Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011

I only saw Steve Jobs once, since I didn't live in the right places or do the right things to meet with him or see him at a Keynote. I saw him at the NeXT building, in 1993 or so, and he was running a meeting. I remember the building had a cool glass staircase in the middle, just like many Apple stores do today. So I don't have any stories about Steve Jobs, but I do have a story about the Macintosh, interfaces, and understanding the Mac, because Steve got it, and a lot of other people didn't.

Freshman year I got my first Mac, a Mac Plus. Previously we'd had a family Apple IIc, which was awesome. The Mac was so different at first I didn't even really know how to use it. One following year, perhaps sophomore year, as a computer room TA I attended a meeting where the new student computer lab was announced, or something like that. This wasn't the computer science computer lab, but the one where students would all write papers (amusing, there used to be computer labs where the only things students did on computers was write papers). The person in charge announced that the only computers in the lab would be brand-new IBM PS/2 (somewhat strangely, Sony would later use the same name, at least as spoken, for their second Playstation, but really almost no one remembers IBM's little odd computer line).

I knew this was a horrible decision, so much so that I had a look of shock on my face. I probably would have forgotten this entire event, except the computer person looked at me and said, "You're a Mac person, aren't you?" somewhat smugly.

The problem was Macs cost more -- in the immediate, this financial quarter, short term view.

But what I knew was that the GUI that Apple had started to make viable was the future, and needed to be the present, and that the DOS-based world of IBM and Microsoft was on its way out.

Instead of a GUI, which is vital for word processing -- think of formatting like centering, italics, and bold, all the things that students do in papers -- we got... some hackneyed CLI and a word processing program with an almost unusable interface. This means the TAs were always busy answering the same formatting questions, and students wasted thousands of minutes sitting there trying to figure out the command for italics or save.

There was no mouse (actually, there might have been, but a mouse without a GUI is somewhat stupid). There were no menus. What you saw had nothing to do with what you got. I don't remember exactly, but text in italics was probably highlighted a little. Text in bold, perhaps moreso. To find any command, instead of using an easy menu-system, there was the horrible set of function keys. If you're old enough you'll remember those horrible plastic templates that you had to put over the function keys to see how to get any command you needed. F4 did something, shift-F4 something else, ctrl-F4 a third thing... Probably alt-F4 and maybe even alt-shift... An entire massive template, with tiny text and absolutely no order to the commands at all.

The computer lab was horrible for both students and TAs. The college's computer buyer had no idea about computers, she only knew about the bottom line for that term. I knew what it should be, because Steve had showed me: he a vision, he pushed for it, and made it happen.

Later, I had a NeXT cube for a while. Even with an 040 processor (after-market) and only four colors (black, white, and 2 greys), there was a great ease and simplicity to the design of the GUI. Not a simplicity of poverty, but one that gave you everything. I think this is what people are talking about when they talk about how Steve Jobs knew to focus on what to take away, and what wasn't there.

XKCD's tribute: