incident highlights those qualities of Apple’s CEO that made him both feared and respected in Silicon Valley. Without holding back, or worrying about whose toes he might step on, Jobs fired volley after volley at the animation technology that had found such traction on the web. He accused it of having performance problems and security flaws, of being ill-suited to touch technology and causing battery drain on portable devices. He accused it of being proprietary software (which it is) and was bold enough to claim that the web could do without it.

And he was right. Only recently, Adobe released its developer program Edge, which allows developers to create content in HTML5 and Javascript, an alternative to Flash. Adobe’s only being practical, there is no profit in holding on to an old business model. But lesser men’s fears that users would move away en masse from iOS devices due to their lack of Flash-support proved very unfounded.

I don’t think Steve was certain of victory. But I think he had a vision of what he thought was right, and felt that if he didn’t support that vision nothing he had done, or would do since, would have any meaning at all.

Fanboy

So why am I an Apple fanboy? And why, despite whatever human flaws he may have had, do I have nothing but admiration for its legendary leader? The Steve Jobs quote I find myself reciting most often, in which I believe lies the difference between Apple and every other tech company out there, is: “People who care about software, should care about hardware.” It hints at the core of the Apple (if you will): that nothing is too small to obsess on; no detail too unimportant to sweat over.  Where the mantra in every other company is diversification, at Apple it has always been focus. In the case of their products, the focus was on the experience.

It wasn’t good enough to have a phone with a multi-touch screen, it had to be perfectly responsive. You didn’t want the touch keys to be accidentally “pressed” when someone held their touch phone to the side of their face, so the iPhone had to have proximity sensors so the screen would turn off when held that way, and then on again instantly when returned to a viewing position.

It wasn’t good enough for a laptop to have a wonderfully smooth, bezeled aluminum keyboard, it had to be backlit. It wasn’t good enough to have backlit keyboards, they had to have a light sensor so that the backlighting would brighten or dim in accordance with the ambient light.

I could go on, and fill a post three times as long as this one with the many tiny touches that make an Apple product so superior to its ‘peers’. But I’ll try to sum it up in the following principles I see as key to the Apple way:

  1. Great design isn’t optional; it is a prerequisite.
  2. Don’t settle. If it isn’t 100% right, it’s a 100% wrong.
  3. Attention to detail. Nothing is too small to be done right.
  4. Form and Function are not separate, but inform each other and must both be respected.
  5. Technology is Art.

Besides his rare public appearances, Steve always struck me as a very private person. Something I considered to be a good thing for someone in his position. He valued the privacy of his family and of his personal life.

His communication style, like everything, was minimalistic, concise, clear, to the point (unlike this post). The few times he did choose to speak publicly, what he said was inspirational, sometimes iconoclastic, and occasionally downright rude (“Microsoft has no taste”).

Unlike many CEOs, who shall remain unnamed, Steve Jobs was an inspiration because of his unwavering vision, his attention to detail and his understanding that anything worth doing was worth doing perfectly. And because despite the heights he scaled to there was always a child-like joy about him when demonstrating something wonderful to the world, as if he was seeing it for the first time with us, even though I’m sure he’d been working ceaselessly on that product for months.

Steve Jobs loved making the world a better place, and he never stopped being that off-beat inventor guy who started a computer company out of his garage. I’m truly sorry to see him go so early, and I wish his family, his friends, his colleagues and his fans much strength in the days ahead. Take two more lessons from Steve before you go: “Life is too short to be living someone else’s life” and “Think Different”.

Links to Articles/Obits on Jobs

Links to videos of Jobs

Switching my Mac OS X to DuckDuckgo

It ain't a flashy job, but somebody's got to do it

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