Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on Steve Jobs

It was fitting that I learned of Steve Jobs' death while I was at the Silicon Alley Insider 100 party tonight on the trading floor of the NYSE. There, amidst banks of phones and screens where billions of dollars are traded each day, a very large subset of NYC geeks who matter were all looking at monitors that announced the news of Apples founder and expressed their sadness to each other about the loss of a technology giant.

I never met Steve Jobs, but I did see him in the flesh when I attended Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) in 2008. That conference was notable for being the first one after the introduction of the iPhone. I have to say that when he came onto the stage I was shocked. Instead of the youthful looking Jobs I had seen in many pictures he looked extremely gaunt and frail. I remember the rest of the audience was shocked as well. The company's stock dipped that day and the story in the media was not about all the cool things that Apple was doing but about the health of its co-founder. That's the day the Jobs health watch began.


I am an Apple fanboy, and my love for computers was influenced by Steve Jobs and the machines he designed. I saw my first Apple computer when I was in the third grade. There were three Apple II Plus machines that sat on some library tables. We were told not to touch them, but I was fascinated. They eventually went to the guidance counselor’s office (lucky him). I found a book that had simple basic programs and got permission to the office to use the computers. I spent many hours trying to type in a complete program to make the rocket created in ASCII characters fly. The problem was lunch time wasn't long enough to complete the task so I had to start over every time. No one told me about something called a floppy disk.

The II Plus was succeeded by the Apple IIc. This computer was really beautiful. I remember it was nicely designed white machine with a chiclet-style keyboard. Today we speak of the digital haves and the have nots. One of my elementary school classmates was a digital have. His parents had the foresight and money to buy him one of these machines. I was a have not. The IIc was not in our family's budget, and so whenever we went to his house I wasn't really interested in playing with him -- I just wanted time on his machine.

My first computer was a DEC Rainbow. It was a gigantic machine and ran on MS-DOS 2.0. I got it as an obsolete hand-me-down for the doctor my mother worked for. I was appreciative, but it was not an Apple. I enjoyed exploring the PC world, but the problem with the DEC was that it was completely useless for school work because its programs were incompatible with those used on other PCs. So most of my assignments were typed PCs as my mother's office, at libraries, or at school.

The PC would dominate my life for the next 20 years. In college some students had Macs which could produces documents with nice fonts, but I used the PCs in the computer lab. When I finally purchased my own machine it was a PC because I could save my work and use the lab's printer. As I went to work, employers gave me PCs. Apple seemed to be for designers.

Apple and Jobs didn't really enter into my life again until I was in my mid-30s. I have never owned much music so the iPod completely passed my by. My re-introduction to Apple occurred through the iPhone. The moment I had it in my hands I knew the iPhone was miles ahead of any other so-called “smartphone.” The combination of hardware design and the software was incredible – and still is.

Unlike many commentators I don't think Jobs single-handedly designed any of the great products we associate with Apple. To give him such credit is to put him on a pedestal too high. (After all Wozniak soldered the components of the first Apple machines, and many specialized engineers and designers worked on later products.) What we can credit Jobs' with is in having a vision of how these machines and software should work. He had the opportunity and power to bring talented people together and motivate them to work to his high standards. He had sign off authority and he used it time and time again. Other executives would have shipped substandard products but Jobs wanted perfection – or at least as close to it as he could get.

I now have a complete set of Apple products: a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad. I spend almost half my waking hours (maybe more) every day using one of them. As I use them I find “joy” because I can use them to express myself, learn or entertain myself in an unencumbered fashion. That is Steve Jobs' gift to me and to all of us.