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Why Steve Jobs was important.

Thursday, 6 October, 2011

First, although in the public mind he was Apple, Inc. He was only the ringleader. In his own mind, his world was much larger than one company. Note his e-mail address:

Most of what Jobs’ teams have done seem less remarkable because we are living in the world which is like it is because of those devices. The GUI is not a product of nature; it was developed and honed by people.

He was the best kind of fool. The most notable thing was the personal computer itself. Yes, other items were around, but the Apple II defined the PC as we would come to know it. Take a look at an Altair 8800 some time.

Xerox thought Apple was onto something and bought in. A condition was that the Apple gang would be given an extensive tour of Xerox PARC. This tour included a demo of the Xerox 8010 Information System and its Star operating system. This system was the genesis of a whole new idea of computing. The demo was given by someone intimately familiar with the 8010, and its many, many documented flaws were concealed.

The desktop metaphor and black-on-white graphics started with the Star. The Apple corps thought they were seeing something far more sophisticated and this experience informed the later work on a new machine called the Lisa released in 1983. Like the 8010, Lisa was prohibitively expensive.

A smaller company devised the GEM OS for the Atari ST computer. This is the first PC “visual operating system”. Microsoft attempted to emulate GEM and devised Windows, shipping in December 1983. If you ever have the opportunity to see an emulation of Windows 1.0, do so. It was not much more friendly than the command line.

Meanwhile, learning from the failures of the Apple III, mostly you haven’t even heard of that one, and the Lisa, a new project which started as a $1000 box you might plug into your TV was finally released in January 1984. This device was so extraordinary most people exposed to the prototypes came away expressing fondness for the device. This was unknown in this industry at the time.

The Macintosh, for all its faults, shipped at one-third the price of the allegedly more serious devices and the interface literally changed human history. However you’re reading this, even on a hard-copy print out, is due entirely to the Macintosh.

The objective of Next Computer was to put the power of a mainframe computer on a desktop for education and science. These were also profanely expensive, and ultimately were notable only for what happened to the code.

Somewhere in here Jobs lead a team to buy Lucasfilm Animation and remaned it Pixar. Pixar’s primary gift to entertainment is the development of the technology with which animation is created. Nonetheless, I presume you know their work.

Apple purchased Next in 1997 to get their hands on that code. The deal being conditional upon the exit of the current CEO. That’s when the iMac came out with the nifty gumdrop aesthetic. All the girls loved it.

The rest you may be old enough to remember.

1999 saw the introduction of Next’s OS as an Apple product. Named, sorta, after the city where the final golden masters were developed “OS X”. For the last time, that X is actually a roman numeral. The last gumdrops were the second generation OS X machines which were utterly stable. Something no other personal computer had managed up to that time, including Apple’s own.

2001 saw the introduction of the iPod. While other such players were available, those were novelty items. iPod made the idea move. Later, iTunes and the iTunes store made the device foolproof. At the time I said the iPod was too early. Don’t listen to me.

2005 saw a switch of architecture from the Motorola family, and no one on the outside knew Moto was spinning off their CPU division at the time, to the common Intel architecture. This also allowed Macs to run Microsoft Windows on the same machine, just in case you needed it for “work”. The devices dropped in price dramatically.

Of course the iPhone followed but when it was tied to AT&T’s miserable system I knew something was wrong. When the latest OS came out that was more bling and gestures than features, I began to worry.

Now we know. Will Apple persevere without Jobs? No. They’re failing already and he was just sick.

Jobs wasn’t about innovation, but about making a device, and the world that device inhabited, move.

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