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Steve Jobs: Jerry Pournelle Reflects

Pournelle says Steve Jobs is all about elegance -- and now the technology has caught up.

Jerry Pournelle

August 26, 2011

4 Min Read

Bill Gates concentrated on the intellectual side of computing. When he went to graphics it was strictly for the utility of it.

Steve Jobs was after elegance.

People generally credit outgoing Apple CEO Steve Jobs (and partner engineer/inventor Steve Wozniak) and the Apple ][ for sparking the computer revolution. When commentators list the most influential people of all time, Steve Jobs is usually right on top. And often Microsoft CEO Bill Gates isn't even on the list. Why is that. One's vision built the platform for the other's.

Here's how it really happened.

In 1984, when Apple aired its famous NFL Super Bowl commercial and rolled out the Macintosh, the world was already moving away from Jobs and Apple and toward Bill Gates' utilitarian vision -- the proliferation of IBM compatible PC clones running DOS. Everywhere. He had this remarkable vision that someday everyone at work, school and home would have a computer.

That wasn't what Steve Jobs wanted. He was all about the design.

Alas, the technology was not up to what Jobs envisioned at the time. The Mac, just released, was at the edge of the possible. Given Moore’s Law, that wasn’t a fatal flaw. But there were Jobs’ whims -- such as the, let's say, mistaken view that 128K of memory would be enough for a computer that could do all the things Apple said the Macintosh could do. That it wouldn’t need a specialized graphics chip -- just clever software sharing the CPU. And no fan. Jobs insisted it was too noisy. He was adamant about these things.

The result was what I called in a BYTE piece "a great operating system tied to a toy computer." Steve Jobs never forgave me for that remark. But it was true: the Mac was elegant, but in 1984 it too expensive and too slow. Definitely too slow to get much real work done.

Not long after that Steve Jobs and John Sculley had a power fight.

Ex Pepsi chief Sculley was the man Jobs hired to come in and run Apple as a bonafide business. Sculley could see that Jobs wasn’t really interested in business. He was interested in elegance and he was utterly inflexible about it. Jobs famously confronted his technical crew’s suggestions about adding memory or a fan to the Mac, insisting: "That sucks and I’m adamant."

When Sculley interfered on what Jobs thought was the core vision for Apple, Jobs tried to fire him. Jobs lost that fight and Apple turned him out.

Then it was Sculley's to win or lose.

Apple struggled along but there was no commanding vision guiding it. By 1997, Apple was on the rocks. It was finished -- headed for the scrap heap.

Meanwhile Bill Gates built Microsoft on a simple principle: think of something just ... achievable. Write the software and ship it. It will be slow and clunky, but the technology will keep advancing and bail you out. Moore's Law, again. And it was a realistic picture of the world for Gates to hold at the time.

Jobs in the 1980s didn’t seem to understand that principle. The hardware wasn't up to what he wanted, that elegance. He turned out being adamant about that. And then Apple had him gone.

Jobs toiled in the wilderness for a dozen years. What he learned there turned him into the great innovator we see today.

In 1997, Steve Jobs came back with new ideas. Only now the technology was advanced enough to make them practical. Within 10 years, Jobs found himself running the biggest technology company in the world.

Gates achieved his vision. Once a computer in every home, office and school looked inevitable, Gates let go and turned to the (philanthropy) of The Gates Foundation.

That was just about the time Jobs came back to Apple with his new vision: An elegant computer for every pocket. His generation grew up with the idea of pocket-sized computers in popular science fiction. The iPhone is that pocket computer everyone in his generation read about.

The iPad brings us even closer to Jobs' end goal. Every iPhone and iPad moves us nearer to the time when there will be an elegant computer in everyone's hand.

Steve Jobs can let go with the certainty that this, too, will come to pass. We must all wish him well.

Jerry Pournelle is BYTE's senior technologist. An award-winning science fiction author and columnist, he's back at BYTE now reprising Computing at Chaos Manor. Find all Jerry's material at www.jerrypournelle.com. Or email him a question or comment at [email protected].

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