In Memoriam: Steve Jobs

Photo © 2011 Apple Incorporated

Steve Jobs passed away earlier today (U.S. time) at his home in California at the age of 56. There's so much to say about Jobs and his impact, but I would like to highlight his significant impact on mainframe computing, specifically.

I "met" Steve Jobs once, in 1988. I might have shook his hand — Steve's famous reality distortion field might have warped my memory, though. Jobs was then the CEO of NeXT, a company he started after he left Apple. (Several years later Apple bought out NeXT, and Jobs returned to lead Apple.) I was lucky to be invited to the unveiling of NeXT's first computer, the NeXT "cube," at NeXT's event in Boston aimed primarily at the area's huge academic community.

Even by then, Jobs had perfected his technology solution stage show. I was seriously impressed with the thinking behind the NeXT cube. Jobs and his NeXT colleagues saw several unsolved marketplace problems and went about trying to craft a unique computing solution to address those unmet needs. As it turned out, NeXT was Apple's incubator, and way back in 1988 Steve Jobs foreshadowed what would come — what he would cause to come to the marketplace, actually. The $6,500 NeXT cube (university discounted price, 1989 dollars) was too expensive for most individual students, but Jobs explained that each student could carry his/her whole computing experience in a (large) pocket, sharing a NeXT-equipped lab. The NeXT machine could read and write huge (for the time) optical disks which could hold the operating system and an entire undergraduate education's worth of information. Arguably that was a cloud computing — or even mainframe service bureau — concept, reborn and adjusted for the technology limitations of the time. But that idea of computing presaged the iPhone and iPad, too. NeXT also featured Display Postscript, a reflection of Steve's tireless focus on making sure his products always looked their best. That focus was later manifest in his work at Pixar and in such technologies as the iPhone 4's "retina display." But in 1988, Display Postscript, even on a grayscale display, was seriously radical stuff. And there was UNIX, which served as the NeXT's operating system. But it wasn't an ugly, hard-to-use UNIX. It was the progenitor to Apple's Mac OS X and iOS, and NeXT engineers had worked hard to make sure the software was polished and approachable. They mostly succeeded at that time, and of course they've been wildly successful after Apple adopted most of those NeXT-incubated technologies.

NeXT was born almost exactly at the same time the Web was born, at CERN. History records that a NeXT machine was the very first Web server in the world. (One of Stanford's IBM mainframes was the second — and Stanford's mainframe also served the first Web application with dynamic content.) Maybe the Web would have been born without NeXT, maybe later, maybe differently, or maybe not at all. However, the birth and explosive growth of the Web has resulted in renewed interest and growth in mainframe computing generally (i.e. "host computing," "cloud computing," etc.), and IBM mainframe computing in particular. I think NeXT was the point in his career when Steve Jobs first understood the balance between personal computing and shared, networked computing. Apple's products continued to be intensely personal, but they also led (and continue to lead) the market in terms of community-building and service delivery. For example, the iPod is a great media player, but the iTunes Music Store was the key breakthrough that made the iPod a must-have. And the iTunes Music Store sure resembles a mainframe in many ways, although it's the combination that's magic.

I've also heard a lot of reports from banks, in particular, wondering why their carefully prepared five-year mainframe transaction volume forecasts are not accurate. Answer: smartphones, and particularly the iPhone, are generating more transactions (and associated batch processing) volumes. Thank you Steve Jobs for that.

Finally, I'm quite sure Steve Jobs spurred many IBM employees and managers to get off their butts, to stop living off the past, and to innovate. IBM's near-death experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s almost coincided with Apple's. Those two companies are more alike than most people realize. I think Steve Jobs realized it, though. Apple and IBM collaborated on a number of technologies, some with success and some not. Their business models are quite similar, even though they don't compete at all. Both companies are continually trying to figure out what unmet needs (and desires) the marketplace has and then, using unique technologies and packaging, to bring real solutions to market to address those needs. They don't try to be the cheapest, but they always try to provide maximum value-for-money. So let's always keep innovating.

Thanks, Steve.

by Timothy Sipples October 5, 2011 in People


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Naturally many more people are sharing their thoughts about Steve Jobs. Here are two particularly personal reflections:

Posted by: Timothy | Oct 6, 2011 8:29:17 AM

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