A World Now Without Steve Jobs

I entered a world in which Steve Jobs had already been born, and was 5 years old. He and I had different upbringing, but I suspect that many of our cultural touch-points were similar. We both first started taking note of the world around us when television made the leap from black and white to ‘living colour’ as the ads would say. We both saw a man land on the moon, and probably remember where we were when John Lennon was shot (I was in college, he had by that time started Apple Computer, Inc.) We both were lovers of music and calligraphy. In some ways, I like to think that our tastes were similar; we both fans of a sort of modernist simplicity in design. I fell in love with elegant industrial design early. I used to pore over the ads to Bang and Olufsen Hi Fi sets in New Yorker magazines while awaiting my piano lesson.

The Bang and Olufson Beogram 4004 Turntable

The Bang and Olufson Beogram 4004 Turntable, one of the first remote-controlled stereo components.

I also remember my grandfather getting me a digital LED watch by Fairchild, one of the early, expensive ones before they became a mass-market item.

The Fairchild LED Watch

The Fairchild LED Watch, one of the beautiful but impractical LED watches of the 70s

The impractical thing about LED watches was that you had to press a button to see the time. In fact, I remember Saturday Night Live doing a parody on these watches that required another person to pushing a second button for you see the time, forcing you to get help to see the display. “It’s like asking a stranger for the time” was the slogan. Yes, but the elegance of the clutter-free bezel, and the lovely near-circle framed by a bit of chrome in was just irresistable to me.

For me, the Salton home appliances of that same period where also examples of great industrial design. They included hot plates, a peanut butter mill, and a thermostatically controlled yogurt maker:

Salton Yogurt Maker

The Salton Yogurt Maker, another example of what I considered beautiful industrial design. Notice the use of Helvetica.

None of these artifacts was created by Steve Jobs or Apple, but I like to think that well designed consumer merchandise was not unknown to us nor did it not exist apart from Apple.

This part of Apple and Steve Jobs we (and I) could have survived if they never existed. However, it’s the rest of it, the software, that I can’t imagine a world without. My entry into this world began when I was in my 2os.

I got my first computer in 1985, while attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In a guest bedroom in my landlady’s house, I set up a glass table (with 2 red metal sawhorses) where a Macintosh 512 sat, connected to the telephone line via a 1200 baud modem. The floppy drives frequently purred, and I used it to print my papers, as well as connect to the school’s DEC PDP-11 computer in order to edit the files for a piece of music I was working on at the time called ‘Spincycle’. It was a beautiful machine. I loved the shape of it, the way the screen surface was cantilevered so that the keyboard seemed to fit under it, and how the angled back corner echoed the shape of the mouse. The slight upward slant of the front screen, like a an inclined head, contributed to a sense of balance and elegance, along with a slight bit of anthropomorphism (and hence, a personality) that made this device something I added to the list of beautiful things.

My first computer, a Macintosh 512K

My first computer, a Macintosh 512K

Up until that point, I had been pretty disdainful of computers. They were my brother’s world, and to me seemed ugly, inhuman and tasteless. They were not for people concerned with the arts or non-mathematical pursuits. This computer shipped with a cassette tape that introduced you to its functions with elegant New Age music: The piano solo ‘Things with Wings’ by pianist Liz Story served as interludes and in the background. The tape, along with carefully written tutorial made it a joy to get to know and eventually become intimately familiar with this new technology.

One of the early things I did with that Mac was, as I mentioned, connect remotely to another computer. I did this to use my Mac’s built-in text editing abilities to create long strings of notes (written like A5 Ds E G As A Fs B C6 etc.) that I would ‘paste’ into the vi text editor running in a terminal on campus. If I did this at a time when many people were working on the PDP-11, the paste might not work properly; the other computer literally could’t keep up with pasting too much data at once if it was busy doing something else.

At any rate, using that computer to connect soon became a regular evening activity. I discovered and connected to Bulletin Board systems to download new software. That introduced me to a whole new world of User Groups and the software creation community.

