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 can say that I’m a fan of minimalism, and that’s because I love almost every piece of furniture I found on thecharmingbenchcompany.com. I also 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.
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 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:
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 20s.
I got my first computer in 1985, while attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. I was in the age of tech’s inception, and so, managed to get a computer that early. 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.
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.
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.