As I read the various Steve Jobs eulogies and retrospectives, I keep seeing the same things come up. USB, killing the floppy, iPhone, iPad. Believe it or not, his influence was even greater than the extravagant lists being published this week. Here are a few of my favorites.
Note: most of the links in the post below go to Wikipedia articles. They all support my conclusions so you can save yourself the time of clicking on them. You know who you are, you.
Steve Jobs always wanted computers to be appliances – sealed boxes with magic inside that you just used, like a toaster or a telephone. At the time, computers were all designed to be expandable, with slots inside where you could add stuff. The Mac was the first computer that was actually hard to get apart – you needed special tools to get it open. So how were you supposed to add new functionality? The network.
At the time, the Mac’s network hardware – LocalTalk – wasn’t that fast, even for the time. Apple eventually had to add the SCSI port to the Mac for fast local storage. But SCSI was complicated and expensive and fussy, so eventually Apple invented FireWire, which was the only way you could connect the original iPod to your computer. Anything else was too slow to transfer those thousand songs you wanted to put into your pocket.
Steve wanted the Mac to the “hub of your digital lifestyle”, which included not only pictures and music but also video. But video cameras didn’t have a way to connect them to your computer. FireWire was the obvious answer, but it was an Apple technology. How to get it installed in everyone’s video camera? In a clever move, Apple submitted FireWire as an IEEE standard (IEEE 1394), making it available to everyone who wanted it. Sure enough, people wanted it. My PlayStation 2 even had a FireWire port on it, although Sony called it their i.Link port.
Eventually, USB caught up to and then passed FireWire, and FireWire disappeared from Apple products. But it had a significant impact, and paved the way for Thunderbolt, Apple’s new ultra-high-speed port, developed with Intel.
Wireless Networking as Standard Equipment
Wireless networking in 1999 was catching on. Most laptops had the ability to add a wireless card, either as a plug-in card or as an internal option from the manufacturer. Apple’s iBook was the first computer to ship with wireless networking as standard. It set an expectation that mobile computers were supposed to have WiFi, much like the iMac set the expectation of USB for computers. Both of these seem so obvious today, but somehow only USB gets traced back to Apple. But I remember setting up the first-edition toilet-seat-shaped iBook and the flying-saucer-shaped AirPort Base Station, and being awed by the experience of sending TCP/IP packets right through my body. While walking around! I immediately saw how perfect it was for laptops, and soon so did everyone else. This stuff didn’t look like today’s gear, but it was clearly tomorrow’s.
Desktop Publishing and WYSIWYG
This was a Big Deal at the time (1985), but nobody remarks on it now. It was insane at the time to try to sell a printer that cost 50% more than the computer, but it started a revolution. Back in the day, we had a choice: we could print anything we wanted with low-resolution dot matrix printers, or print letters in specific fonts and sizes with a “letter-quality” printer that was essentially a computer-driven typewriter. The Mac, of course, only printed to the Apple ImageWriter dot-matrix printer. Customers kept demanding “letter-quality” so they could print business letters, but Apple resisted until they could give us “letter-quality” anything-we-wanted printing. Enabled, of course, by the first desktop laser printer.
I remember demonstrating a Mac to a customer in 1984 or thereabouts and showing him what WYSIWYG meant. He asked about fonts, and I showed him different typefaces mixed into the same document along with graphics (I was using MacPaint). He asked about different sizes, and I hit Command-<greater-than-symbol> a few times, and the font expanded. He was completely blown away and would have purchased it on the spot if the laser printer existed.
A few years later, I showed Alan Newcomer a few pages of an Orson Scott Card story I’d typed into MacWrite and printed on a LaserWriter. He was thinking of starting a printing business and had been fretting about the high cost of offset printers. He stared at the crisp right-justified type, asked me how long it took and how much it cost, and then went out and founded Hypatia Press. PageMaker and the LaserWriter were now available, you see.
