RIP Steve Jobs: This One Feels Personal

Posted on | October 6, 2011 | Comments Off on RIP Steve Jobs: This One Feels Personal

I’m not sure I’ve ever mourned the passing of a big corporate CEO before. I don’t expect I’ll mourn the passing of another one anytime soon either. But I am mourning the passing of Steve Jobs today. Apple Computers has always had a different sort of relationship with its customer base than most other large companies. Indeed, many Apple computer users are more like acolytes than customers, especially those of us who have a multi-decade relationship with Apple and its products.

I have a vivid memory of my first encounter with the Apple II, at the house of a friend of mine in around 1980. I had more computer experience than most people at that point, having logged many hours on the PLATO mainframe system at the University of Illinois during 8th and 9th grade in the late 1970s. My dad was a professor at U of I, so he was able to get a sign-on for PLATO. He let me and my brother use it, and use it we did.

The PLATO system was very advanced for its time, with powerful graphics and multi-player games that didn’t see the light of day in the mainstream until years later. The Microsoft flight simulator was a direct descendent of a simulator developed for PLATO. Ray Ozzie, most recently the technology guru at Microsoft, was a computer science student at U of I during this time and developed a notes program on PLATO. Later, it became Lotus Notes. Looking back on it now, most of the central attributes of the modern Internet were already in place on the PLATO system in the 1970s. But I’m digressing. Sorry. Just trying to establish some context. Let’s get back to the Apple II.

Honestly, compared to PLATO, the Apple II seemed pretty weak. It had a grid based Star Trek/Space War game similar to one I’d played on PLATO. But this was a really basic game compared to some of the games on PLATO, like “Empire” or “Avatar.” Nevertheless, the idea that a computer was now affordable enough that you could have it in your house, well, that was still really cool. I wished we had one at our house. It was also clear that the Apple II kicked ass on the computers I had seen in the Radio Shack store in the North Randall Mall. Everything about the Apple II seemed better: the way it looked, the Apple logo, the advertising. It was all cool, and it definitely made Apple seem like a club you wanted to be a part of.

By 1983, IBM was starting to steal Apple’s thunder with its “Personal Computer” (“PC” for short). Not long after that, Asian PC clones starting coming out, running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system. The personal computer stampede was on. My dad bought a Sanyo PC clone at Christmas time in 1983. It had a single 5.25 inch floppy drive and maybe 128K of RAM. It came bundled with MS-DOS, Wordstar (word processor), Calcstar (spreadsheet), and Datastar (database manager). He bought a daisywheel printer to go with it. So all the printed output looked just like an IBM typewriter.

While I was home on holiday and summer breaks, I learned how the Sanyo PC clone worked. The lack of games was a drag, and the thing did not scream fun. But the word processor was a revelation. I had a lot of writing to do for school, and this was just the utilitarian tool I was looking for. All of a sudden, I could write with ease. No more left-handed pencil smudges, illegible script and multiple cross-outs. Suddenly, the writing process had a heretofore unimaginable level of plasticity. I could write and edit at the same time (just like I’m doing right now). This was huge.

In the fall of 1984, when I headed back to University of Michigan, that Sanyo machine came with me. My dad got a newer Sanyo with two floppy drives. At that point, I was pretty much the only person I knew who had a computer. My housemate, Bill Potter, had studied computer programming in high school, and he was much more technically inclined than I was. He dug right into the manual and figured out things that were beyond me, like batch files and using Datastar and Calcstar. I definitely learned a lot of stuff from him. But mostly I just wrote numerous history papers and my senior honors thesis, feeling very technology forward.

Up to this point, I only had a rather dim awareness of the Apple Macintosh. I had seen the big 1984 commercial during the Super Bowl and perhaps some pictures in magazines. But it wasn’t until late 1984 or early 1985 that Macs started appearing in increasing numbers on campus, both in computer labs and in student dorm rooms. I think Apple may have instituted favorable education pricing around this time to try and jump-start sales of the Mac amongst college students. Or maybe this new innovation was just finally arriving in the midwest.

At first, I dismissed the GUI of the Mac, much like command line junkies before and since. But then one night, I found myself in the dorm room of Phil Dürr (later a guitar player in the band Big Chief of Detroit, Michigan and SubPop Records fame). He had a Mac and he was playing with the program MacPaint, drawing on the screen, typing text, changing font sizes and doing all kinds of stuff I’d never seen a computer do before. Creative stuff. Fun stuff. This was not just a utilitarian writing tool. It was clearly a lot more. It was like PLATO, only it had even more to offer, especially its grayscale graphics.

My Sanyo was a generic “Personal Computer.” Phil’s computer had its own personality. It wasn’t just a “PC.” It was a “Mac.”

