Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Steve Jobs TributeIt was very sad to hear this morning that Steve Jobs had died after finally losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. Apple has had a profound effect on the way information and communications devices look and work and this is largely attributable to the innovative and insightful team who set-up and ran the company over the last 30 years.

Over the years I have had a love/hate relationship with Apple. The love started in 1984 when I was writing software user guides for Racal Electronics. At the time we were writing drafts by hand and then having them typed into a lone IBM PC running Wordstar. Just to give you a flavour of what that was like the screen was a phosphorus green and in order to make a word bold you had to type formatting commands into the text itself. All illustrations were done entirely by hand using basic technical drawing equipment. One day, one of our contractor software engineers arrived at the office in his red Porsche with his a new ‘toy’ – an original 128k Apple Macintosh.

I was blown over by the simplicity of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) interface. Just by clicking and pointing you could do so much more than was possible on the IBM PC. Of course I later realised that the underlying technology had been invented by Xerox but Apple had developed it and made it affordable and truly understood the significance it would have on the future of personal computing. I was responsible back then for making the business case for Racal to buy its first Apple Macintosh. In practice we failed to get the company to replace the IBM PC as the core publishing system but we did manage to get it adopted as the system for developing all our illustrations. Later Racal did move over to Apple Macs for all their desktop publishing but by then I had left the company to start my own technical authoring business. My first purchase was an Apple Macintosh 512k which cost around £3,000 – a lot of money in 1984. It had no hard disc – just a single 3.5 inch floppy drive. Initially I used three applications – MacWrite (wordprocessor), MacPaint (bitmap editing) and MacDraw (vector drawing). They worked together like a dream. You could copy a drawing from MacDraw and simply paste it into a MacWrite page. To achieve this on a PC was laborious and fraught with difficulties. Later PageMaker arrived on the scene and the Macintosh pioneered the concept of desktop publishing.

For years I used the Mac but eventually made the switch to the PC as Windows became more intuitive and the range of specialist software available made it more suitable for the type of work I was doing with clients. I still work on PCs to this day primarily because they are cheaper, and run the specialist software that I need.

However in 2008 my love affair with Apple was revived when I bought my first iPhone. Strangely this device didn’t have the wow factor that I experienced when I saw that first Macintosh back in 1984 but once I started using it it really transformed the way I thought about productivity devices. The iPhone combined a number of technologies into one elegant and seamless productivity enhancing experience. The iPad simply adapted that experience for the big screen. As always it wasn’t so much the invention but the insightful way the device and its underlying technologies were packaged to provide a user experience that even the very latest Android devices struggle to match. One fact that was reported on the BBC today was that Apple did very little market research – it relied on the instincts of its people to develop products that would transform people’s lives. Steve Jobs wasn’t a geek – he loved technology but his lasting legacy was the way he developed products that put usability at the heart of the customer offer. For this he will be missed.

As a fitting memorial to Steve I recommend this book on the early days of Apple:

‘Revolution in the Valley’.

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