Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs

I lived in Palo Alto for many years, and would see Steve Jobs around town from time to time. I'd see him buying flowers at Stanford Florist, shopping for organic lentils in Whole Foods, talking on his iPhone outside Evvia before meeting people for dinner or strolling with his wife past Fraiche on a sunny afternoon.

And I've followed his career from the beginning, starting when I was a nerdy kid into computers. I read all about the Lisa, Steve's first baby, named after his daughter and now long forgotten and I followed the launch of its more successful sibling, the Macintosh. I was not fortunate enough to be a Mac owner in those early days but some of my friends had them and I always loved the little Mac toasters. I was primarily a Windows user for many years, but there was always something about the design of the Mac that was so clean and appealing, even years after Steve was forced out of Apple.

I was in college when he started NeXT. The black NeXT cube was so cool, so fascinating. While I had hoped that NeXT would be successful, unfortunately for too many people, myself included, the NeXT was too different, too expensive, my existing software and hardware wasn't compatible. Computing in the late 80's was very different, and the network effect of Wintel hardware and software compatibility drove even die hard Mac fans to buy PCs.

NeXT struggled. I was sad when they ceased producing that sleek black cube. They concentrated on selling the NeXTStep OS and development tools, with limited success at best. I wonder what it must have been like to have been so successful with Apple then to struggle so much with NeXT.

These years were also a struggle for Apple. Their biggest challenge was simply persisting in the face of the Windows juggernaut, but many of Apple's problems were self-inflicted. A decade of building atop Steve's original Macintosh foundation had left Apple with the OS equivalent of a house of cards. Apple recognized this, but their various projects to produce a new Macintosh OS never amounted to anything and their attempt to build a new class of product, the Newton, was overly expensive, marginally useful and widely lampooned.

I owned one of the first Newtons. I used it for about a year as my address book and calendar, but eventually gave it up in frustration and went back to a paper daily planner. It was a sad time for fans of Apple.

Then Apple acquired NeXT. NeXT had a modern operating system that nobody much wanted, and Apple made computers that needed a modern OS. And Steve came back to Apple as an advisor. And suddenly Apple didn't look so doomed. If you have the time, I recommend you watch Steve's Q&A session at WWDC 1997. It's his first WWDC after coming back to Apple. What comes through to me is that Steve clearly loves this stuff, and that he has his sights clearly focused on creating the best experience for the Mac user, not on some cool technology or selling more boxes to IT managers or making developer's lives easier. If you watch the Q&A, you'll see some discussion about OpenDoc and that it was killed. OpenDoc was a compound document technology that was supposed to compete with Microsoft's OLE. But OpenDoc was complex, buggy and late and one of the first things Steve did on returning to Apple was kill it. This was a big deal to Macintosh developers who had spent a lot of time and effort rewriting their apps to support OpenDoc, but Steve clearly saw that it didn't matter: most Mac users didn't care how their documents were stored, and that OpenDoc didn't bring those users much benefit. I think it's that keen sense, that focus on the user that served Steve so well in his career, but especially during his second tenure at Apple.

The history of Steve's second coming is now legend. But let's not minimize the audacity of Apple's most successful products. The iPod seemed a pretty random sideline for a computer company like Apple. Year after year, model after model, Apple relentlessly improved the iPod. After the disappointing Newton, I hadn't owned another Apple product until the iPod. It was a kind of gateway drug to Apple gear. A shiny 13 inch titanium MacBook Pro followed a couple years later. It was a secondary computer for traveling, but I began to use it more and more and my Windows machine less and less.

When the first iPhone was announced, I was initially lukewarm. Certainly a bold, audacious move by Apple, but it didn't grab me immediately. With so much buzz and enthusiasm building before the launch I went to Apple's site to take a look at the iPhone product info. After watching the iPhone demo video, slickly produced in the best Apple style, I came around and found myself in the Palo Alto Apple Store on launch day a couple of weeks later.

In my career writing software, I've always gotten the most satisfaction out of producing things that help people in their daily lives. I can only imagine how it must feel to be the leader of a team that produces such a revolutionary product loved by so many. Steve must have been insanely proud.

Industry and media pundits love to cast things as a contest: Windows versus Mac, Android versus iPhone, but to his credit and our delight, Steve Jobs could see past that. His final creation, the iPad, is so beloved by so many people, most especially by "your mom", those ordinary people for whom computers hold no intrinsic fascination. I think it's truly Steve's ultimate creation.

Yet remember that the iPad is only a year and a half old. We all know his health has been challenging, but it seems too soon to lose Steve. There's yet so much more to do, so many delightful machines to create. We will look to the folks at Apple to finish what he started.

Steve did what he loved up until the very end. If only we all could be that lucky.