Thursday, October 13, 2011

Steve Jobs, Computing Entrepreneur and Media Maven

Apple I (Wikipedia), circa 1976.
Palo Alto, California (10/5/2011),   Steve Jobs had a deep understanding of the connections between computing technologies  and their social uses.    It started with his appreciation of the potential of the "graphical user interface".  As a kid,  he attended after-school lectures at Hewlett-Packard.   Later, as a summer employee,  he met Steve Wozniac (Woz).   After graduating from high school in 1972,  Steve spent only one semester in college.   He was interested in practical computing and was attracted  to Asian religions.  With Woz, he attended the Homebrew Computer Club and worked as a technician at Atari.   In 1975, Woz designed the Apple I.  The display was a standard TV set. And it booted from ROM!!  Apple Computer was established on April 1, 1976 in Cupertino, California, and incorporated January 3, 1977.   The Apple-1 was released  in  July of 1976.    No one does it alone in this world. Jobs and Woz  knew they needed help.  A key mentor and partner was Mike Markkula, Jr.  Mike had BS and MS degrees in EE from USC and was already a millionaire retiree at 32.  Yes,  we all need mentors of one kind or another. 

Apple II with floppy disks
In 1977,  a much improved Apple II was introduced.  The plastic case opened easily to reveal a motherboard and eight expansion slots.  The keyboard was built in to the case - a harbinger of laptop computers to come.

Apple II - case open
Xerox started their Palo Alto Reseach Center (PARC) in 1970. Xerox PARC still exists.   PARC researchers became famous  for developing key technologies in computing and communication -  bitmap computer graphics,  the graphical user interface (GUI),  the computer pointing device called the "mouse", object-oriented programming (OOP).   Contributions from PARC alumni, such as Alan Kay (not to be confused with Andrew Kay of Kaypro),  Butler Lampson, Charles Thacker and many others  were progenitors of the many of the components of modern computers.  At SRI, Douglas Englebart and Bill English's work led to the development of the computer mouse. 

Apple's Macintosh
 IBM introduced it's personal computer (PC) based on the Intel 8088 microprocessor in 1981. An obscure company called Microsoft provided the DOS 1.0 operating system.  Apple needed something better to survive.  On January 24, 1984,  Steve introduced the Macintosh at an emotional Apple shareholders' meeting.  the Macintosh was the first commercially successful PC with a mouse, a GUI and a 9-inch, 512x342 pixel monochrome display.  Users today would be immediately familiar with the windows and icons.   The marketing effort was very effective and many people became instant converts.  Detractors labeled it a mere toy - they were wrong.  Command line interfaces, although cool for those who had entered code with switches, were not the path to ubiquitous computing.  Bit-mapped graphics output was seductive no matter what, so some kind of input made sense.  The ability to create polished documents with integrated text and graphics made desktop publishing the killer app.   A year later, Apple introduced the LaserWriter, one of the first mass-market laser printers - only $6,995 (1985 dollars, wow).

Michael Dell founded Dell Computer in his dormroom at the U. of Texas, Austin (1984).  The era of extreme PC competition was here.   Apple struggled due to the relative dearth of software compared to IBM compatible PCs.  The network effect was in full force. With 90% market share, people wrote code for the dominant OS - Microsoft's. 

NeXT Cube circa 1990 (via wikipedia)
Jobs was pushed out of Apple in 1985 - probably the best thing that could have happened to him at that stage.  His creativity was unleashed.  Later on they would find they needed him more than ever.    He started NeXT, Inc.  It took until 1988 for something to be unveiled:  a computing powerhouse -  the NeXT cube. Despite it's limited commercial success, it was a huge influence on the industry.  The first web server ran on a NeXT in in 1990.   The cube was replaced by a "pizza box" in the NeXT station.   The workstation market (for technical and scientific computing) was no pushover either.  Competition was fierce and many companies did not survive - NeXT held on until 1996.   But these computers, and their software, allowed new computers to be designed - a bootstrapping process that continues today.  In 1986, Jobs bought George Lucas' "Graphics Group" and renamed it "Pixar".  Movies like Star Wars needed special effects and computer animation which required powerful graphics-oriented hardware and software to do anything in a reasonable time.   In 1996,  Apple bought Jobs' NeXT and Jobs' returned to Apple becoming CEO in 1997.  Desktop publishing was morphing into digital video production - the medium was the message.  More and better hardware and software was needed.

