Vision, Inspiration and Brilliance — the Hallmarks of Steve Jobs

Its been a couple of weeks now since Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple and became Chairman of the Board. It’s worth looking back and reflecting on some of what inspired him to build the “insanely great” products he built and the imprint they left on Apple and the world in general. His influence continues to be seen today and will continue to be felt for the foreseeable future.

Steve Jobs’ vision of the promise of computing began when he and Steve Wosniak formed Apple Computer in 1976 and really manifested itself into reality during his stint as CEO when he returned to Apple in 1997 after a 12 year absence from the company. He imbued new life into, and generated profit for,  the organization through introduction of new and exciting products over the course of the ensuing decade. In an interview for the documentary, Triumph of the nerds, Steve Jobs explains what he was shown at Xerox PARC when he and a handful of Apple employees visited their facility in 1979 and how he was inspired to build better products by incorporating three specific components that would eventually become integral parts of the Macs, PCs, iPads and smartphones that we use regularly today.

Jobs stated that, of the three technologies demonstrated to him and his team, one stood out above the other two. The graphical user interface (GUI) impressed him deeply and he spent years at Apple honing the first commercially successful GUI – the Macintosh –  to bring to the world. The GUI revolutionized computers as we know them and it is now the standard for controlling computers today, whether you are using a Mac or Windows PC.

But the other two elements that Jobs didn’t initially really “see” or concentrate on too much during his first tour of duty at Apple were ground breaking in their own right. Those two elements were object-oriented programming and computer networking, which in later years, he envisioned as essential for the future.

After Jobs left Apple in 1985 he started another company called NeXT. There he would develop and refine a new operating system called NeXTSTEP that would not only incorporate and improve on the GUI, but bring object-oriented programming and networking into the fold. These attributes would lead to the development of the first web browser, the WorldWideWeb, to be developed on the NeXTSTEP platform. Ironically enough, it was this progressive thinking and development that ensured Steve Jobs’ return to Apple and the company’s resurgence as a powerful and innovative force in the world today.

This is particularly relevant to talk about today because Steve delivered all of those components to the masses with elegance and simplicity, the way that he and Apple always intended.

The GUI is alive and well on Macs and PCs and is an integral part of mobile devices. Object-oriented programming, (at the 25min mark), gives developers powerful tools to build polished and innovative applications in less time with less difficulty that may have not even been possible to build before. After the original Mac debuted, Jobs recognized that a strong software platform would ensure a vital and healthy hardware environment, which is part of the reason he pursued building a development environment that was based on object-oriented programming, even though it took Apple a bit longer than anticipated to roll out Mac OS X. Apple had to build a bridge between the past (Classic Mac OS) and the present/ future (Mac OS X and iOS) and allow its developers to adopt the new OS. This eventually carried through to developing iOS and helped to create the wildly successful App Store that in turn brought more developers to back the Mac and droves of customers to both platforms. At the latest Apple developer conference, WWDC 2011 in San Francisco, Steve acknowledged this when he said that software was the soul of their products.

Networking is a concept that most people don’t actively think about but, due to networking,  millions of people are able to communicate through text, speech, photos and videos. Businesses can transfer information seamlessly amongst employees, colleagues and partners to serve the needs of their clients more effectively. When the original Macintosh debuted back in 1985, networking was available only in a very primitive form. In order to connect to others, a modem, phone line and specialized software, which was not too affordable, were all required to make a connection with other computers. Today, you check your e-mail on your phone while your commute to and from work without even blinking an eye. We’ve come a long way in networking since then and, as mentioned above, networking was a key component in the NeXTSTEP operating system at NeXT. The idea of networking and being connected is another concept that Xerox PARC inspired Jobs to incorporate and implement into his products. When Jobs returned to Apple at the end of 1996, through Apple’s acquisition of NeXT, the Mac and PCs of that time had poor networking capabilities as compared to NeXTSTEP’s networking prowess (at the 15min mark).

Eventually, NeXTSTEPs operating system became the foundation for Mac OS X and brought all the networking goodness to the Mac. In real world use, it meant connecting the Mac to other Macs or PCs in a reliable and easy-to-use way with zero configuration through a feature called Bonjour. I want to emphasize the  importance of this function. When my office ran on a PC platform, setting up and maintaining a workable networking environment was painstaking enough that I would have to pay an IT consultant to either walk me through the motions over the phone or pay them extra to show up in person to get all my computers talking to the server and each other for my practice to function. When I switched to the Mac platform, the second my Macs were connected to the network, they all found each other without any further work on my part. This effortless and seamless process was brought into real world use by Jobs and his teams at NeXT and Apple. Moreover, networking is what makes the new mobile Post-PC revolution possible. Being connected 24/7 to a network (at the 1:03:30 mark) allows you to do things today that years ago were just not easy or even possible. It’s what Mac OS X’s progeny, iOS, helped to usher in through the iPhone and iPad.

In addition to shaping Apple Inc. into a technological, innovative and financial powerhouse, Steve Jobs’ life’s work has culminated in the dissemination of tools that helped to advance technology and make our day-to-day lives better by bringing all of us closer together so that we can live, learn and change the world for the better in a multitude of new and exciting ways.

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