memories of apples, a steve jobs tribute

As you probably have heard, Steve Jobs died. People with more knowledge of Jobs and the tech industry will have lots to say. Click here to read all the Steve Jobs posts on orgtheory. I still love the Mad TV satires, which poked fun at Jobs himself while being smart political satire. Great people, apparently, inspire great satires.

This tribute will be about my experience with Apple products over the last thirty years, the ups and the downs. My very first experience was sometime in the early 1980s. My father was a math teacher and he was all hot under the collar about these new computer thingies. At first, he got a Texas Instruments computer. Made sense since TI had a solid track record with scientific calculators. But as with most early home computers, the TI 99-4A had issues. Only so much you could do with it, not a whole lot of  software, and it cost a whole lot of money. I loved the games, but that was it.

Then, a little while later, my dad brought home this magical device that the school had bought. An Apple IIE. Wow. It looked nice and the letters on the screen were green! But more importantly, it was intuitive to program, by early 1980s standards. My dad would haul the IIE between home and classroom. I soon learned BASIC, Pascal, and even, gasp, some Assembler (bleccch!). Back then, I couldn’t explain exactly what happened. But the Apple IIE was  clearly better than TI, Commodore, and the legions of other now forgotten personal computers. This was cool, so cool that I would cook up stuff to do and see if I could make the IIE do it.

Then, sometime around junior high or early high school, the shoe fell and I was first confronted with the limitations of the Apple business model. I showed up to school, where my father taught, and all the Apples were gone! In their place – Compaqs running DOS. By this point, I was familiar with DOS, so it wasn’t totally alien, but the Compaqs were so ugly and impersonal. Worse than programming in Assembler!

I asked about their disappearance. Two answers. First, price. If you are a small town high school, it’s really hard to justify paying 10% or 20% more when you have to acquire 30 or 40 units. It adds up real quick. Second, the new computer science teachers – the first real generation of CS instructors – didn’t accept that Apples were better than Compaqs, or Dells, or whatever. The people that you really needed to persuade – the tech geeks – didn’t buy into the Apple model. The typical CS teacher wanted a bunch of boxes where they could teach people about looping structures and “if -then statements.” Other teachers wanted boxes that would run other software, like automated vocabulary tests, that weren’t supplied for Apple machines. If it was functional, it was good enough. CS teachers may have appreciated Apple, but not enough to fight the school board over it. The rest of high school was spent in the miasma of DOS.

The lesson I took from that experience is that the high price/high quality Apple model doesn’t fit well with bureaucratic needs. Big organizations, like school districts need products that appear cheap and stable, and can be easily jammed into existing business practices. That describes Windows way more than Apple. As the years passed, and Apple became a niche, I really appreciated this point.

College was a more mixed experience for me. There were reliable manufacturers who made highly stable DOS boxes that ran on MS-DOS or some other DOS/OS variant. I also learned to program in a UNIX environment, which is great, so I could stay away from the DOS world. Also, I met my wife, a life long Apple fan and many friends were Mac owners. I also got to know a real Mac developer, who is responsible for early 90s shareware apps, like Solarian II. Near the end of my time at Berkeley, I even worked on a few NeXT stations, which were kind of weird, but powerful.

My appreciation for the Apple world endured, and deepened, but, given the problems they were having breaking out of the niche, I never became a full time Mac guy. I still wished that  they would give up the native OS and make it more compatiable, which they did when the UNIX kernel was adopted. And of course, price!

Chicago turned me off permanently to the Windows world. Windows NT soured me, even though it was, once again, useful for corporate purposes. The Mac Lab in Ryerson hall (now gone) was a much, much better experience most of time, as indicated by the fact that people would use the stations for hours at a time. But still, I kept a Windows box for statistical packages. I wandered, though. My graduate course papers were usually written on the late generation Macs.

Then we get to the present, the Apple of the 2000s. By that time, I was completely burned by the Windows world. Like many, Vista was the last straw for me, though I haven’t bought a Windows machine for non-work purposes since the 1990s. All “fun” computing in my home was done on my wife’s computers. I haven’t paid for a non-Apple product with my own money for years.

Soon, my wife, loyally Apple, started buying all the famed products – iPods, iBooks, iPads, and so forth. But I was puzzled, didn’t this represent an abandonment of the personal computer? Was Apple giving up on being the #1 game in personal computing? The answer is yes. As I later came to appreciate, Apple was never about hanging on to old models, or even fairly successful current models. It was about taking current success and building something new, if it was risky. What we know now is that the 2000s Apple, post-Amelio/Scully, was about shifting from personal computers to consumer electronics and content delivery.

Even in this new incarnation, the strengths and weaknesses of the Apple style remained. If you were a bureaucracy who needs lots of units, you would not choose Apple (e.g., Mac vs. Windows). If you needed an extremely open system, you wouldn’t stick with Apple (e.g., iPhones vs. Droids ). But if you wanted a high quality device that provided a very specific great experience, Apple usually won the day. The controlled garden of delights was a business model that could really work, at least for consumer needs. The big, long term successes of Apple fits that pattern – they lost the PC battle, are becoming a (huge?) niche product in phones, but have a lock on devices and systems that deliver and manage content like iTunes, tablets, iPads, and music players.

This is just a long way of saying thank you, Steve Jobs. You made my dad excited about teaching programming, and you made me excited to learn. And you made me think about strategy and business, as well as games. Computing won’t be the same without you.

Written by fabiorojas

October 6, 2011 at 5:33 am

Posted in entrepreneurship, fabio

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