Steve Jobs: The Search For The Insanely Great Idea

Cancer has taken a true visionary away from us; we won’t forget his lesson: to keep dreaming, imagining and innovating, writes Wayne Rash

I don’t exactly remember the first time I met Steve Jobs, but it was sometime in the very early ’80s, around the time that I first started to write for Byte, the great magazine of the early personal computer age, which is nothing like its pallid successor.

In those days, Byte was the Bible of personal computing, and we got to see all of the real innovators. One day, it was a hippie-looking guy Steve Jobs with his pal Steve Wozniak and a funny-looking ,white, plastic computer at a trade show somewhere.

The First Personal Computer

You possibly don’t remember the first Apple II. Most people used a television set for a monitor. Disk drives were optional, and when you got one or two they cost far more than a terabyte of storage does today. Those 5.25-inch drives held hardly any data, but it was enough for the tiny operating systems at the time, and enough to run a program and to run a second data storage disk drive – if you had one – on another floppy disk.

In those days, Apple didn’t have the graphical user interface that we have today. It was a text-based operating system that looked a lot like the operating systems it competed against, including Gary Kildall’s CP/M and Heathkit’s H-DOS. What you had at first were green characters on a black screen. Except sometimes the characters were white. Apple, an innovator even in those days, started featuring colour, but you would have to have a small colour television or monitor (both rare in those days) to use it.

In 1984, after I’d been writing about computers for six or seven years, I heard about the first big Super Bowl ad and made it a point to watch. Even in those days, Apple was breaking the mould, as it demonstrated with the video of a sporty young woman who ran down the aisle of a cavernous meeting hall filled with zombielike industrial slaves. She threw a sledgehammer into the televised face of a figure clearly reminiscent of Big Brother, from George Orwell’s novel 1984. At the time, the commercial was stunning, and it achieved its intended effect with a statement that the new Apple personal computer was going to rock a world stuck on using IBM standard PCs.

Everyone talked about the commercial and about the new computer – the Apple Macintosh.

I saw my first Mac a couple of months later. The nine-inch screen was in black and white. The computer was slow even by the standards of 1984. The computer I’d built in 1982 was a lot faster and it ran CP/M and WordStar, and that allowed me to write my articles for Byte and Interface Age and other magazines that are now long gone. But it was clear that the Mac was something new and different, and those of us who wrote about computers at the time knew that we might be seeing the future.

That was confirmed when Microsoft shipped its first version of Windows and when X-Windows first arrived on Unix. In those days, X-Windows was by far the best OS, but nobody but big companies and universities could afford the hardware that it ran on.

It was obvious in those days that Jobs was producing innovations that others would have no choice but to follow. Even when Apple was in turmoil in those days, kicking Steve out of his position as CEO, effectively driving him out of the company and hiring a parade of non-visionaries to run Apple, the innovation continued, albeit at a slower rate. But still, somewhere, deep down inside, Apple created the ideas that everyone else had to match.

Putting The Smart Into Smartphone

Jump now to today. On the day after Apple introduced the iPhone 4S, the man who imagined what a mobile phone should look like has died. And make no mistake – all of those Android and Windows smartphones out there owe their basic concept to Apple. If the iPhone hadn’t been launched with a basic rectangular shape, a touch screen, the ability to sense its position in space, and user-chosen applications and entertainment, the rest of the mobile world probably wouldn’t have moved that way either. These days, the iPhone – which sprung from the fertile imagination of Steve Jobs – appears in many forms from many companies.

So when you take your Samsung or HTC or Motorola phone out of your pocket, remember that the basic design came from Jobs. It was he who created the slim, rectangular, almost black communicator. Whether the design was based on the best format for watching movies or one that worked well for thumb-typing, or whether it was mimicking the Monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t clear, but it obviously resonated with the public. The phones sold in numbers so vast that they could define success or failure of a wireless company.

This is not to suggest that Apple found commercial success in everything it did, nor does it mean that the innovative designs fostered by Jobs met with universal success, because they didn’t.

But Jobs was so consistently successful in driving innovation in the world of technology that it’s hard to see who might replace him. It’s even harder to know how the industry will move on without the likes of Steve Jobs to come up with another insanely great idea when one is badly needed.

Goodbye, Steve. I have no idea what we’re going to do without you.