Donnerstag, 6. Oktober 2011

Reflections on Steve Jobs

I have never seen Steve Jobs in person but I did watch his commencement speech at Stanford. If he had done nothing else in life but give this speech, it would have been sufficient.

My first experience with a desktop computer dates back to 1979. The American bank which I worked for gave us a demonstration of how an IBM computer worked. I was quite excited from the start.

At that time, this American bank - a multinational bank with subsidiaries/branches in over 40 countries - took the revolutionary decision that every foreign subsidiary/branch should have one PC. By 1983, as the manager of the Buenos Aires Branch, I was given the privilege to have an IBM PC which had the size of a small suitcase and which I could take home with me.

We had Wang word processing in the branch: one CPU and several outlets through the branch. By about 1985, our Wang broke down frequently and something had to be done about it. The Head Office sent an IT team to Buenos Aires to evaluate our needs. They then came to the conclusion that we needed an upgraded Wang to meet our requirements. The costs were significant.

Our Operations Manager, a very clever Canadian, came to me and told me that he had a better idea which would cost less money. He explained to me the disadvantages of the Wang: when the CPU was down, all other work stations were down, too. And then he suggested the following: at minimum 10 IMB PCs as workstations; if one broke down, one could switch to another one; the total cost would be less than the upgraded Wang.

I told him that he was from the moon. Didn't he know the policy of only one PC per location? To make a long story short, we did get the 10 PCs and even more; and it was cheaper and better.

This prompted me to say to the Operations Manager one time the following in a joking way: "I would not be surprised if a smart IT kid like you had an IBM PC even at home for your personal use!" His answer was: "No, I don't have an IBM PC at home. I have an Apple IIc". "What?", I exclaimed, "an IT expert like you uses a toy like Apple?" His answer I remember to this day.

"You know, my Apple IIc gives me everything which an IBM PC offers and even more. And I tell you one thing. Apple is now coming out with a new PC which they call Macintosh. That computer will revolutionize the world". I promised myself to remember this prophecy.

By 1988, back at the Head Office in Chicago, I had the privilege of being given by the bank the hottest desktop PC at the time, a Toshiba 3100, for personal use at home. It seemed like a dream come true.

Around the same time, I was preparing my departure from the bank to start my own business, a quick printing franchise named AlphaGraphics. There seemed to be only one draw-back to the new venture: instead of using IBM PCs, they required every franchisee to work with Macintosh.

One Thursday, my wife and 2 children were visiting family in Greece which was good because otherwise I might have been divorced 4 days later, the first Mac SE arrived at my home. After unpacking, I looked at a chart which showed me how to do 3 things: (a) how to connect the computer with electricity; (b) how to connect the mouse to the keyboard and the keyboard to the computer; and (c) how to turn on the computer.

Then there was a disk titled "Guided Tour to the Macintosh" and a note to slip it into the right slot. I managed to do this.

The screen of the Mac SE then educated me: the machine in front of me was the "computer"; the thing in front of me which looked like a typewriter was the "keyboard"; and the little thing which I could put into my hand was the "mouse". I was shown how to move the mouse around and how that could trigger commands. After about 15 minutes of that, I was shown which tape cassettes I should put into the tape recorder for replay.

Four sets of tapes had come with the delivery. One about the Mac SE operating system. One about word processing, One about spread sheets. And one about page making. Each set consisted of 3 tapes, each lasting about 1/2 hour. The only exception was the spread sheet set which consisted of 8 tapes.

From then on until Sunday, I was glued to the Mac SE and the tape recorder. By Sunday afternoon, I knew how to utilize all features of the computer; I knew how to compose writings in all sorts of fonts and formats; I knew how to use spreadsheets for all sorts of purposes; and I knew how to make my own newsletter.

On Monday, I took my Toshiba 3100 to the IT experts at the bank and said: "You can have it back; I have found something much better!" I explained to them my Mac-experience. Looking back from today, their reaction was historical:

"Ok, we know that a Mac has cute features. But we think that anyone using a computer should have at least some level of technical literacy".

What about a computer who gives a technically illiterate person "the power to be at your best"? They did not understand what was meant by that.

In those years, there were only a handful of Mac user groups in the Greater Chicago Area of about 10 million people. It seemed like one could get to know everyone who was familiar with Mac's. One felt like being part of a group who had seen the light while everyone else wasn't even looking for it yet. The others were still computing. We were composing beautiful things.

In 1990, I purchased the Mac SE 30 to take back with me to Austria. I was given the option to buy it with either 20 MB hard drive or 40 MB. I was technically illiterate and asked the salesman for advice. His answer: "You know, 20 MB is really very sufficient but if you take the 40 MB, you will have everything you need for the rest of your life".

I still have this Mac SE 30 and it still works. Unfortunately, the 40 MB hard drive did not turn out to be everything I ever needed. Today, I think I have - I don't even know for sure - a 1 GB hard drive. But quite frankly, I often wonder if there is anything I can do today which I couldn't do with my Mac SE 30 about 3 decades ago.