Unfinished Visionaries

Much of the world was saddened yesterday. Personally, there have only been a few famous people whom I have mourned. Steven Paul Jobs was one of them.

Like many immersed in the modern world of social media, I posted a simple tribute here. Through the wonders of the internet, it cross-posted to my Facebook account. Once there, an old and dear friend reminded me that every generation loses visionaries, often before their vision is complete.

Perhaps, but I wonder if that really is the case or is it all a matter of perspective.

The oft-told story is legendary. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in 1976 in Jobs’ parents garage. Jobs sold his VW Bus and Woz his beloved HP calculator. With a little money, a lot of hard work and a large and grandiose vision, they founded what would become the largest consumer electronics company in the world. And, for a few short weeks in August, it was the largest corporation in the world, displacing the likes of WalMart and ExxonMobil.

Woz’s vision wasn’t to design a personal computer that was an engineering marvel (It was). He never intended to design circuitry that the best engineers in the world would pore over, study and later implement in their designs (which they did). Woz had one goal: he wanted to design a computer that he would use, that met his personal specifications. In doing so, he re-invented computer engineering, creating new and inventive ways to build a personal computer. He used techniques and circuitry that a classically trained computer engineer would have scoffed at, discarded and ridiculed as unorthodoxed and worthless. But Woz wasn’t classically trained at anything. He wasn’t subject to the learned prejudices and linear thinking of the formally educated. He lived outside the box. He built his computer for him, to his specs, using his self-taught understanding of digital electronics with its simple and quaint rules of operation. When it worked, his world changed and, unintentionally, he changed the world.

Jobs had a vision too. Nothing Jobs accomplished was unintentional. He intended to change the world, by any means available.

For Jobs, Woz’s computer was simply a means to an end. Woz could have created a new mousetrap or a new toaster. If Woz’s “whatever” created a means for Jobs to achieve his vision, it didn’t matter what “whatever” was. Fortunately for us, it was a computer.

Steve Jobs is no longer around to evangelize his vision but while he was here, he was a force to reckoned with. If you didn’t see his vision as he did, you were unenlightened and boorish. Now he can no longer plead, prod, cajole or shame us into looking beyond our own shortsighted and narrow view of the world.

Is his vision dead? Not by a long shot. Let me recount the Jobs’ legacy: Apple (the Corporation), Macintosh, iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, OS X and Pixar – you know, all the Toy Story movies and other wonderful state of the art animated films. You see, Jobs vision wasn’t about computers or movies or music players or telecommunications. Jobs vision was for you to expand your view of the world, to grasp the real nature of human potential and live your life as if you only get one shot to make a difference. He wanted people to question their existence, their purpose for living, to experience the best and the worst of humanity. Steve Jobs lived this way. He wanted the world to live this way. It isn’t about the cool gadgets or the enjoyable movies. It’s about the individual and shared experience you have when you use the cool gadgets or enjoy the movies!

Did he change the world? Was his vision unfinished? Do we really need to ask?

*An interesting footnote. Between his stints at Apple, Steve Jobs, the visionary, started another computer company called NeXT. I was privileged to see a demo of one of these computers in 1988 while in college. What a computer it was.

Nothing on the market was even close at the time. Well, the Commodore Amiga was pretty close, but that’s another story. Anyway, it was a visionary piece of work. Maybe a little too visionary. You see, people didn’t know what to do with it. It was too expensive for mere mortals, much less a starving college student. It didn’t quite fit in the expensive engineering workstation market. Universities didn’t know what to do with them. Ironically, the Macintosh, Jobs’ first visionary product, was favored over the NeXT at Universities, mainly because of price! Within a few years, NeXT was bleeding red ink and Jobs was looking for a buyer.

Then Apple called. Apple was nearly bankrupt. It’s stock price was barely over $3 a share. It was dying, using up its stockpile of cash from its early years to simply maintain its small and dwindling base of customers. Conventional Wisdom said it was simply a matter of time until Apple was gone, another footnote in computer history. Apple had lost its way and over the years it had been wandering in the wilderness, essentially leaderless, with no vision.

NeXT wasn’t much better off. It was much smaller than Apple and had virtually no cash. In 10 years of existence, it had never made a profit, buoyed by investors and infusions of cash from Jobs himself. However, NeXT had two things that Apple desperately needed: A new Operating System and Steve Jobs. It knew it needed the first, and it took the second because it needed the first.

NeXT had great hardware, but what really makes a computer work is its Operating System. The OS that ran on the NeXT, called Mach, was revolutionary, in much the same way as the original Mac OS. Mach is what Apple wanted. Mach, in a paradoxical twist only life and Hollywood could create, was reborn from the ashes of NeXT as OS X for Macintosh. As for the second thing Apple need, well, we already know that story.

*Yet another interesting footnote. A graduate student named Tim Berners Lee had a revelation one night. Instead of going through the time and expense of printing out his research documents and shipping them to his peers for review, what if he could publish his research documents on his computer so that anyone on the same network could access them. Better yet, he could have them download a simple program to their computer from across the network, access those documents in real time and view them WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Necessity is the Mother of Invention, and what Tim Berners Lee invented was the World Wide Web and the Web Browser. He did all this on a NeXT computer.

Inspired by Jobs vision? You’re using the Web to read this right now, aren’t you?

Posted to my blog, using my iPad 2 attached to the Web

2006 Stanford Commencement Speech by Steve Jobs

About Mark Andrews

Software Engineer, Geek, Family Man
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