Learning from the master


In 1985 I took a job at Logica. In those days we were developing systems for teletext and subtitles, and later for graphics management, using computer hardware from DEC, a brand name that disappeared in 1998 when it was acquired by Compaq. The PDP-11 was revolutionary in that it was a 16 bit computer, but even then there was a suspicion that it did not very much in quite a big box.
But while surrounded by these clunky computers that needed to be addressed in an arcane language, someone at Logica invested in a couple of very early Macs. Legend has it that the first two Macs in the UK were owned by Douglas Adams and Stephen Fry, but the one I used must have been very close behind.
This first generation Mac was not perfect by any means. It had no internal hard disk and just one floppy slot, so to get anything done you spent a lot of time swapping programme and data disks in and out of the machine.
But the simple going on idiot-proof user interface came like a bolt from the blue. This was obviously, self-evidently the way things should be done. It’s a computer, for heaven’s sake – it should do all the hard thinking about data and storage and memory partitions and operating systems. All we should do is point and click.
“The computer for the rest of us” was one of the first of Steve Jobs’ utterances that caught the public imagination. He was the same age as me, so I can be forgiven for brooding on his death. But that vision of a computer which took all the boring stuff away and just did what we wanted has changed all of our worlds.
No, Apple did not invent the graphical user interface. But it was the first to make it work well: intuitively, seamlessly and effortlessly. As Jobs said in his famous commencement address at Stanford University on 2005, “since Windows copied the Mac, every personal computer got it”.
The Stanford speech is on YouTube. If you have not seen it, give yourself 15 minutes of simple inspiration. You can scan this QR code to view it directly......

In it, Jobs reveals that he dropped out of college after six months, although he hung around for another year or so, taking classes that caught his fancy. One of those was calligraphy, which he said was “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science cannot capture”.
If he had not dropped out he would not have taken a calligraphy course, and if he had not taken that course we would not have a selection of aesthetic and proportionally spaced fonts on our computers. Imagine going back to a squared-off electronic version of courier for everything.
Jobs brought John Sculley in to run Apple – famously asking the former Pepsi-Cola chief if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his life – and almost immediately the two fell out, resulting in Jobs being sacked from the company he jointly founded. Rather than drink the payoff money he founded a little company called Pixar and made a movie called Toy Story.
He also set up a computer company called Next, which built a very slick user interface on a rock-solid Unix core. Apple in his absence made some bad moves – I actually owned a Newton, although not for very long before it drove me mad – and its internal project to develop a new software platform failed miserably. The Apple board made the only sensible decision: it bought Next. Oh, and one more thing – it made Steve Jobs CEO of Apple again.
He was fond of quoting Henry Ford’s line that “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. If you Google that quote you will find countless blogs by market researchers and product managers who say that it is nonsense and you cannot create anything without a focus group.
Did we know we wanted to carry all our music around in our pockets? Did the music industry think anything good would come out of the internet? Did we know we wanted a device on our coffee tables that would give us information literally at a touch, and connect us to the world, but which was most definitely not a computer?
I never met Steve Jobs. Word is that he was a nightmare boss, because he knew exactly what he wanted and was tireless until his vision was realised. We would certainly regard him as a workaholic: his take was that “work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to love what you do”.
The best summation I have seen comes from John Gruber of the Daring Fireball blog. He said “one of Jobs’ many gifts was that he knew what to give a shit about”. RIP Steve, and may we all have the vision of what we want to achieve, and the wisdom to know what to give a shit about.

Tags: steve jobs | apple | logica | iss059 | dec | pdp-11 | steve jobs stanford speech | N/A
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