The whole WYSIWIG thing – multiple typefaces, black type on a white page, mixed text and graphics, all right on your screen – became ubiquitous because of Steve Jobs.
Word and Excel and Windows
Yup. Hear me out.
Microsoft Word started out on DOS. It had a radical-for-the-time menu-driven interface, in a time when WordStar and its infamous “dot commands” ruled the word-processing world. However, Word’s 80×24-character monospaced DOS display wasn’t going to transfer over to this new Macintosh computer, so Microsoft rewrote it for the Macintosh GUI.
The same thing happened with their spreadsheet, MultiPlan, but when they were done they saw that it didn’t impress on the Mac. So they decided to compete with Lotus 1-2-3 and wrote Excel for the Mac.
Then they wanted these programs on the DOS machines that were the bulk of the PC market (and provided their licensing revenue from MS-DOS), so they wrote Windows so they could port Word and Excel to the PC. And enable other companies to port their Mac software to machines running MS-DOS – more licensing revenue for Microsoft! Anyone remember the first versions of Excel and PageMaker for the PC? They shipped with a copy of Windows, because nobody owned it yet. We used to call Windows “the Solitaire shell”, because that was about the only software that ran on it. Lotus kept trying to sell 1-2-3 on DOS and Microsoft eventually ate their lunch, and at the time, spreadsheet programs were the main reason that businesses had PCs at all. Microsoft had opened a new market. After all, MS-DOS had competitors such as DR-DOS and 4DOS, but nobody but Microsoft had a DOS GUI with useful apps. Thanks to Word, Excel, and PageMaker.
So today my wife is taking a graduate course called “Advanced Computer Applications in Agriculture”, which is a course in using Excel. I doubt the instructor knows of his debt to Steve Jobs.
The Personal Computer
Actually, this one isn’t exactly “forgotten”, but most people seem to miss it or fail to realize how important it was. (Thomas Critz complained of this in a Facebook post and inspired me to write this post.)
Before Apple, you could only have a “personal computer” if you were a Stanford or MIT uber-geek hacker and didn’t mind buying a separate keyboard and a video output expansion card (if you wanted one). The Apple ][ was the first computer that an ordinary person could buy, take home, hook up to their TV set, and start using.
But isn’t “PC” a short-cut for “IBM Personal Computer“? Yeah, but IBM didn’t start making PCs until they noticed that all of their mainframe customers also had scads of Apple ][s (usually running VisiCalc) on executive desks.
It’s that simple.
Other cool Apple innovations that always surprise people when they find out about them
Note: I didn’t take the time to look up most of these. Mea culpa.
Multiple displays on your computer. Back-lit keyboards. The modern laptop form factor, with the keyboard up against the screen hinge and a pointing device under your thumbs. (Earlier laptops had the keyboard at the front edge of the case, where you rest your palms today. You had to hold your arms in the air to type on them, and they had the pointing device in awkward places, like clipped to the side like a diving board over a pool or, astonishingly, permanently installed on the back side of the display, invisible to the user.) Pointing device, graphical display, high-quality audio output (not just clicks and beeps), 3.5in floppy disk drive, Ethernet, CD-ROM drive, Bluetooth, flat-panel screens as standard equipment. America OnLine (AOL). Email from space. High-quality video playback on your computer (QuickTime). Printer drivers as part of the OS, not the application program. The Clipboard, and cut-and-paste between programs from different companies. Human Interface Guidelines for programmers. The Personal Digital Assistant, or handheld computer (although this term was coined by John Sculley after Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple, and Jobs hated the Newton and killed it when he came back, it’s still an Apple thing. Witness the iPhone.) Battery-powered portable computer.
What? I don’t believe you about <some item in the above list>!
Look it up. If I’m wrong, please correct me in the comment section below, or send me an email.
Before you complain that Steve Jobs didn’t invent any of these things….
I agree with you. However, you are using them today because of Apple and Steve Jobs. It took many geniuses to invent those things, but only one to bring them all to you.