06 October 2011

Steve Jobs: In permanent sleep mode

I am saddened by the news that Steve Jobs has died. I'm an old Machead, having first used a Mac all the way back in the very beginning in 1984, and before that Apple II computers. I will never forget the classic Super Bowl ad, either.

(Unfortunately my favorite team, the Redskins, got trounced in that Super Bowl, which I also remember.)

It is practically a cliché and more than a little trite to say how Steve Jobs changed the world of computing. But it's true: Before Steve Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak, personal computers were a tiny niche market, only for geeks and very specialized users. At that time, when people heard the word "computer", they thought of big hulking machines that took up entire rooms, and which were only used for things like databases, and could only be operated after extensive and arcane training. Like this:

The notion that personal computers would not only be ubiquitous, but also so small as to be carried in a pocket like the iPhone and powerful enough to record and play video or even 3D graphics -- in 1984 all of that was unimaginable.

I distinctly remember visiting Control Data as a Boy Scout in 1984. Our Scoutmaster worked there, and he was using what Control Data claimed was state-of-the-art -- and it was operated entirely by punchcards. No monitor. Just paper. Hanging chads were just as much a problem then as they were in Florida in 2000. Needless to say, Control Data is long gone.

While Apple didn't invent the concept of a graphic user interface -- much of Apple's GUI was inspired by Xerox's research in the subject -- it is thanks to Apple and particularly Steve Jobs whom we have to thank for being able to take a graphic interface for granted (i.e. point and click pictures on a screen). It was revolutionary at the time, and many believed it couldn't be done while still being affordable for the masses and easy enough for them to use. True, the Mac was pretty expensive at the time, but it was within reach, and was enough to completely change the computer market almost overnight.

Fast forward to the mid-90s, when Jobs returned to Apple, and the iMac -- remember the brightly-colored egg-shaped ones? -- was widely mocked and had many scratching their heads, but it too turned out to be a breakthrough. Jobs' vision once again outpaced the industry. And again with the iPhone, and again with the iPad.

Jobs had a dark side, of course. Legend has it that anyone who happened to be in the elevator with Steve and couldn't explain to him in that time what exactly their job was would be summarily fired. He drove his workers to extremes in the pursuit of his ideas. He never really did give Steve Wozniak the credit he was due. And so on. But then again, visionary people like Jobs tend to be difficult precisely because they...well, think different from the rest of us.

Now the big question is, can Apple continue at the pace Jobs set since his return? Hard to say. The talent is still there, of course, but his unique leadership style and ability to motivate employees, the press and above all customers (who drooled at every Macworld expo in expectation) will be sorely missed. Apple now lacks a consummate salesman like Jobs, who for years was ruefully described as having his own "reality distortion field", where he made the ridiculous and preposterous sound like a good idea.

I can't help but wonder what else he had up his sleeve when he died. Sadly, this time there won't be one of his infamous "oh, one more thing..." interjections to find out.

Though Jobs was Buddhist, I still offer this prayer for him:

Though we are dust and ashes,
God has prepared for those who love him a heavenly dwelling place.
We commended Steve into the hands of almighty God.
We commit his remains to the earth,
as we entrust ourselves and all who love God to his loving care.

(Adapted from Common Worship)

You turn us back to dust and say: *
'Turn back, O children of earth.

'For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday, *
which passes like a watch in the night.'

(Psalm 90:3-4)

Requiescat in pacem.

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