November 28, 2014

iThanks, Steve!

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‘Never live someone else’s dream; always live your own’ – Steve Jobs

I’m just one of millions who is saddened by the death of Steve Jobs. There will be many better tributes from people who really knew the man, but I want to recognize what Steve Jobs and his company did for me, as again, he has touched all our lives in so many ways.

I got my first Apple in 1985. It was my first real computer (a Mac Plus). For me, computers are a means to an end, rather like a car. The less maintenance the better. Just do what I want it to do. Hence a Mac was an obvious choice over a PC. As I started to look at educational applications of computing, especially online teaching, the technology had to do two things: enable me to communicate efficiently and conveniently with students; and enable me to teach in the way I wanted to teach. I did learn over time that the medium is the message, that I could do things with the computer that I couldn’t do as well in the classroom (as well as the opposite). But the ‘new’ affordance must still serve an educational purpose.

Who would need an iPod?

One of Steve Job’s gifts was to see what people did not yet know what they wanted, but would want if the company delivered – which it usually did. This is particularly true in the consumer area. However, no matter how sleek and trendy, the computer must enable me to teach in ways that I want to teach, although I am prepared to change my way of teaching if I can see the educational benefits of exploiting the technology’s ‘affordances’.

Apple’s design philosophy is important. They have wanted computers to be easy and fun to use. This didn’t (indeed still doesn’t) go down well with many in the IT community. I have been told by IT support staff that Macs aren’t a ‘serious’ computer (presumably because I didn’t need a six month training course to learn how to use them), that Microsoft is the industry standard, so Mac’s won’t be supported, that it is uneconomic to support more than one standard, and that Macs are too expensive.

However, the irony is that Macs are highly reliable, the upgrades (usually) are trouble free, the software is largely bug-free, they are less prone to hacking and viruses, and above all the user interface is simple and easy to use. So for almost all my career I have used ‘non-supported’ technology, often at my own expense. I spent a miserable nine months in the early 1990s trying to manage with a PC. I eventually got to the point where I was able to use it effectively, but found it so infuriating compared to using a Mac that I went back to my ‘unsupported’ personal Mac (I used to hide it in the cupboard when the IT staff came around, which was quite amusing once when the fax machine – another ‘forbidden’ personal technology – that was attached to it started to work in the cupboard when the Director of IT Services was talking to me. ‘I can hear a fax machine! Have you an unauthorized fax machine in your office? ‘What fax machine? Can you see a fax machine?’).

I still have major problems with Microsoft software such as Word and Powerpoint (crashing or suddenly producing a new version of the document so I don’t know which version I was last working on), especially since they introduced docx. I spend more time trying to get Powerpoint to do what I want it to do than I do preparing the content. I have to use these products because ‘they are the industry standard’ and it’s a hassle converting Keynote to Powerpoint and Pages to Word, as the conversion never works seamlessly. So thank God for Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple, for setting a higher standard in user friendliness. If only Microsoft could match it.

It should be remembered that Steve Jobs was responsible for breaking the monopoly that Microsoft held on the software market in the late 1980s. No-one gave Apple a chance of surviving until Steve Jobs was re-hired (if only I had bought their shares then!). Apple’s recent success is particularly rewarding, seeing light triumph over dark.

Another legacy is Apple’s industrial design. They have learned how to meld form and function into a beautiful aesthetic. I sit here with my razor thin aluminium laptop, with multiple ‘windows’ open on my 17″ screen, my iPhone with its simple, glass touch control interface, and my wife’s sleek, pink iPad, all comfortably fitting on to a small desk.

Apple has made technology beautiful. Although many engineers have contributed to these benefits, the vision, the standards and the drive came from Steve Jobs. I for one am immensely grateful.

Comments

  1. What would the world be like without Steve? I would have never been ridiculed by my fellow grad students for wasting money to buy a 16K Apple II when 8k was more than enough. After all, the main frame was 16K, how could I possibly use 16K on a personal computer. My self-esteem wouldn’t have been shattered only minutes after passing a course on IBM operating systems where I learned how to create, copy, move, delete, and rename files; only walk in to a computer show to see an Apple guy teach and 7 year old kid to do the same things on a Lisa in 5 to 10 minutes. If only I hadn’t bought that Mac Classic that my wife could use without my guidance and forcing me to buy a second computer so I could have one too. Steve sure complicated my life; and I will forever be grateful.

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