Monday, October 10, 2011

How Steve Jobs Changed My Life

Latest Newspaper Column:

Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Inc., died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. He was only 56 years old.

It’s not overstating the case to say that Jobs was one of a handful of people who created the world we know today. Certainly, his Apple computers changed my life, even though I’ve spent years as a PC guy.

In 1984, I was in my last year as an undergraduate. I was living in a rowdy apartment with three roommates, each of them wonderfully mad in his own way. One of them was a double major, if I recall correctly, in anthropology and computer science.

He had one of the first personal computers I’d ever seen, an Apple II. I’d mucked about a bit on it, mostly playing games. Sometime in the spring semester, though, he brought home a strange-looking box with a built-in screen and an odd little device attached to it by a wire.

“What’s that thing?” I asked.

“It’s a mouse,” he said. “And this is a Macintosh.”

“Huh,” I said. He turned it on, and a little graphic that looked like the computer itself smiled at me.

“Whoa,” I said.

Now, understand, I’d never used one of these before, and the so-called GUI (graphical user interface) was completely new to me. But within minutes, it was as if I’d been using the thing all my life. Put hand on mouse. Use mouse to move a little arrow on the screen to an icon that shows what you want to do. Click the button. Presto!

Oh, there wasn’t a hard drive, so it was a pain to keep swapping those little 3.5 inch floppies out of the two disc drives to get a lot of things done, but it was the easiest, most intuitive computer I’d ever used.

I know, you young readers are rolling your eyes and going, “Right, Grandpa, that’s how computers are supposed to work.”

But the fact that you can be so blasé about it just goes to show how much those simple concepts — the mouse and the graphical interface — changed the face of computing, and eventually, the way work got done. In my case, it was the way things got written.

See, I’ve always been a terrible typist. Typing school assignments was always a particular kind of hell for me; I always ended up using so much Wite-Out on my frequent typos that the pages would actually be stiff and crackly, and people learned to cover their ears near my room if I was working on a term paper, because I’d be turning the air blue swearing over those same typos.

But with the computer, erasing a typo was as easy as hitting Backspace, and moving entire paragraphs around was a breeze. When I went to law school, it was the bank of Mac II’s in the school’s computer lab that made brief writing and other assignments far easier than they might have been otherwise.

Bill Gates and Microsoft quickly followed the Mac with their own graphic interface, Windows, which started off much clunkier and less elegant than the Macintosh system, but which, thanks to some brilliant (some say shady, and some others say illegal) marketing practices, took a much larger share of the market than Apple.

And so the Platform Wars broke out on a newfangled communications system called the Internet. Mac and PC users sneered, “Get a real computer” at each other in the way that only people who know they’re not going to get punched in the nose can do.

Since most of the places I've ever worked used Windows-based systems, that’s what I eventually ended up using. But it was the Mac, developed by Steve Jobs and his partner, Steve Wozniak, that revolutionized the idea of computing for me. I don’t think I’d even be a writer at all if it weren’t for the personal computer, and the Mac was the first one I ever wrote on.

The Mac wasn’t the only world-changing innovation Jobs and Apple gave us. Pixar Studios, which Jobs formed after buying Lucasfilms’ computer animation division, revolutionized the animated film with movies like “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” The iPod and iTunes changed the way we listen to and buy music. The iPhone expanded our ideas of what we could expect a cell phone to do. And now we have the iPad, which is changing our relationship with computing yet again.

RIP, Steve Jobs. I would have loved to see what you came up with next.