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David Hepworth misses the point of Steve Jobs

Mr. David Hepworth, of the lovely Word Magazine (I subscribe !), a usually reliable, and always interesting cultural commentator just blogged a piece about the reactions to the untimely passing of ex-Apple CEO Steve Jobs. I think his assessment of Mr Jobs' cultural impact is wrong. I was going to present my reaction in place on his blog, although it did seem to grow a little too long for the commentary section, and I subsequently found out that his blogger site seems to be set up disallow comments from people who aren't logged in to a Google account, which I object to, somewhat dogmatically. So I decided to post my piece here, and link back to his, which is more in keeping with my own views about how the Web ought to run.

I don't disagree fundamentally with the tone of the piece. I do share his unease over the now seemingly mandatory broadcast grief marathons that accompany any death in the public eye, and I find an unpleasant hint of infantile narcissim in the fetish relationship between the user and product celebrated with the mass parades of public Apple evangelists and their iDevices, which might be a cousin to the sentiments he expresses about toys and proportional responses.

This attempt to sum up Mr. Jobs as a super-skilled marketer I think underestimates the scale, and perhaps also the nature of Mr. Jobs' contributions, some of which are subtle, many of which may look obvious, but usually only by hindsight. Even if his role was solely as a provoker, and curator of works; and I doubt it was, the truth is rarely that neat – he seems to have his fingerprints near the genesis of a string of transformational products, which do seem to fulfill the cliche of yes, changing the world.

Start at the beginning: His role in realising the portable microcomputer as a packaged appliance, something like a food processor, that people could be taught to directly integrate into their homes and offices. The Apple II barnstormed this market. I am not so sure as most other commentators that this idea was an obvious, archetypal product simply waiting to happen. Putting computers in your house, I think, is a fundamentally odd idea, albeit one that we have now fully naturalised. In 1976 it must have been almost schizophrenic.

Refining this idea into the Macintosh and Lisa, a specifically pioneering further insight was that a then unusual square pixel bitmapped display would better lend itself to curve plotting. This gave us the WYSIWYG relationship between the graphical computer and the laser printer, computer typography and thereby re-shaped the primary means of production for print and graphics.

The post-Apple "wilderness years" are particularly interesting. At NeXT they pioneered software controlled automated computer assembly and production, I've heard it said maybe a decade ahead of everyone else. I think they made a lot of mistakes, but I also think these lessons learned were invaluable later on. More significantly, the NeXT system software placed an elegant emphasis on "object-oriented programming", carefully enveloping the tedious nuts and bolts of interfacing with electrical computer hardware with well chosen software 'components'; tidy abstractions that lead to a system that was significantly easier to port to new hardware configurations, and simultaneously could be more-easily programmed at a higher level, without resorting to so much specialist understanding of specific hardware.

The significance of the work at NeXT will not be fully realised until later in his career, but as an intriguing footnote, it is on a NeXT workstation that a British scientist called Tim Berners-Lee develops some applications and protocols he calls the "World Wide Web". Mr Berners-Lee is on the record noting that the unique NeXT development tools allowed him to easily connect abstract layers to form useful application prototypes in the space of a couple of months.

Steve's other business during those years was Pixar. You don't have to study the history of cinema over the last two decades too hard to detect just how fundamentally Pixar shaped mainstream family movie making.

Then he returns to Apple and begins that now over-documented turnaround from prodigal son and failing company, to pin-up CEO and spectacular media and financial success. It's worth pointing out that the portablility of the NeXT system software allows them to insinuate it into Macintosh entirely. Next the iPod, and then we get iTunes, and the 'iTunes Store'.  And then the same elegant software evolves to pocket phones, where the relative ease of programming buoys up the freshly invented 'App market'. And a finely edged production control builds an on-demand production, supply and retail operation that is the envy of the rest of the industry.

I'm not a professional writer as Mr. Hepworth is. I hope I don't read like I'm elegising him mawkishly like some Princess Di or Jade Goody for the "Facebook generation", or lionising him in super-human terms as though he's some over-egged digital Da Vinci, or Newton. I never met him. I'm not laying flowers anywhere. I'm sure that a huge part of his success was through fortunate timing, and developing good taste and keeping good company, but this is surely true of many whom history accounts amongst the Great, perhaps even of most. What a C.V. though!

These things are not a competition you can score, and yet I don't think most Word Magazine readers would rush to disagree with the suggestion that Steve's musical idols like Dylan or the Beatles "changed the world". I'm comfortable suggesting that to a subsequent generation, with it's own new media of choice, Steven P. Jobs influenced and changed the world to an arguably similar degree.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 7, 2011 at 10:44 in computers, history.
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