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Undead Myths In The Wake Of iDead Steve Jobs

This article was also published in the blog of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Were they really that sad?

In the age of push-button publishing and social networking, people seem to have become de-humanised, not knowing what their true emotions are. They know nothing about what they really feel. But, they are extremely anxious about what they think others might think about what they think. (If that was a bit difficult to understand, you are urged to read Ninja Pirate's article "iPods are a trendy and expensive cry for approval".)

This became very clear recently in the wake of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' demise. Tributes ranged from "hagiographic" to "outright lame." Nobody seemed to have put an effort. There was an all-round absence of honesty and genuine feeling.

Dennis Ritchie, the inventor of the C language and co-inventor of the Unix operating system, died a few days after Steve Jobs. He was far more influential than Jobs. There was hardly a mention anywhere.

US President Obama led the pack: "Steve was among the greatest of American innovators." Really, what did Steve invent? (Steve Jobs may or may not have intended it but thanks to him "innovation" is now a much-misused word in technology and business. If you take a dump, it is an "innovation.")

Steven Spielberg went further: "Steve Jobs was the greatest inventor since Thomas Edison. He put the world at our fingertips." That would have set the man who invented light bulb incandescent with rage! Closer home, in India, HCL owner Shiv Nadar said, "He is in the same league as the person who created the wheel."

After tech luminaries, politicians, and celebrities set the ball rolling, technically challenged daily news publications in America took over with individual pieces on what they thought Steve Jobs and Apple had accomplished. That was when the lines got blurred. There was one blooper after another. And, it wouldn't stop there. When FOSS guru Richard Stallman refused to follow the herd and tried to put things in proper perspective, the defenders of the ark went barking mad. (Forbes; Leave It To Richard Stallman To Go There; 10 October, 2011; http://www.forbes.com/sites/briancaulfield/2011/10/10/leave-it-to-richard-stallman-to-go-there/).

Myth 1: Steve Jobs Invented The Personal Computer

In 1973, Xerox Corporation had something called a "personal workstation." It was a research project limited Xerox installations and a few universities. It could not be used at home.

So, the job of inventing the personal computer was left to a guy named Gary Kildall. Not even Intel knew their processors could be used on a desktop. If you check the archives of the American TV program "Computer Chronicles", you will find an episode titled "Gary Kildall Special" (http://youtu.be/VipwFeJ1KMU) that will make it clear as daylight as to who invented the PC.

… Killdall had started developing his Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M) in the early 1970s when he realized the potential for a general-purpose small computer. He was carrying a portable computer at a time when a desktop PC was just a dream.

Tom Rolander (first DRI employee): "I met Gary in 1973 in the Computer Science Lab late one evening. He was a young kid … He came into the computer center with a leather briefcase that he flipped open that he connected to a teletype … and that was an entire self-contained computer. It was the first personal computer I ever saw."

… Gordon Eubanks (another DRI employee, later Symantec): "… he invented a programming language called PL/M and implemented it for the Intel microprocessors to prove that that 8080 was a real computer and not a controller for microwave ovens …

… while a consultant at Intel in the 70s, he offered to sell them CP/M but Intel could see no use for it and turned him down. Shortly afterwards in 1976, Gary and his wife Dorothy founded a company called InterGalactic Digital Research, later shortened to Digital Research …

Gary's design allowed programs written for CP/M to be used on hardware produced by different manufacturers. Thus, CP/M started a whole new industry for personal computing.

In 1977, Steve Jobs started marketing a "personal computer" DESIGNED BY STEVE WOZNIAK. Their Apple II personal computer was targeted at the masses, unlike CP/M-loaded PC kits targeted at hobbyists and engineers. Apple II was one of several commercially successful personal computers.

Myth 2: Steve Jobs and Apple Pioneered The Graphical User Interface (GUI)

In 1975, Xerox invented the GUI or the WIMP - windows, icons, menus and a pointer controlled by hand-held device known as the mouse. (Xerox PARC History; http://www.parc.com/about/#milestones)

Xerox slideshow on PARC and GUI history

Apple's attempt at GUI was called Lisa and was released in 1983. Because of his running feud with the Apple management, Steve Jobs was forced out of the Lisa project. Later, Jobs got interested in the "Macintosh" project run by an Apple employee named Jeff Raskin. Jobs forced out Raskin and took over the project. He also visited Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and studied their GUI implementation. He also brought in people from Xerox to work on the Macintosh project. Apple did make several improvements to the Xerox GUI concept. To put it correctly, the Mac was the first commercially successful OS that featured a GUI.

Myth 3: Without Steve Jobs, Beautiful Typefaces Wouldn't Have Come To Computers

This myth was propagated by Steve Jobs himself. In 2005, Steve Jobs made this claim in the "commencement address" he gave at Stanford University.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

What??? It is like saying that if Columbus hadn't discovered America, then the continent would have remained undiscovered.