Upon finishing my coursework and passing all of my oral and written exams, I moved out of Rochester (which I had happy to leave, having broken up with a girlfriend) and move in temporarily with my brother, who was attending MIT in Boston. I slept on the futon in his living room/guest room and got my first job with his girlfriend’s former boss, at a small computer software company in Harvard Square. Using another Mac, I learned how to write software documentation for programmers (mainly explaining what small modules of Pascal did as part of an online trading system). Then an enormously important things happened: in 1987 (shortly after Jobs had been forced out of Apple by John Sculley), Apple introduced (and released in early 1988) a piece of software called HyperCard. The creator of HyperCard, Bill Atkinson, was also the programmer of the Mac’s first graphics software, called ‘MacPaint’, which shipped with every Mac for a number of years. Atkinson demonstrated his software to packed conference rooms at the Bayside Exposition Center (and the air-conditioning had gone on the fritz, so it was like a sauna in these rooms). For me, it was love at first sight. Hypercard was, to put it simply, a software ‘erector set ‘that would let ordinary people (i.e., not just programmers) piece together acceptably usable and in some cases, well-designed software that included graphics, sound, motion, and even logic and calculations.

The HyperCard Home Screen

The HyperCard Home Screen - technically not the exact one I saw in 1988, but very close.

Using HyperCard, anyone with some minimal training could communicate their ideas or expertise in a working application without having to learn the considerable amount of knowledge required to get even a single screen up and working using standard programming tools. These days, that would include learning the Xcode programming environment, the calls to present user interface elements like windows, buttons and menus, etc., as well as a knowledge of Objective-C and Apple’s version of it, called Cocoa. It’s worth noting that Steve Jobs did not particularly take to HyperCard and product eventually died out after he returned to Apple. I suspect that Jobs didn’t like HyperCard because it was never a polished product, particularly in terms of what people created with it. Most stacks were homely examples of what an amateur would do when given powerful tools. For me, though, HyperCard was my sandbox, my learning tool, my training wheels, and the path to new career. I wrote a book on it in 1992, and eventually made my living first as a general Macintosh consultant, and eventually as a software user interface designer. Working with the software and teaching others how to use it honed my skills in design, teaching, public speaking, writing, information architecture, and a host of other bodies of knowledge that would simply not have existed if it weren’t for Steve Jobs, the company he created and the software they produced (especially HyperCard).

These days, in a line of work and economy shaped by Jobs and the company he founded, I continue to live, work, and appreciate the elegance and beauty of well crafted hardware and software. Would I have this life without Jobs? I can’t imagine it. Will I have one without him? Probably, but now, with his death at the age of 56 (too damned soon!) we all head into a future without him, even if Apple remains, at least for the time being. It’s a future that feels just a little less exciting. We are all a little poorer without him, which is probably the best thing you can say about any human being. I suppose that he was one of what Apple’s ads referred to as ‘the crazy ones, the square pegs in the round holes…’ He moved the human race forward. I am lucky enough to be around to see it.

UXCamp Vancouver Nearly Here

I was going to blog earlier this week about the upcoming User Experience Camp Vancouver, which Karen Parker and I are organizing and holding at the Vancouver Film school this Saturday, but the event sold out nearly immediately, and I fear that writing about it here will be frustrating to so many who can’t get in. The venue is a good one, but it only holds a little over 100 people, and we hit that number within a week and half of announcing it in a few online areas.

At any rate, my takeaways, even before UXCampVancouver starts are:

  1. There is clearly a desire here to have a conference where local User Experience people (that includes Information Architects, User Interface Designers, Web Developers, User Testers and Researchers, Software Entrepreneurs, etc.) can meet and share information and opinions.
  2. We may need a bigger venue if we do it again
  3. Being free doesn’t hurt either. After all, a chance to talk about this stuff, plus some coffee and treats, comfy chairs and Wi-Fi is a good way to spend a late fall Saturday in Vancouver, wet and rainy or not.

