Steve Jobs remembered

The fact that I, along with millions of other people, learned of Steve Jobs’ death by way of a text message or email sent to my iPhone indicates just how huge was the Apple co-founder and CEO’s impact on the way many of us go about our business and live our lives. I can’t imagine any other CEO of a large corporation whose death would be so widely mourned.

By chance, the Apple Store in Job’s home town of Palo Alto, where I live, is right across the street (University Avenue) from the Peet’s Coffee Shop where I go for my morning latte. As I left the coffee house the morning after his death was announced, I noticed some flowers and a couple of lighted candled had been left on the sidewalk in front of the Apple Store window. I walked over and took a couple of photos. A day later, that small shrine had grown considerably.

Since Jobs had lived less than a mile from my home, on the Saturday morning I detoured past his (surprisingly modest) suburban-style house on my way to the supermarket, where I found precisely what I had anticipated. A huge outpouring of grief and remembrances.

Again it struck me: this reaction to the passing of a billionaire CEO? I cannot imagine a similar response to the death of Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, or any of the other technology elite. Somehow,  Jobs did more than provide people with useful consumer products, he touched their emotions.

To be sure, not everyone is an Apple fan. But to those who are, their attachment to the brand is deep. People tend not to like Apple stuff, rather they LOVE it. And that is surely a tribute to superb design – design both for appearance and for usability.

I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of anyone or anything, but I am a sucker for great design. When I first saw, and used, a Macintosh (one of the first generation), it quite literally changed my career, and in due course my life. As a mathematician with research interests in computation and a side interest (more of a hobby) in computational number theory, I was using computers long before the personal computer came on the scene. Back then (and this was the 1970s), a computer was a slave that you commanded to do things for you. Even worse, it was a dumb slave, so you had to formulate those commands with extreme care. A single missing or misplaced comma would cause the machine to grind to a halt.

All that changed with the Mac. As a user, you were no longer issuing commands to be acted upon, you were HANDLING INFORMATION. It was your stuff, and you were the one performing the action. Or so it seemed. In reality, you were being fooled by a cleverly designed interface.  But that was the genius of the Mac; it took something intrinsically alien to human beings, computation, and presented it is a way that we find natural and instinctive.

Well, actually, that genius was not Apple’s, rather that of a remarkable group of researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) who had developed this new approach to computing over several years. To Xerox (and many of the researchers at PARC), the goal was to build computers to support office workers. Jobs’ genius was recognizing that, properly packaged and marketed, this approach to computing could turn computers into mass-market consumer products.

When I first started to use a Mac, I realized that there was huge value to be had in viewing reasoning not as a PROCESS of logical deduction to arrive at a conclusion (the classical view of mathematical reasoning), but as  GATHERING INFORMATION in order to reach a decision. The result of that shift in viewpoint first resulted in my book Logic and Information, which was published in 1990, and my entire research career since then has followed on the heels of that book.

Were it not for the Mac, I doubt I would have shifted my research the way I did. It would not have been enough to read about the WIMPS interface (windows, icons, mouse, pointers), or even to watch someone else using it. It was the powerful sensation of DOING it yourself, of physically manipulating items of information, that made all the difference. The Mac was not a device you used. It was something you experienced. And that is a profound difference.

As became clear through his entire career, Jobs had a deep appreciation for the importance of making technology something people experience – not merely use.

By pure chance, just two months before Jobs died, I published a short e-book in which I compared him with one of the greatest innovators of all time, the thirteenth century mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, known more commonly today by the modern nickname Fibonacci. Leonardo changed the world by writing a book that introduced modern arithmetic to the western world.

The stories of what these two men did exhibit remarkable similarities. Leonardo packaged arithmetic and, through the medium of parchment, gave personal computing to the masses. Jobs made personal computing accessible to everyone through the medium of silicon. Neither individual was an inventor. Their genius was taking something alien and complex and making it accessible – and friendly – to all.

For more details on the Jobs – Leonardo connection, see my MAA column “Devlin’s Angle” for August of this year.

Apple homepage October 6, 2011

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I’m Dr. Keith Devlin, an emeritus mathematician at Stanford University, an author, and was for many years “the Math Guy” on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Off duty, I’m an avid cyclist. (The header photo is me halfway up Mt. Baldy in Southern California.)

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