08 October 2011

Vale Steve Jobs, But Your Influence Will Live On

steve-jobsSteve Jobs – who, as the whole world knows, passed away last week – was a prolific and successful innovator.  The New York Times has identified 317 US patents on which he is named as an inventor, which is in itself enough to justify an article on this blog!

There is, however, nothing that can be said about the man, or his achievements, that has not already been said – and said better – elsewhere.  The only unique angle that Patentology can offer, by way of tribute, is a personal perspective.  Hopefully this will strike a chord with others (particularly those of a certain age), and prompt a few thoughts about the impact that Steve Jobs, and his creations, have had in your own life.


Although I have never personally owned even a single Apple product, the passing of Steve Jobs at the age of 56 (not much more than a decade older than I am) has given me pause to think about the influence that his innovations have had in my life.  The fact is that I can barely remember a time when there were no Apple products around me.  While I cannot know what the world would have been like without Steve Jobs, I can be sure that it would have been, for me at least, a different place.


The very first ‘real’ computer I ever encountered was an Apple II owned by one of my friends (whom I shall call simply ‘G’) at secondary school.  This machine looks unbelievably boxy and rugged now – like the Volvo of the home computing world – and nothing like the desirably sleek designs of more recent times.  But back then it seemed to me like something straight out of a science-fiction film.  And indeed in The Terminator this became literally true, when the T-800’s heads-up display was decorated with scrolling 6502 assembly code listings from the Apple II OS.

In addition to introducing me to classic games, such as Choplifter and Lode Runner, I also had my first encounters with programming – BASIC and 6502 machine code – on the Apple II.  My family was to acquire a BBC Micro rather than the chunkier, and pricier, Apple.  However, since that machine was also based on a variant of the 6502 processor, in one of my projects I ‘adapted’ the Apple II monitor ROM code – and particularly its spectacularly efficiently-coded disassembler – as part of my own machine code debugger for the Beeb.  Today I dare say that Apple might characterise this as ‘copyright infringement’.  Back then, however, Jobs and co-founder Steve Wozniak were happily giving away software, and would no doubt have been pleased to have provided such a useful learning experience!


In the meantime, G had started raving about something called ‘Lisa’ which, at over A$10,000.00, was too expensive for him to obtain, and certainly well beyond my family’s more modest means.  Apparently, this Lisa was a WIMP, which – I was informed – stood for ‘windows, icons, mouse and pointer’.  At that stage, nobody knew that this graphical desktop paradigm was set to dominate personal computing.  Of course, it is now widely known that Jobs first encountered the WIMP concept at Xerox PARC research labs, but it was his entrepreneurial drive and vision that brought it to the world while Xerox – despite its massive corporate resources – showed no real signs of doing anything so wildly commercial with it.

Fortunately, the far less expensive, and more practical, Macintosh was shortly released and – no surprise here – G was the first person I knew to own one.  It was a revelation, particularly the MacWrite, MacDraw and MacPaint software which, along with the ImageWriter printer, provided me with the first real indication of the desktop publishing revolution to come (although most of my time at the Macintosh was spent playing Wizardry).  Students today would no doubt find it hard to imagine a time, in the not-too-distant past, when all schoolwork – in the classroom, and at home – was conducted in the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and teachers were required to read essays and project work in their pupils’ handwriting!


In just a couple more years, practical desktop publishing was truly upon us with the availability of the LaserWriter printer.  Initially too expensive for most home users (though in the second volume of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry reports fellow Mac enthusiast Douglas Adams as an early-adopter), the first LaserWriter I encountered was owned by the Computer Science Department at Melbourne University, and could be used by students at a cost of 20 cents per page.

And so the year (1987) in which I was on the editorial committee of the college annual magazine became the first to be wholly written on a Macintosh, with the proofs printed on a LaserWriter.  At that stage, we still had to convert photos in the old-fashioned way, using the bromide equipment at the university newspaper office, and create the page layouts with scissors and glue.  The days of creating the complete layout on a personal computer, and delivering it for printing as an electronic file, were yet to come.

Even so, the printer remarked that our edition of the magazine was the most professional-looking he had ever seen.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the content.  With the additional time and creative energy that the new technology had made available to us, it seems that we had overstepped a few boundaries.  But it did look great, and was a sign of things to come.

The ironic – and aptly-named – postscript to the desktop publishing revolution involves Adobe Systems.  If the Apple Mac and the LaserWriter created desktop publishing, then the language by which they communicated, PostScript, was the glue that held them together.  The LaserWriter was the first printer to ship with PostScript as its page-description language, after Steve Jobs visited Adobe Systems in 1984 and urged them to adapt the language for driving laser printers.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Desktop publishing based on Apple technology swept the world, and brought PostScript with it.  Even when other hardware and software companies arose to rival Apple in this market, PostScript remained the pre-eminent language for representing pages for printing.  Only over the past decade has there been a decline in the use of PostScript, and even then this has been largely due to its own successor, Adobe PDF.

And the irony?  Well – for those that have missed it – while Adobe and Apple were once the team that sealed their own success by a marriage of hardware and software, Adobe Flash is now the one major software application that Apple will not allow anywhere near its iPhone and iPad hardware platforms.  And to think that they were once such good friends…


Of course Jobs continued to innovate throughout his life, and the influence he has had on society did not end with the Macintosh.  My own days of early adoption largely ended with the Palm III and the Diamond Rio MP3 player.  Of course, Apple went on to improve on both of these ideas, and make them into genuine mass-market consumer products.  These days I find I can wait to get my hands on new technology until there is more choice, and lower prices.

But by this time, my own formative years were over.  An interest in computers – sparked by that first experience with the Apple II – had led me to electrical engineering, and into a college at university where I obtained my first publishing experience.  This led to a research career, a PhD, technology transfer, and ultimately to a second career as a patent attorney.  So it is perhaps not entirely beyond speculation that if it were not for Steve Jobs, and his early creations, I would not have the career that I do, or be sitting here writing this today.

Yet, as I stated at the outset, I have never owned an Apple product myself.  So, thanks Steve, for changing the world, and for your influence on my life.  Sorry I never put any money in your pocket, but I am guessing you did not really mind!


Ian Mccauley said...

I started my association with Apple products in an eerily similar way to you. Apple II’s were too expensive, and I started with a Tandy TRS-80 model I, which I used to learn Basic and then Z80 assembler (and it named my firstborn). At Uni, I used those skills to disassemble Apple’s 6502 code for printing to patch in some code to a Apple Basic program to allow it to print graphical screen dumps. But I was not a huge Apple fan.
That changed in 1984. The UWA was one of the first Apple Consortium members, and I was present as we unpacked and installed half of our first big delivery, a Lisa and three of the new Macintoshes. The Lisa was taking some time to set up, so we pulled a Mac out of the box, plugged it in, hooked up the mouse and launched MacPaint. It was wonderful to play with, and a revelation in itself. We must have spent at least 10 min playing, drawing, editing – when we struck a problem. We wanted to annotate with the text tool, and discovered that it was not possible - until we plugged in the keyboard. I’ve been a convert ever since.
That man knew what we wanted, before we did, and that is what we will miss.

Patentology (Mark Summerfield) said...

Thanks for your reminiscences, Ian.

I think you'll like this -- I discovered this morning that the Computer History Museum has available (by kind permission of the late Steve Jobs) complete source code for MacPaint 1.3 and QuickDraw.

I recall being simply astounded at being able to grab the lasso tool, mark out a clipping region of completely arbitrary shape, and then pick it up and drag it around in real time on a machine with an 8MHz 68000 processor!

Not Jobs' work, but on his watch.


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