Thursday, October 6, 2011

Just One Story of Changing the World

Many of the things we take for granted now were not only revolutionary, but greeted with skepticism when they were first introduced.

I look around my office and see, for example, a laser printer. Offices everywhere have laser printers that can print computer documents. But this technology is only a quarter century old.

Before I had my current laser printer and the two that preceded it I had a LaserWriter Plus. It was the first laser printer I owned and the predecessor of every laser printer you see today.

The LaserWriter Plus was so widely imitated because Steve Jobs insisted that computers and printers should let users choose the fonts that appeared in the documents they created. Before the Macintosh and the LaserWriter, computers displayed text in only one form that barely deserved to be called a typeface, and laser printers could not print anything more than simple lines of text, which if you were lucky, were shown in Courier.

It was because of Jobs that the computing world became more lively and colorful. Jobs’ vision of the future of computing required the invention of a new word, WYSIWYG, for the ability to print a computer document on a printer and have it look the same on paper as it does on the computer, a profoundly strange idea at the time. WYSIWYG included the idea that a computer document could mix graphics and text willy-nilly. And even though this new idea set the world on fire, I remember how skeptical most people were at first — not just for a few weeks, but for years.

In 1989 I worked briefly at a company that had one Macintosh computer. It was used solely for creating transparencies for presentations. The people there did presentations only at the end of each quarter, so the computer sat idle 98 percent of the time.

And this was a company that was ahead of the curve. Most businesses didn’t have even one Macintosh. They created their presentations on electric typewriters.

That gives you an idea of how skeptical the world was in the early years about the WYSIWYG approach and the idea of computer documents that contained fonts and graphics.

A LaserWriter Plus, as I said, was my first laser printer, and when I got it, it changed my life. The printer’s support for typefaces made it possible for me to create the pages of my first book, a book on computer programming called Professional SAS Programming Secrets. The ability to create camera-ready pages gave me a real shot of getting my book published, a chance I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And when it was published, in 1991, it forever changed the way the world looked at SAS programming. I am proud of what I accomplished with that book. Yet it would not have been possible without the LaserWriter, and the LaserWriter, in turn, existed because of Steve Jobs’ vision of a world where typefaces belonged to everyone. That’s a vision he brought to the world even though most of the world, for years, didn’t believe it would work. And indirectly, that change made possible countless stories of changes, including mine. It was a cascade of changes that no one could have spelled out in any detail, and considered together, they changed the world beyond recognition.

Last night when I learned of Jobs’ death, I wrote a list on Twitter of revolutionary ideas that were popularized by Jobs and Apple in the face of widespread initial skepticism.

WYSIWYG: the idea of a printer that could print the same document you saw on your computer screen.

mouse: select an object on the screen by pointing.

undo: a computer that lets you change your mind or correct your mistake.

software update: a computer operating system that finds and installs its own fixes.

playlist: using a computer to select what songs to play, and in what order.

Shut Down: a computer operating system that knew how to put its house in order.

desktop bus: plug in the keyboard and printer wherever you want.

Carbon and Rosetta: a complete rewrite of the operating system shouldn’t require users to adjust.

Final Cut and Logic: pro software shouldn’t have to cost a year’s salary.

plug and play: you shouldn’t need to hire an engineer to set up your computer.

Even while recognizing that Jobs wasn’t working alone, this is an astonishing list of revolutionary ideas. These ideas are so powerful we take them for granted now, but they weren’t introduced easily. People forget that a generation ago, if you bought a computer, you expected to spend a couple of days setting it up. When Apple first came out with a computer that would set up in less than an hour, most people simply didn’t believe it. That was more than a decade ago, yet you can easily find people who still don’t believe it happened.

And this list is just a fraction of what Steve Jobs accomplished at Apple. Jobs was not really an inventor, even if he invented more things that most of us. But he recognized the value of revolutionary ideas that would simplify the way people work. And he introduced them to a skeptical world with such clarity and coherence that, often, the world took notice.

Jobs did this dozens of times. He did it year after year. He made it look easy, but it is a difficult thing to do even once.

And now, it is up to those of us who remain. I invite you, if you are able to, to discover one revolutionary idea that simplifies the way people work and introduce it to a skeptical world. Just one. And I will endeavor to do this as well. Think of the astonishing series of advances that we came to expect from Steve Jobs. If a small fraction of us are successful, that is a record of technological progress that can continue.