Secondary Emissions

We’d Better Hope We See His Like Again

I’ve spent most of my career underestimating Steve Jobs, or Apple. (That comes down to the same thing.)

My first PC was a Heathkit H89 running CP/M and such classic freeware as PC/Write. Consequently, when the IBM PC came out, I was thrilled – it was just like the Heathkit, but with 16 bits.  Plus, it was open-source.  Design-wise, the Apple II was a marvel of engineering economy, but aside from the architecture, it was hard to distinguish from the Altair. 

The Apple III was a business machine. I even wrote some case-history articles about it for Apple’s PR agency of the period, but differentiating it from the PCs of the time came down to talking about Intel versus Motorola, big-endian versus little-endian, and register-based versus flat memory architectures. To the user, it was all of a piece.

Meanwhile Jobs was thinking and planning.

Then came 1984 and the Mac, and there was a seismic shift.  I had actually written a case-history for Xerox about something called “Windows” on the Star and how it was used on Arpanet at the Hanford Atomic Works, so I knew about GUIs –  but it was clear that an 8-bit CPU couldn’t  handle a GUI, and that same month, Xerox had me do a story on facsimile machines, so you could tell they didn’t have any faith in the Star.

Meanwhile Jobs was thinking and planning.

So the Mac blew everybody away.  But not me so much.  I still had a CP/M mentality. I mean, how could they create an operating system that hid the file structure? I wanted to know how you access the command line.  (Linux geeks still ask these questions.)

Meanwhile Jobs was thinking and planning.

Then, almost immediately, Jay Miner and Jack Tramiel introduced the Amiga, which I thought was awesome.  But awesome wasn’t enough.  For success, you need a whole business plan and a way to support that and your customer base. Jobs understood that. Meanwhile, Commodore, and then Escom, went broke.

Jobs had been thinking and planning.

And then you have the NeXT years.  A decade of looking beyond the PC paradigm. Did Jobs intend to outdo Silicon Graphics and Sun in workstations? (That was my guess at the time. The founding of Pixar was a clue.)  Eventually, he must have seen the futility in that – another sign of a great engineering manager is knowing when to pull the plug – and he rejoined Apple on his own terms.

Since then, Apple has been about  . . . what? Content delivery? To be sure, but there are also those nifty ergonomic laptops, which just happen to be the interface between the cloud and the devices to which content is delivered. 

Apple these days is really about the viral penetration of the entire waking life of its customers.  That’s the new paradigm.  It even got to me, at last.  I have an iPad.  And you know what?  I don’t miss the command line.

So that’s my take on Steve Jobs.  I’m sorry I never got to know him. (Although he’d probably have fired me on any number of occasions if I’d ever come to his attention.)  But I’m glad he was around for as long as he was.  He was a person who contributed an enormous amount to the landscape of the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.

I hope and pray we see his like again.

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