The Soul of Our New Machines

We’ve been earning a living on Macs for twenty years, but we don’t have any iconic Steve Jobs or Apple stories to share. From System 6 to Lion, from a Mac LC to a MacBook Pro, from the iPod to the iPad we’re writing this with, Apple gadgets have simply been a happy part of our life.

Instead, we’ve been thinking about part of the Steve Jobs legacy that hasn’t received as much attention since yesterday’s news broke. The lower priority is understandable, since unlike Apple, he didn’t play a creative role. He merely took a small computer-graphics operation off George Lucas’s hands for $10 million, and nurtured the dreams of its staff.

It would have been 1986 or 1987 when we first saw this short film at an animation festival. We didn’t know anything about it, or the company behind it, or that it would, over time, become the symbol of a creative renaissance. All we knew was that it blew us the fuck away. It wasn’t just cool digital graphics. It was human. It had heart.

Steve Jobs never wrote a line of code. He wasn’t an industrial designer. He was, instead, a Great Enabler: He enabled Apple, he enabled Pixar, and he enabled millions of people he never met to do things they could only imagine before he gave them the tools to fulfill their own visions.


That same heart you see in Luxo Jr. is the reason so many 18-year-olds flocked to see Toy Story III. They were there as kids when the first one was released, and they took ownership of the franchise.

This is what sets Pixar apart from all the other animation studios. If you don’t think so, see how Shrek III holds up 10 years from now.

@TJ/ Jamie Sommers /TJ: I got rid of my shitbox Dell PC when I figured out what I can do on my iPad.

@TJ/ Jamie Sommers /TJ: Nope. Apart from the iPod with the dead battery I have that’s gathering dust in some drawer, I’ve never owned an Apple product. I barely know how to navigate my way around someone’s Mac, though I do okay with iPhones thanks to the fact that my Samsung smartphone pretty much copied Apple’s interface (so much so that it’s currently banned from being sold in Europe on account of patent infringement).

It’s weird to hear the news and watch the reaction from an “outsider’s” perspective, isn’t it? I mean, I can understand that Apple has been revolutionary and Jobs was an amazing (here it comes, the chosen word!) innovator–and of course it’s another tragic much-too-young loss thanks to effing cancer–but I don’t have a visceral reaction that I’ve observed from others. I think it’s because I haven’t been immersed in the spoils of his work my whole digital life, unlike many of my peers.

@TJ/ Jamie Sommers /TJ: I use a PC at work and at home as my main home computer. I have an iPod Touch (1st generation given as a birthday gift in 2008), an iPhone (3GS, purchased this summer at a huge discount from AT&T) and an iPad (2, given by work), so I guess I’m a hybrid. I was using the iPad a lot more at home until our wireless router died, using it to read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with my morning coffee.

I like Apple products. I also keep my fingers in the Windows world. I’m curious to see what Windows 8 is like.

@flippin eck: I haven’t been immersed in the spoils of his work my whole digital life

Oh, but you have.

Microsoft licensed elements from Apple for Windows 1.0. The big lawsuit between them dealt with whether the license extended to Windows 2 and beyond. If Steve Jobs hadn’t been inspired by a visit to Xerox PARC — where they were testing windows and mice and such — there’s a good chance that personal computers would still be operated via a command line.

And that Samsung, as you note, all but slavishly copied the iPhone look and feel. Ditto for all other smartphones — even the newer Windows phones, which may derive their look from Zunes, but wouldn’t have taken a different approach had not the iPhone appeared. (Pre-iPhone, everybody was copying Blackberry.)

Point being, Steve Jobs’s influence has extended far beyond Apple. Whether or not you use Macs and iGadgets, his ideas have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives.

@nojo: Show us your Newtons*!

*Another fine product from the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco ™).

@nojo: Now I’m going to have Kate Bosworth butchering singing the Cotton® jingle in my head all day.

@Nabisco: I would have gone with a Pippin — but both of those were launched during the Apple Interregnum, before Jobs returned. He famously killed the Newton when he got back, which pissed off a lot of folks.

@nojo: I haven’t been immersed in the overt spoils of his work my whole digital life. Sure, Apple innovations have reformed the entire digital landscape and inspired Microsoft and others to copy his OS and interface and even design innovations–relentlessly. But I still think my lack of Apple product usage gives me a different perspective on Jobs and what his passing means. In short, he’s never inspired me to slavish devotion because of his products like he has for many others. People are going to Apple stores to light candles, ferchristsake–you think any PC users are going to do that for Gates?

@flippin eck: I’ve never quite grokked the Cult of Apple. I have a deep appreciation for the elegance of their machines and software, and a deep respect for Steve Jobs’s taste and judgment, but I’ve never been that kind of acolyte.

@flippin eck: What Noj’ said. I posted an RIP on FB, but my changed icon is a Mac, not a man.

@nojo: Maybe it’s more a techy/boy vs. nontechy/girl (very reductive and sexist but bear with me) divide. My female friend just commented on FB that the news made her realize she was getting Steve Jobs and Bill Gates confused and had to go look up the difference, and I’m only slightly ahead of her in that level of comprehension. If there is a Scale of Technology that has Steve Jobs at one end and I-hit-the-power-button-and-it-doesn’t-go-kablooey at the other, I’m much closer to the latter end. Basically, I can’t mourn the loss of his contributions when I don’t even really know what they are.

