Steve Jobs and the actually usable computer

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At a sad time at which the world has just lost Steve Jobs, it is well to reflect on some of the things which he, his passion, and his creations have given us, as now the technical community should take many of these upon its collective shoulders.

A big thing Steve Jobs did for the world was to insist that computers could be usable rather than totally infuriating!

The NeXT was brilliant. The NeXT had (arguably too) many things introduced at once -- removable optical storage, Objective C, DSP for sound and movies, Mach kernel, unix for a PC, display Postscript, InterfaceBuilder and so on. Yes, they never got the price down and the optical disks proved unreliable. But Steve and NeXTStep ended up saving Apple, and there must be a lesson that it is worth hanging on to cool things: you never know when they will in fact become mainstream.

The NeXT box when I unwrapped it (in Sept 1990) had automatically set up for me as a naive user a unix mail account, which staggered the local unix gurus who normally had to help users of new unix boxen struggle with sendmail configuration files.

In my default mailbox was an initial welcome multimedia email from Steve, including a Lip Service voice clip about his vision, including "It's not about Personal Computer .. it's about *Interpersonal* Computing". Exactly.

Programming the WorldWideWeb client was remarkably easy on the NeXT. There was already a software module, the Text Object, which was an editable multifont editor. I just had to subclass it to make a hypertext object, and add the internet code. Designing the app's menus was trivial -- just drag and drop with InterfaceBuilder. The code framework of the app was generated automatically. That is a platform: something which allows you to build things which without it would have been possible, but a lot of work.

We almost met once. There was a get-together of NeXT developers in France, and we set up demos at tables around the room. Robert Cailliau and I set up the on one table. Steve arrived, and started making his way around the tables chatting with each project. He didn't get to us before he had to leave.

Steve was a champion of usable technology - even sexy technology. Intuitive on the outside and extensible and cool engineering on the inside.

The geeks among us need to be at the same time deeply insistent technically on beautiful, clean, extensible design inside, and utterly impatient as naive end users about the outside.



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