Myth 4: Steve Jobs And His Original Ideas

The Mac OS X was based on the NeXTStep operating system built by Steve Jobs' company NeXT Computer. NeXTStep was one of many Unix-like operating systems and used BSD Unix source code.

Despite the fact Apple owed so much to open source, it did not prevent Steve Jobs from targeting companies supporting open source. In 2010, Jonathan Schwartz, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, recounted his encounter with Steve Jobs (Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal; http://jonathanischwartz.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/good-artists-copy-great-artists-steal/):

I feel for Google. Steve Jobs threatened to sue me, too. In 2003, after I unveiled a prototype Linux desktop called Project Looking Glass, Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were "stepping all over Apple IP. (IP = Intellectual Property = patents, trademarks and copyrights.) If we moved forward to commercialize it, "I'll just sue you." My response was simple. "Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence. "Do you own that IP?" Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they'd found inspiration. And last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too. Steve was silent. And that was the last I heard on the topic.

These were not the only instances when Apple relied on others' work. The Safari browser created by Apple uses an HTML rendering engine called Webkit. Webkit was derived from the KHTML engine used by the open-source Konqueror browser.

Many Apple devices such as the iPod uses an open source font-rendering engine known as FreeType. This is particularly galling considering that FreeType developers struggled for many years without a proper specification for the bytecode intrepreter logic for TrueType fonts. (TrueType font technology was invented by Apple and so they owned the specification and rights.) Although FreeType developers eventually succeeded in reverse engineering this Apple secret, patent-conscious FreeType users had to wait till May 2010 when Apple patents on hinting bytecode expired. (FreeType and Patents; http://www.freetype.org/patents.html)

Myth 5: Steve Jobs Was A Design Genius

Steve Jobs was not a designer. Most successful Apple designs were created by somebody else at Apple, not Steve Jobs. He approved or disapproved designs. Jobs' dishonesty in admitting this was revealed by Apple's chief designer in an interview to Jobs' biographer. (Jonathan Ive: Steve Jobs Stole My Ideas; http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-20124720-37/jonathan-ive-steve-jobs-stole-my-ideas/)

"He [Jobs] will go through a process of looking at my ideas and say, 'That's no good.' 'That's not very good.' 'I like that one.' And later I will be sitting in the audience and he will be talking about it as if it was his idea."

The Apple iPod was based on a design invented and patented (US Patent 6928433; http://www.google.com/patents?vid=USPAT6928433) by Creative, the Singapore company of Soundblaster soundcard fame. The suit filed by Creative against Apple shows some glimpses on how the genius worked. [San Franscisco Chronicle; Lawsuit: iPod violates patent, Rival alleges Apple took player's design after being spurned; May 16, 2006; http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-05-16/business/17294191_1_singapore-s-creative-technology-ipod-digital-music-players-creative-labs]

The complaint accuses Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs of getting a look at the design details when he tried to arrange a joint business partnership with Creative Technology. But Apple then "abruptly" changed course and tried to license its technology. Apple also suggested that Creative Technology spin off its digital music player arm into a separate company, allowing Apple to invest in it. When Creative Technology refused, Apple went ahead and introduced the iPod in 2001.

The first generation Apple iPods were not the epitome of design. It took three more generations to change the look from fugly to pretty.

The first generation of Apple iPhones did not have the ability to forward text messages. They also did not have the ability to do cut and paste text. It is all forgotten now.

Apple mobile devices cannot really be switched off. The screen would go dark but internally the device would remain on and consume power from the battery. This design choice allowed the user to pick up the device and start using it right away. No other company would be allowed to have such liberties. To make matters worse, these devices did not come with a user-replaceable battery. It could be replaced only at an enormous cost to the user.

In Summary… The Mona Lisa Effect

Monalisa as a monkey

In conclusion, we may never really know why these myths were created. Perhaps, some big shots saw a potential gold mine and pumped up the man, the company and its products to high heavens. If true, their efforts must have been rewarded beyond their wildest dreams - the market capitalization of Apple (a company that sells overpriced gadgets) stands cheek by jowl with Exxon (the world's biggest oil company on whose products runs the world's biggest economy). We may never know.

What is really within our realm is understanding why these myths found traction. It must be the "Mona Lisa Effect". The original artwork is pretty much unremarkable. The literature surrounding it paints a different picture. We did not accept what our eyes told us - that IT WAS AN ORDINARY PAINTING. Under the influence of the propaganda, we started believing that the painting was greater than it really was. The same thing seems to have happened in Steve Jobs' case. Everyone was fooled into believing the propaganda.

Steve Jobs' real achievement (that nobody mentioned) was that he stood up to Bill Gates (after numerous falls though). As the Bill Gates road-kill list is too long to be mentioned here, I suggest the reader go over a few articles by on RoughlyDrafted.com (Office Wars 3 - How Microsoft Got Its Office Monopoly; http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2007/09/10/office-wars-3-how-microsoft-got-its-office-monopoly/) to get a full picture of what shaped Steve's attitude towards competition.