Notwithstanding that reality, I stuck with my utilitarian Sanyo for quite a while after that encounter with the Mac. First and foremost, I didn’t have the coin to switch. Moreover, while MacPaint was cool, I didn’t have much of a use for it, beyond thinking it was cool. MacWrite was certainly a functional word processor, but it wasn’t a huge step up over Wordstar in terms of functionality (indeed it might have been a step back in many ways). My daisywheel printer had better quality output than the dot-matrix ImageWriter printer that was bundled with the Mac. Nevertheless, the seed of Mac had been planted in my head.

When the Mac II came out in 1987 or so, my dad picked one up. It had a then unheard of 40MB hard drive. He had to drive down to Columbus, Ohio from Cleveland to pick it up. Some electronic music students from Ohio State loaded an ass ton of different software onto the hard drive of the Mac II. But it was in no discernible order. Home on a break, I spent hours exploring all the stuff on that hard drive. Yeah, I know it’s smaller than the size of 10-15 average length mp3s. But at the time, it felt like a massive, almost infinite library of stuff. Subsequently, he also got some early MIDI sequencing software (Professional Performer), an early two-track Pro-Tools editing system, and a 500MB external SCCI hard drive to store digital audio on. That was some mind bending stuff in its time.

About a year after my dad got his Mac II, I stopped working on my Sanyo at home and started writing papers on the Mac SE/30s they had in the computer lab at the University of Wisconsin (where I was in law school). I really started digging into Microsoft Word and appreciating its GUI and WYSIWYG layout. They also had a laser printer in the lab, and I really liked the typeset looking output you’d get with it if you used Times font. At that point, I’m not sure I would have said that MS Word was better than Wordperfect 5.1 on the PC. But it was definitely growing on me.

I finally got my first mac in 1991. It was a used Mac II, purchased from Pre-Owned Electronics, in the Boston suburbs. Like my dad’s, it had a 40MB hard drive. When I moved to Seattle in 1992, I purchased a Personal Laserwriter NTR at Ballard Computer (now a Thai restaurant). Having my own laser printer was, of course, a revelation. Like most Apple hardware, the printer was very well built. I used it for well over 10 years. Even after Apple discontinued the Localtalk standard, I bought an adapter that allowed me to hook it up via Ethernet. It just kept on chugging through a series of new Macs. There was a Mac IIvx (100MB hard drive), a Performa 6230 (1GB hard drive), a Beige Powermac G3 (10GB hard drive), a Powermac G4/400 tower (40GB hard drive), which I’m still using, and the Macbook I’m typing this on (250GB hard drive). I also got an iPod Touch 16GB when I bought the Macbook. This handheld device probably has more computing power than my first three or four macs combined.

That’s 20+ years of personal computer use in one long paragraph (almost my entire adult life): 20 years of writing, reading, making music, listening to it, drafting contracts, watching video, and so much more. Steve Jobs played a huge role in shaping the technological contours of all that. His work empowered me to do my work. So his passing definitely feels personal to me.

Where most other people in the computer industry somehow never seemed to get things quite right, Jobs usually did.[1] He seemed to have this innate sense of what good is. I don’t know why this sense is so hard to come by. But it is.

I’ve interacted through the years with a whole lot of musicians, artists, and other creative people. Many of them are very skilled. But only a few of them also seem to have this innate sense of “good.” These are usually very special people. If they make or record music, you want to hear it. If they do interior design, you want to spend time in that space. If they build something, you want to use it. If they cook something, you want to eat it.

Often, I think, these kinds of folks tend to work in smaller, more individualized environments, where they can do their thing and avoid butting heads with people who don’t get it and never will. That Steve Jobs didn’t do this makes his accomplishments even more impressive. He somehow managed to imprint his sense of what “good is” onto a large, global organization.

Was Jobs often an asshole? The public record would indicate that the answer is “yes,”  Was he a hard guy to work for? That answer also appears to be “yes.” Was he a bad manager of people? At least as a young man, yes. Did he get better at this with age? Perhaps.

But that’s all inside baseball stuff, and as consumers most of us aren’t amateur business ethicists (even if we should be). We’re concerned with outcomes, not process. We don’t usually spend a lot of time examining how the sausage is made. We just eat it, evaluate it, and enjoy it when it’s good.

The Jobs sausage was very good indeed. It will be missed.

  1. There’s at least one major thing that Jobs got just as wrong as everyone else in the computer industry: the labor practices in the Chinese factories where Apple builds its products. This is a significant black mark on Jobs’ legacy and the legacy of the computer industry more generally.

    Of course, most of us consumers in the West are complicit in this as well, placing outcomes over process, and tacitly accepting the Faustian bargain of modernity, that visionary leaders like Steve Jobs invariably carry out their grand utopian projects on the backs of abstracted, anonymous little guys.

    As Marx and Engles put it so eloquently in the Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” In short, this modern world is a dirty business. (See the work of Marshall Berman for a more thorough and eloquent discussion of these matters.)  ↩


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