At any rate, if you do want to get on the Waiting list, there is still a chance, although remote, that someone who has signed up for a slot will bow out, so give it a shot, and hopefully I’ll get to see you on Saturday.

Will Japan Take Off Because of Broadband Price and Speed?

I noticed a fascinating couple of graphs in an article on the blog World Politics Review, Top 30 Countries for Broadband Internet Access. One of them showed Japan’s astounding average Internet speed:
Broadband Access Speed by Country
Japan shows an impressive 60 megabits per second speed (I’m assuming this is for download as well as upload?) with Korea not far behind at around 45 megabits per second. I checked my broadband speed here in Canada via SpeedTest.net and my results were a little less than 1/3 of that. I am surprised to see my number as high as that, but then again, it’s before noon on a Saturday.

What’s also interesting is the cost of getting that speed. Here’s another graph:

Cost of Broadband, by Country
According to this, all that speed is incredibly cheap, under a dollar per month per megabit in US Dollars, according to the article. By this calculation, I’d expect that for a person in Tokyo to get roughly the same speed I do, they’d pay around $20 per month. Here in Vancouver, my Internet cost is coming in at about $47 for that 19 Megabits, so that works out to roughly $2.5 (Canadian) per megabit, which would convert to almost exactly $2 US per month per megabit. That’s better than the graph says (although it’s hard to tell, I’d read it at closer to $5 per month).

Although I’ve been making some comparisons here, I’m wondering how life would change for me if Internet was half the cost it was, and 3 times faster, but I’m also wondering if this high level of service at relatively low cost will cause a flurry of Internet activity and development in Japan. I note that their limitations have more to do with screen size (many Japanese access the Internet exclusively through via cell phone screen, if  I’m not mistaken).

So, what’s it like? How has cheap, fast Broadband Internet made things different, and do you think it will change things in the coming decade? My friends in Japan, your input here is welcome!

Another Restart. This time, Something Interesting

HAL 9000

HAL 9000

Rather than try to write something profound (at least on the surface), I thought I’d start writing in this blog again with an observation about today’s date, at least in terms of the History of Computer Science:

On today’s date, HAL, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey turns 17 year’s old, as the movie says:

I am a HAL 9000 computer, Production Number 3. I became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you. It’s called ‘Daisy’

I always thought that the production number being 3 was intriguing. It couldn’t be a nod to Windows 3.1, the first successful version of that software because the book was written decades before that appeared on the scene.  What happened to production numbers 1 and 2? (It was mentioned, I seem to remember, that HAL 1000-8000 series had problems of some sort and were “not entirely successful”).

The idea of a mutinous, murderous central computer is a theme that is still alive and well in movies today: the movie WALL-E has one of these, the Autopilot computer that looks a bit like HAL’s red eye inserted into an old fashioned ship’s wheel (and the voice actor who gets to do it, in the credits is, wait for it… Macintalk, the speech synthesis software on the Macintosh (!))
Autopilot

AUTOPILOT from WALL-E

Needless to say, in this year, 2009, there is no HAL 9000, no similar level of Artificial Intelligence, no ships to Jupiter, and no permanent base on the moon. We do have a space station, but Pan Am airlines never survived to create that beautiful space liner, and although there is talk of private citizens doing flights, it is Virgin Airlines that is going to be doing that.

Back to the World of the Living (Blogs, that is)

After a long period where I tried to redesign this blog, I feel I’ve finally gotten something that is acceptable. Wanted to hire some programmers and designers to do a real rework, but that will have to wait until I have employment.

I fear that drucker.ca has fallen victim to the phrase: ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’ Because it was never exactly the way I wanted, I have been reluctant to write a great deal until it was ‘finished’  although I have a good first draft of what I wanted, based on an existing WordPress theme. This new theme is better than my old one (at least in terms of slickness, but it is far less colourful.

At any rate, I want to get cracking on writing some new posts, given that there are a few things going on in North America (as well as the rest of the world)  besides economic meltdown and the Presidential race.

Watch this space for more to come.