Thank you Mr Jobs

There aren't too many people who get into a position where they can change the world, and most of the ones who arrive at that point manage to stuff things up, usually because they end up listening to the conventional wisdom as the nay-sayers start gathering around, pointing out what's not actually possible and making helpful suggestions about ways things could be done better.

Whatever other character quirks and personal foibles Steve Jobs may have had, paying attention to the conventional wisdom wasn't one of them.

Over the past week there have been enough column inches filled to make another narrative approach unnecessary, and, in any case, this particular Apple fan boy would rather reflect on Mr Jobs' iconoclastic approach than run through another chronology of achievements.

With the Apple II among the vanguard of the wave of personal computers that appeared on the market in the early eighties you'd have thought the way to go was to conform to emerging industry standards. After all, no one was sure what these things were going to be able to do, so collaboration would have to be better than competition, and you'd want to keep the programmers on side.

Computer programming was, after all, a pretty sophisticated skill back then in the days of the command line interface.

Since I've been on board the personal computer bandwagon for the best part of thirty years I can remember the command line interface. If you weren't around at the time, trust me.

It might have worked, but it wasn't easy to use and definitely wasn't pretty.

Steve Jobs, sighting an alternative in the Rank Xerox laboratory at Palo Alto, went that way, and while the first point and click graphic user interface on the $9,995 Apple Lisa didn't set the world on fire it definitely sounded interesting. I wish I'd kept those magazines to point to the articles...

While Lisa wasn't the actual breakthrough, the first Macintosh was, and from the earliest days of the Mac era there were plenty of conventional wisdom nay-sayers out there trying to convince the public that it wouldn't work.

It's a toy. If you want to get some real work done, you need a PC. That sort of bullshit.

What was undeniable from the start was that there was a substantial section of the market that liked the interface and wanted things to work that way. Jobs was pushed off the board at Apple when the conventional wisdom started taking over (we're talking early days, after all) and for a while there it looked like Apple was on the way out.

Things were, in fact, so serious that Jobs returned to the fold in a sort of welcome back, Steve, everything is forgiven. That involved a buyout of his NeXt project and recognition that he'd need to devote some time to looking after his interests at Pixar.

Things started to change with the iMac, though the conventional wisdom suggested a computer without a floppy disk drive was doomed to failure.


Fifteen years later you'd be flat out finding a program that would fit on a floppy disk. 


Actually, you'd be flat out finding software that'll fit on a single CD-ROM...


The iMac bounce, however, was only the first of the iQuartet that ended up putting Apple in the dominant market position the company enjoys today, and it'd be fascinating to find out how far back some of the foresight went.


Take, for instance, the decision to buy out an existing MP3 program, that was relaunched as iTunes. It was out there, and people were ripping their CD collections onto computer hard drives well before the iPod appeared, and when it duly arrived on the market sniffy comments about the majority of music on people's iPods being stolen was probably true, at least up to a point.


There certainly wasn't an easy avenue to buy content for the iPod at the time, and I can't help thinking part of the negotiating strategy as the iTunes Music Store was set up involved reminding unconvinced record company executives that here was a way to make people pay for some of the content they were consuming.


The iMac to iPod/iTunes nexus pointed out another area where Apple was running against the stream. You needed, in the conventional wisdom, to adhere to industry standards that could be run across platforms coming from a number of different manufacturers.


Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Those voices you were hearing were the voices of people who wanted things to run on their industry standard platforms.


From iPod to iPhone wasn't, when you look back on it, anything major in the quantum leap department, and neither was the step from iPhone to iPad. Each was a logical extension of existing technology delivered on a tightly controlled platform where there weren't major issues with compatibility.


Yes, you could go somewhere else, get something cheaper, maybe even find something that looked nearly as good, but when it came to getting the different bits and prices to play nicely together...


Now, there's been a bit of discussion in various sections of the interweb as to whether wwhat Jobs and Apple have delivered us amounts to a revolution, with subsequent sidetracks into whether this was A Good Thing, but from where I'm sitting the response to those questions is fairly clear.


Revolution? Certainly.


The last twenty years have created a completely new avenue of instantaneous communication and while the process of change is nowhere near complete already we're looking at a telecommunications landscape that's very different from what we had twenty years ago.


Admittedly, we're possibly looking at the sort of landscape that might have happened anyway, but I'd question whether you'd have anything like the interwebs as we know them in a command line environment.


While Jobs and Apple didn't invent the point and click graphic user environment, they saw it and spotted where it might lead.


There's also a strong argument that suggests that we wouldn't be where we are today without a little piece of software called Hypercard, which delivered content with hyperlinks in much the same manner as we click our way through websites today.


Hypercard may not have been the first the first hypermedia application, but it was bundled with all new Macs sold after 1987 until Mr Jobs withdrew support for the program, a move that created a number of very pissed off users at the time.


I had a largish Hypercard project that was nowhere near complete and had absorbed a lot of time and effort which was, effectively, wasted, but I'm convinced that what I learned in the process was valuable once I started playing around with my website and blogs etc.


The decision to kill Hypercard, along with the lack of a floppy drive on the iMac and the impending demise of MobileMe are all examples of the way some of us have been taken, in many cases yelling and screaming in the direction that these dudes had planned. At the time these things seemed like major upsets, but I suspect that they got jettisoned because they'd only slow down progress in the predetermined direction.


Now, you might have reservations about the changes, but you have to admit that they happened. You might not need then right now, but they're there if you want them. MobileMe might be going, and I'm not surec what that means for my old website, but I'll have a gander at the iCloud while I'm looking at the options. It may well be a case of the free blogging environment handling much of that content, so why do you need a website?


As to the question of whether all of this has been A Good Thing, it depends on where you're at, doesn't it?


I spend a good twelve hours a day hunkered down in the Command Bunker, interacting with iMac, iPad and various print materials with an accompanying soundtrack delivered by iTunes drawn from slightly less than thirty thousand tracks that represent the vast bulk of the commercial CD releases I've bought over twenty-plus years.


Yes, it's not the same as having the album's gatefold sleeve there, or being able to read the CD booklet, but then again when I buy something through iTunes there's often the equivalent of the booklet in the digitally-delivered bundle, and, in any case, how much time do you spend reading liner notes while you're working?


Reading a book on your iPad (or, for that matter, a Kindle or equivalent e-reader) isn't the same as reading a hard copy, but when was the last time you took your bookshelves with you when you went on holiday?


And since when (talking the iPad here) were you able to use your bookshelf as a motel room sound system, a photo album and GPS-enabled satnav device?


As for the Good Thing or Bad Thing question, I guess it all comes down to Dominance versus Delivery.


You can look at price, compatibility issues, and every other charge that's been levelled at Jobs and his acolytes over the years, and agree that, yes, they've been at least a little excessive in most departments and there are serious issues in some areas.


On the other hand I spent just under twenty dollars on a hard copy of Ry Cooder's book of Los Angeles Stories just over a month ago. I just hopped over to the seller's website to check in and got a Los Angeles Stories has been delayed. Our staff are currently checking this with the supplier and will update your order within the next 24-48 hours.


And, yes, while it's not lurking among the books in the iTunes Store, there it is over at Amazon's Kindle shop for $9.99, immediate digital delivery. Should've looked there first, shouldn't I?


No, your mileage may, and quite possibly will, vary but some of us owe Steve Jobs a lot.


Thanks, Steve...

 © Ian Hughes 2014