Sony Walkman, circa 1980
Akio Morita,  a founder of Sony with Masaru Ibuka, travelled a lot.  He wanted to be able to listen to opera while flying.  Nobutoshi Kihara, in Sony's audio division,  led the development of the Walkman compact audio music player.  It used  magnetic tape in a "compact" cassette as the music carrier (analog memory).  The Walkman went on sale in 1979 in Japan and became a world wide hit.   After the compact disc (CD) replaced analog tape as a consumer music medium, portable CD music players were sold.  They had many problems:  CDs needed to spin and the motor needed to be small.  This caused numerous skips in real world conditions.   Eventually,  digital memories were used to "buffer" up to a minute of audio while the disk stabilized after a jolt.
Could a digital semiconductor memory device be used instead of a moving disk in a portable music player?   As digital hardware  became cheaper, more powerful, and less power-hungry,  complex portable devices became feasible.  At the same time,  digital signal processing (DSP) and ideas from data compression and perceptual coding led to the development of "lossy" compression schemes such as jpeg,  and importantly for audio,  mp3 (MPEG audio layer 3).   Lossy compression allows for significant reduction in bit-rate and file sizes.  For mp3, compression by a factor of ten is quite common compared to CD audio rates.

iPod ca 2003
Apple announced it's portable digital media player, the iPod, in 2001.  The first iPod used a 5GB hard disk as a storage device.   Flash memory was still to come.   More important, Apple's iTunes software ran on Macs and later Windows deskop platforms to allow syncing and backup of music files. And most importantly,  Apple offered a place to buy songs though it's  iTunes service (2003-).  Apple was in the music distribution business.  As the internet expanded, Apple could offer it's web services worldwide.   In 2005, Apple introduced the iPod Nano, a digital media player which used non-volatile "flash" memory.  

In January of 2007, Apple unveiled it's first iPhone smartphone.  The phone was a leap forward in functionality compared to it's contemporaries.  A sensitive capacitive touchscreen, which used one or more real finger tips, replace the then common stylus-based version.   The phone was very similar to an earlier model by LG - they claimed that Apple had copied their device.  LG's phone was popular but it lacked the 3rd party software distribution channel  (App Store) and the scale of the Apple effort.  For text input the iPhone uses a virtual keboard on the screen saving weight and volume.   Current versions have two cameras,  front-facing for video telephony and rear for high-res still and video capture.  A native web-browser (Safari) is included.   A wide range of  free and paid apps for many needs and purposes has increased the iPhone's popularity.

Not surprisingly,  Google and Microsoft have challenged Apple in the smartphone arena.  Now Google's Android OS, and open hardware approach, is recapitulating the OS war between Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OS.   In terms of market share,  Google is gaining fast and will likely grab a large share of the market.  Microsoft's smartphone OS is good and getting better.

Steve Jobs with iPad - 2010
So what's the "cool factor" that Apple has in abundance?   It's more than skin-deep.  It all about esthetics, ergonomics and function combined into one package.   For users, living in the Apple universe is pretty nice.   Apple hardware plays nice with their brethren.  You did not need to know a nerd to do stuff.  

Tablet (aka slate) computers are thin, flat devices with a screen area about the size of letter paper (or A4 in ISO).   The don't have a physical keyboard and use touchscreen for input via a virtual keyboard and touch gestures for pointing, etc. via a fingertip or a stylus.   They have been around in some form since the invention of the writing slate made of actual slate (stone).  Touchscreen technology has improved a lot over the past ten years.  Capacitive touchscreens are sensitive to light touch of a finger tip.  Multi-touch allows two or more fingers to be tracked simultaneously.  This allows for two-finger gestures (for zooming, etc.)  and also better virtual keyboard function.  

Apple's tablet device is called the iPad.  More than 30 million iPads have been sold since it was released in April, 2010 -  !@@!! 

One important feature that's missing from Apple's touch input devices is called Swype (R).  It's a natural for virtual keyboards expecially on small screens.  You enter words by sliding your finger from letter to letter to spell out the word. The traced path is matched with likely words and you select the one you want.  It's pretty good.   A small keyboard is actually easier to use with Swype(R) since distance traced is smaller and thus faster. 

What can we expect from Apple now that Steve is not with us?  I'm sure more improvements in the current line of products.  The issue for the long term is new stuff.  To quote Alan Kay, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."


1 comment:

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