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Mr Incredible: Steve Jobs

Posted on 2nd Oct 2011

Mr IncredibleIn 2004, Pixar, Steve Jobs’ other big success story, released The Incredibles. Set in an alternate world that abounded in “supers” — humans endowed with superpowers — its premise was that these supers were targets of so many lawsuits that they were forced to go underground and live ordinary lives. Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible) is one such super, forced to live a bland suburban life as an insurance adjuster and trying with limited success to keep a lid on his own and his children’s super-aspirations. (Yes, they have super-powers too, which they must suppress to “fit in”.) The story of the movie is about how Mr Incredible and his family of Incredibles find true happiness and fulfillment by expressing their super-powers to the fullest instead of conforming to the mediocre. Call it a parable of the human potential movement.

So what has this to do with the incredible life of Steven Jobs? It goes something like this… As a twenty-something wunderkind he changed the IT universe with the introduction of the Macintosh. And how is he rewarded? Turfed from the company — sent into exile. While his post-Apple career was not exactly one of suburban conformity, Next wasn't what you would call a raging success. And so for years he flew under the radar, in relative anonymity, until Gil Amelio, then CEO of Apple, bought Next for its OS, bringing along Jobs as part of the package.

And it cannot be gainsaid that Jobs’ return to Apple had a mythic dimension, akin to Prince Hal's rejection of Falstaff to take the crown, or the Lion King's return to assume his rightful realm (same story, actually!). Like the return of the Incredibles, Jobs’ return to Apple was the resumption and fulfillment of his true role in life, his destiny.

Of Mice and Macs

The Wayback MachineiPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad… yes, all game-changers, disruptive technologies that transformed industries and trashed existing business models; but nothing like the transformation that Jobs and Apple wrought with the Mac. And so I invite you to step into the Wayback machine with Mr. Peabody, Sherman and me, to consider what the world of computing was like back in the early 1980s.

My career, after a short succession of “starter” jobs, got seriously underway when I went to work for John Olsen, producing and programming multi-image slide shows. This was done using pre-IBM personal computers running proprietary operating systems which enabled you to do one thing: program (sequence) slide shows. In this era, microcomputers (the term “personal computer” was still to come) came with minimal operating “systems” — CP/M, later MS-DOS, which did little more than allow you to manage files. Copy and delete files, load and run software — that was pretty much it. (WordPerfect was wildly successful in part because it provided a slightly friendlier interface for managing files.) I tentatively toyed with the CP/M machine we had, but in the complete absence of documentation, it remained (literally) a mysterious black box.

Then we acquired an Apple II as part of a competing slide show programming system. It came with Applesoft Basic (written by Microsoft!) and what’s more, tutorials! This was my Open Sesame, my portal to the world of programming. Moreover I started using the Apple II to write and edit scripts, though the dot matrix printer output left much to be desired.

Meanwhile I was still doing storyboards with pencil and eraser, and wondering, if I can edit text with a computer, why can’t I do the same with graphics? But experiments with joysticks were but exercises in frustration.

Then came the Macintosh. A far more radical break from the current state of the art than anything Apple has done since (which is of course saying a lot). Some, such as Jerry Pournelle, while acknowledging its envelope-shredding technical innovations, argued that it was ahead of its time, that as it existed it was a “toy”. Well, yes, there was a struggle with the limitations of the 128k memory space and the 400k floppy drive, but it quickly became a working tool for me — allowing me finally to create and edit storyboards.

People talk about the mouse and the graphical user interface as the revolutionary changes wrought by the Mac; while certainly true, I would like to point out that there were two more fundamental (and inseparable) aspects of the Mac that were even more important.

  1. The full-service OS. The GUI was only the friendly face of this huge game-changer. As I mentioned, previous OSs were just disk-operating systems — DOS — which offered the bare minimum of “services” — open this file, copy that one, send some text to the printer port (and hope that the printer understood what to do with it). The first Mac OS offered a whole suite of services, the GUI being only one — applications could call on a toolbox (called, well, the Toolbox) of functions to draw things, display text in a variety of font faces, make sounds, etc. etc.
  2. Inter-application synergies. Okay, that word got tired a long time ago, but I can’t think of a better one. Working with pre-Mac computers, I often felt that software developers believed that you bought the expensive machine for the sole and exclusive reason of using their software — often you installed it at considerable risk of clobbering anything else that was previously installed. Certainly they had no notion that anything you did in one program had anything to do with whatever you might do in another. The Mac OS changed all that. Along with the full-service OS came the concept of standard data types — not many to start! but with TEXT or PICT, you could do a lot in one program and then pass it along through the Clipboard or Scrapbook to another application for inclusion or further massaging. A simple example — a series of storyboard frames created in MacPaint could be pasted into a script document in MacWrite. Brilliant! And the same PICTs went into a database app (File from, yes, Microsoft, if memory serves) to create assembly flows for the production process.

And that was just the beginning. What you experience on a typical web page derives from multiple apps, each doing what it does best — editing photos, creating illustrations, writing copy, editing video, sound etc.… all based on the full-service OS and standard data types. Stuff we take for granted now, but only came into being and viable on the Mac platform.

And don’t forget the standard GUI! Learn one app and you already knew as much as 90% of what you needed to know to use the next one. Again, those inter-application synergies!

Truly Incredible. Thank you, Steve. And thanks to all the incredibly talented, hard-working and visionary people that participated in or laid the groundwork for the Macintosh project. And above all, thanks to the crazy ones, who refused to conform, to fit in, to accept the mediocre, but stayed faithful to their vision of the possible and the better good.