TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
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The first time I actually met Steve Jobs was back around 1978 or 1979 at a Regis McKenna reception. Regis McKenna was the premier Silicon Valley advertising and PR agency of the day. Their major client at the time was Intel. I had talked to Jobs on the phone a couple of times previously but never met him in person until then. So we’re all standing around at this fancy reception in our three-piece suits and cocktail dresses eating canapés and being the consummate sophisticated yuppies of the day, when this dude comes walking through the crowd in cut-offs, with his shirt untucked, with unkempt long hair and a scraggly beard. That was Steve Jobs. Regis McKenna, for reasons and insights known only to him, had taken on Apple as a client.
Regis soon got after Steve about how he had to dress to be credible in business. Regis had enough pull to get the high-end San Francisco haberdasher, Wilkes Bashford, to close his store long enough to cater to Steve. He sent his account manager up with Steve and they got him an entire wardrobe. The next time I met him, he was dressed like the rest of us, but I still remember how completely comfortable he seemed with himself in those cut-offs.
How do we know what things and what people we encounter in life are going to profoundly influence us through the years? I arrived in Silicon Valley in 1977, the year the Apple II was released, and shortly thereafter was working as editor of a publication called Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which in those days was fully named Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia—Running Light without Overbyte. That was the burgeoning beginning of the personal computer era, a time overflowing with creative activity and whimsy like the title of that magazine. It fostered many now-forgotten names introducing machines. They were differentiated by different processors, different operating systems (using that term loosely), different floppy disk formats, etc. The two that stood out were the Apple II and the IBM PC, which was introduced in 1981. Both were based on a bus into which you could plug selected peripheral cards. In short, they still appealed to geeks and techies but they also wakened the longings of ordinary users.
Then, in 1984 Steve Jobs surprised the world with the introduction of the Macintosh. The geeks and techies were dumbfounded. It was a closed box. There was no bus. You couldn’t get into it and tinker with it. And it worked flawlessly right out of the box! And regular people could do real work with it without being intimidated by the technology—very sophisticated technology—that was hidden within that box. I was at that introduction in 1984, and none of us realized at the time that this day represented the turning point for how Steve Jobs and Apple would bring technology into the wide world for all to use.
For years, when people have asked me what embedded systems are, my answer has been, “Basically, it’s hiding the computer behind its own usefulness.” That is exactly what Steve Jobs did with the introduction of the Macintosh. And that is how he approached every Apple product after that. He was the supreme master of hiding the computer behind its own usefulness. I am no more supposed to be aware that there is a computer running my iPhone than I am that there is one inside the gas pump I am using.
Steve Jobs’ seemingly relaxed, often irascible, nature had buried within it an energy and a quest for perfection every bit as intense as the computing power he put inside every Apple product. Where others might pay lip service with a cliché like “user friendly,” Jobs insisted that every Apple product be not only intuitive to use, but also styled to fit smoothly into the user’s lifestyle. At the same time, the products like the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad helped actually shape the lifestyle of their users. That lifestyle change has created a demand for products that has resulted in a proliferation of similar products such as the world of Android-based smartphones and tablets—all trying to leverage off of the creative genius of Steve Jobs. Recently, Samsung flew a little too close to the flame, at least in the view of the German courts, and its latest tablet has been banned in that country for being too close to the iPad.
The embedded industry has been heavily influenced by Jobs, even though we may not be aware of it. Things with 32-bit CPUs, RTOSs, sensors and actuators are supposed to function within the world understood by the user, be he/she a factory shop foreman, a pilot, a transit worker or a medical doctor. The latter doesn’t want to know how to get the needed readings from a patient. He or she just wants the medical data in a form that can be used. And now, we see a bit of a convergence starting to happen with iPhones running apps that can communicate with industrial controllers and medical instruments to name a few. All they need is the data from and a link to that embedded, dreaded, computer and they can process it into the natural, intuitive environment of the user and in the same environment they use for the other things in their lives. This is a trend I predict will grow and for that we have Steve Jobs to thank.
He showed us so much with his short life.