@flippin eck: You are Steve Jobs’s ideal user.

Really. His whole mission was to make computers safe for civilians — to extend their power beyond the geek priesthood. The original Mac was pitched as an “appliance”, something as casual to use as a toaster. The original iPhone, in my judgment, was the realization of that idea.

All he wanted was for you to hit the power button and get to work. And if he could have eliminated the power button, he would have.

And maybe he did. The iPhone doesn’t really turn off.

@Nabisco: A fellow Peace Corps friend just pointed out one measure by which Gates is much more deserving of acolytes than Jobs, at least: philanthropy. Bill and Melinda have created a foundation that has spent $25 billion since 1994 improving health and living conditions for those in need; Steve Jobs has no record of personal philanthropy (at least publicly–perhaps he gave anonymously) and shut down Apple’s philanthropic programs in 1997.

@flippin eck: Gates gets full credit for that endeavor, which includes low-tech/low-budget means to stave off malaria in Africa.

And Jobs, well, we’ll see. The new authorized biography is now being published in a few weeks — originally next spring, and then November — and that’s likely to include some things about him that he’s kept private.

@flippin eck: Your friend is totally right, in the bigger picture (where it counts). Steve gave us elegantly useful toys and kept our money, Bill gave us clunky, utilitarian tools, kept a lot of our money, but is also giving most of it away.

On the other hand, there’s a Ford Foundation that doesn’t change the fact that Henry I was a bigoted a-hole.

@Nabisco: My iMac isn’t a toy. Neither is my Air. They’re fantastically well-designed and useful ways to play Angry Birds tools. I do all my work on a Mac. Can’t speak for the phones. The iPad is nice.

@Nabisco: @nojo: To be fair, Buffet didn’t start giving away his money until his seventh decade–Jobs didn’t have that kind of time to get around to it.

@flippin eck: I was going to mention that — Gates may have started his foundation in 1994, but my vague recollection is that he didn’t really devote himself to it until he handed Microsoft to Ballmer.

Which is certainly no knock against what he’s doing with it, but provides some context for those Gates/Jobs comparisons. We’ll have to wait for the rest of the story.

Then again, Facebook’s Zuckerberg has dived right into spreading his wealth — inspired by Gates, I think — and he’s got decades ahead of him. I’m not a Zuck fan, but good for him.

Fun Fact: Microsoft was once located in Albuquerque.

Fun Fact II: Bill’s dad’s DC law firm is called Preston Gates. In the 90s, they hired a young up and comer named Jack Abramoff.

@redmanlaw: Didn’t know about Fun Fact II, but without cheating, I think Lawyer Dad was based in Albuquerque when Bill started the company.

Also without cheating, I think it was Lawyer Dad who advised Bill on licensing DOS to IBM instead of selling it. Like Lucas keeping Star Wars toy rights, that was the move that underlied the empire.

Finally, my favorite story is that Bill didn’t invent DOS. Instead, he heard that IBM was in the market for a PC operating system, and bought one from somebody else to pitch them.

Needless to say, he didn’t tell the other person why he bought it…

ADD: All these vague recollections are from the great book “Accidental Empires”, which I haven’t read in years.

@redmanlaw: K&L Gates is that Gates? Fascinating.

@nojo: MS was in ABQ when Gates heard about DOS and licensed/bought it from someone else.

@mellbell: Kinda puts the whole Horatio Alger myth in perspective, doesn’t it?

The original PC was going to use CPM as its main OS and they went to DEC–the maker of the VAX series of mainframes and CPM’s owners–to buy a license and they told them to fuck off.

DEC would not have been bought out by the imbeciles of Compac and later it and the remaining rump of DEC ended up in the horrible lizard clutches of one of tech’s most incompetent CEOs, Carly Fiorina of HP

@ManchuCandidate: Which brings us back to the title of the post — which riffs on Tracy Kidder’s classic book about developing the DEC MV/8000. All hail microcoders!

ADD: Actually, a Data General box competing with DEC. My bad.

Stephen Wolfram fills in a detail I didn’t know…

1. Jobs named “Mathematica” for him.

2. Jobs bundled Mathematica on the NeXT computer.

And thus, the detail:

And as a curious footnote to history (which I learned years later), one batch of NeXTs bought for the purpose of running Mathematica went to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland—where they ended up having no less distinction than being the computers on which the web was first developed.

I’ve long known that Tim Berners-Lee created the Web on a NeXT. But until now, I’ve never known why.

@nojo: All he wanted was for you to hit the power button and get to work. And if he could have eliminated the power button, he would have.

By the way, this is the perfect sague into a classic Mac spoof by Bloom County.

@flippin eck: I used to have a Banana Jr. as my hard-drive icon.

@mellbell: Yep, Bill Gates’ daddy is the Gates in K&L/formerly known as Preston-Gates. My grandma and great-aunt went to Bremerton High School with Bill Gates Sr. (or so they said). My grandma got knocked up by the short order cook at the VA hospital and my great aunt picked the WWII vet as her husband, not that it appeared that Bill Gates Sr. was ever courting them.

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