Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs (And Me)

I know everyone else has written about Steve Jobs, but I have to too. I try not to be too in your face about it (with strangers anyway), but I am a complete Mac head, a fanatic, a 72 virgin iPods in heaven type, if such a thing made sense - they are the only computers I have ever used on my own dime, and I expect that won't change as long as there are Macs to be used. I am in the cult, and have been from the first time I used one - they have shaped my life, for better or worse.

20 odd years ago I was working part time in a law library (and full time at a book store), expecting to stay there until I'd paid enough of my debts to live on a bookseller's wage - when someone said they might have some work for me in the systems group if I wanted it, and gave me as SE/30. Here, they said, learn this. I sat down at the machine and started typing and was addicted. That is the best way I can describe it - like being given crack, and being addicted on the spot. I had used computers before - a vax in high school, my mother had a commodore, my brother (a few years younger) had an apple, I think (maybe a Franklin, something like that) - I'd poked around on DOS machines, or whatever they were at the time. I could see the use of these things - my brother wrote all his school papers on his computer, and you could see how much better it was than my method of going from longhand to hunt and peck to correction tape and white out - better, but the amount of work it would take to get there - and the amount of irritation and ugliness I would have to put up with, looking at those other screens.... But I sat in front of that little SE/30 - looked at the screen, the desktop, the little pictures you clicked on and they'd open up, the "folders" inside "folders", the way you never had to type a path, type the name of anything, you could se the names there - that made sense. And then I opened Word Perfect [yes - this was a very strange set up - that extreme rarity, a big corporation that used Macs - and a Mac shop that used WordPerfect; I don't know why, but they did...], started typing, and that was that. It was obvious that this is how computers should work. This is how writing should work - this was better than a typewriter could dream of being - this was better than pen and paper! It was easier to compose than on pen and paper - and you could fix your mistakes, change your mind, you could move stuff around, you could make words bigger, smaller, make the letters look any way you wanted - without hacking around with codes, without blocking text first - you just pointed the mouse, you clicked, you dragged, you did something on a menu, you clicked a button - it was right.

That was the end. I was doomed. I started working for systems instead of the library - eventually I did it full time - I am there to this day. It was thrilling for a year or two - the company put computers on everyone’s desk in the course of the next 2-3 years - and I found that that, setting up computers, getting to them to work, to connect to things, to print, showing people what they could do with WordPerfect (and eventually Word) - that was good, a challenge, kind of fun. That first couple years, I went to computer shows, I read MacWorld and MacUser and MacWeek faithfully, kept track of new developments (scanning and OCR! that was a big one, for a while), I got my own computer at home and obsessed over fonts and various word processors and page layout programs and graphics programs - I loved it. I didn't even mind the job.

All of that I can blame on Steve Jobs. If my company had been using PCs, this would not have happened. Some of it would - they probably would have invited me to work for systems, given me a PC to learn, and I probably would have taken it - better than doing pocket parts, after all - but move to full time? It was nice money (compared to selling books), but I liked my bookstore job - liked working in bookstores, liked the people, liked the location (Harvard Square), liked the customers, liked everything - nice as the money was working on computers for a big corporation, if I hadn't loved the computers, I don't think the money would have held me. For that matter, I don't think I would have bothered learning enough about a PC to have the option - I took to the Mac quickly, figured it out, its programs, started building stuff in Hypercard immediately - I made myself useful, because the machines were worth learning. I wouldn't have done that otherwise - I didn't care, really, about computers, in the abstract - I never bothered to learn any programming languages (other than hypercard, some macro languages, some VBA later, some html) - I certainly wouldn't have cared as much as I did on DOS machines.

And that, finally, is why I've written all this, and why it's relevant to Steve Jobs. I was never that interested in the technology - never saw the need to learn to program or put together computers out of old wires and shoeboxes. I was a user, when all was said and done, and almost defiantly so. I am probably pretty close to the consumer Steve Jobs imagined in his heart of hearts all these years - someone who wants to be able to get a machine that will let him do all the things he wants to do, and do them with style, without worrying too much about what's going on under the hood. I loved that SE/30 because I could use it to write, and it looked good on the screen while I was writing, and it created handsome pieces of paper... I could draw things with it - I could do math with it (I didn't have Excel at first, so I built spreadsheets in hypercard - I might have had a book for help, I don't remember) - I could make databases, do all kinds of things, without worrying about the code. That's what I wanted, and what I want - to write, to draw, the make databases and keep databases, to make pictures, look at pictures, look at cat videos, make cat videos - connect all this stuff to other people, argue with people, look at their pictures, find people who share my obsessions and hobby horses and curiosities. I don't care, really, about the machines, I care about what the machines get me to - but I want the machines to get me there without pissing me off. And - 20 years of Macs have managed that, even the Microsoft programs running on them. The Windows devices I'm stuck with at work - a different matter - even now. I like the first comment on Making Light's Jobs post - I too wanted to be a power user, not a programmer. And Macs made that possible - directly, and immediately, in ways (at least in 1990 or so) that were not conceivable on any other machines. It was possible to master the machines, most of the software, just by knowing what you wanted it to achieve and plugging away at it, and paying attention. I could teach myself what I needed - I was quite happy to be able to make a living guiding other people through their problems getting their computers to do what they want to do - so here I am....

The Macs are long gone at work - that experiment was killed off by the Apple's mid-90s woes - but by that time, Windows 95=Mac 89 - so most of the old principals apply. A lot of my experiences are very closely tied to their time and place - the fact that I hadn't been brought up on computers (as kids 5 or 6 years younger than me were) - the fact that the gap between Macs and PCs was still as dramatic as it was in 1990. 10 years later, it is hard to imagine getting a couple years out of college without significant time on a computer - and if it were possible, I'd probably have been as comfortable on a Win 95 or 98 machine as a Mac. But we're here to talk about Steve Jobs, his effects on the world - and those post Windows 95 machines are his babies (though rather ugly and misshapen brats) as much as the Macs are. Job's vision of how computers work spread out, from Apple to Microsoft, through the world - and not just in general terms - WIndows 95=Mac 89 is really not far from the truth.

One of the many things I read this morning about Jobs noted that he had been instrumental in 6 world changing things - Apple II, Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and Pixar - that's true, but I don't know if it does justice to his impact. You could put Mac on their twice - the original Macs, and the iMacs - that were almost as revolutionary. They saved the company, created the platform for the iPods and iPhones to follow - but they also changed the way the world looked; they changed the language. And it's hard to overestimate, really, just how important the Macintosh and it's OS really were. GUI's - and the nature of GUIs - icons, in space, clicks and folders and apps and documents, the whole arrangement of data - is the standard now. And then there is The Mouse. Reader - you can click on that blue underlined bit, and your computer will display a page explaining the history and nature of this device - and that - the fact that you go to that page by clicking on it, instead of typing it into a box - underlies another of the world's utterly transformative technological innovations - the World Wide Web, html. This is our world, and it looks the way it does, because Steve Jobs pushed for a particular kind of interface - one he did not invent, including many things like the mouse that other people made and used first - but he made them integral to his computers....

For me - and more or less by definition, anyone reading this - Steve Jobs has shaped the world we look at as much as anyone alive in the last century.

And I haven't even mentioned his effect on film...

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