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Steve Jobs, Time Traveler

Today is the first anniversary of the passing of Steve Jobs. Unlike others on this site, I never had the chance to meet him in person. But like others around here, I have always been an avid consumer of his products, even through the very lean years of the company.

Recently, a cassette tape of a speech he gave at a conference in Aspen, Colorado was discovered by technology blogger Marcel Brown. What’s “insanely great” (as Steve might describe it), is that the talk was recorded in 1983 (the photo at right is of Jobs, in that very year, sitting in front of a pre-Mac Lisa computer) . This was way before anyone other than a handful of scientists had even heard of the internet.  The personal computer revolution was in its infancy  –even the first Mac was still over a year away– and it would be over a decade before the advent of cell phones and mobile computing (unless by mobile computing you were talking about a 40 pound laptop.) 

In the speech transcribed from the cassette by Brown, Jobs’ prescience about the machines and the wholesale changes to our culture imposed by them is spooky. Some highlights:

  • Jobs describes computers [in the future] so fast they are like magic. 

  • He states that in a few years people will be spending more time interacting with personal computers than with cars. But even he didn’t imagine people using computers in their cars (or texting from them). 

  • Jobs equates society’s level of technological familiarity in 1983 to being on a “first date” with personal computers. He recognized that technology would continue to evolve in the near future, as would people’s comfort level with it. In hindsight, once it became dominant the PC industry stood relatively still while Jobs was busy planning “the next big thing”.

  • He confidently talks about the personal computer being a new medium of communication. As Marcel Brown points out, this is before networking was commonplace or there was any inkling of the Internet going mainstream. Yet he specifically talks about early e-mail systems and how it is re-shaping communication. He matter-of-factly states that when we have portable computers with radio links, people could be walking around anywhere and pick up their e-mail. Again, this is 1983, at least 20 years before the era of mobile computing.

  • Jobs mentions an experiment done by MIT that sounds very much like a Google Street View application.

  • He discusses early networking and the mess of different protocols that existed at the time. He predicts that we were about 5 years away from “solving” networking in the office and 10-15 years from solving networking in the home. Nailed it. 

  • He says Apple’s strategy is to “put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you that you can learn how to use in 20 minutes”.  That sounds just like something I know I’ve seen….just can’t put my finger on it.  

  • Jobs goes on to describe how they wanted to do it with a “radio link” so that people wouldn’t need to hook it up to anything to communicate with “larger databases” and other computers.  Nailed it. 

  • Jobs compares the nascent software development industry to the record industry. He says that most people didn’t necessarily know what computer they wanted to buy. In contrast, when walking into a record store they definitely knew what music they liked. This was because they got free samples of songs by listening to the radio. He thought that the software industry needed something like a radio station so that people could sample software before they buy it. He believed that software distribution through traditional brick-and-mortar was archaic because software is digital and can be transferred electronically through phone lines. He foresees paying for software in an automated fashion over phone lines with credit cards. So 30 years before it launched, Jobs envisioned the iTunes and App Stores before any of the infrastructure needed to support it had even been invented.

Right at the end of the Q&A session, a question is asked about voice recognition, which he believed was the better part of a decade away from reality. Given the context of Siri today, it is interesting to hear him talk about the difficultly of recognizing language vs. voice because language is contextually driven. He says, “This stuff is hard”. Anyone who’s ever tried to get Siri to dial a phone number knows Jobs was right (and still is) about this one too.

The word “visionary” gets thrown around a lot these days. Last weekend, I heard a breathless Fox Sports announcer use the word to describe an rookie NFL quarterback (note to Jay Glazer: RG III is not visionary — at least not yet). But Steve Jobs was the real deal. He really did  see the future and, of course, figured out a way to profit enormously  from it way before just about everyone else did. 

Steve Jobs was known rather famously as a fan of LSD earlier in his life. I’ve never believed the rumors of the drug’s time travel capabilities, but after reading the transcript of Steve Jobs speaking in 1983,  I’m honestly not so sure.

  1. Indaba

    The power of having a big vision and communicating it relentlessly.

    It is very stressful being an entrepreneur as you are pushing uphill against the naysayers and the bankers.  I notice many entrepreneurs die younger than seventy. Did Steve Jobs push himself so hard and push several industries up an incredibly steep cliff that it weakened his immune system?

  2. George Savage
    Indaba: The power of having a big vision and communicating it relentlessly.

    It is very stressful being an entrepreneur as you are pushing uphill against the naysayers and the bankers.  I notice many entrepreneurs die younger than seventy. Did Steve Jobs push himself so hard and push several industries up an incredibly steep cliff that it weakened his immune system? · 2 minutes ago

    Sadly, I think Steve’s demise was at least in part attributable to the flip side of his visionary personality.  Steve’s physicians lost crucial months penetrating the former Apple CEO’s legendary reality distortion field.  

    As I understand it, after being diagnosed with the only curable form of pancreatic cancer–odds against 99-to-1 –Mr. Jobs put off curative surgery for 9-months, trying instead various unscientific approaches such as holistic diets, before finally having the tumor excised.

    But, apparently, it had already spread.

  3. Spin

    Jobs knew he would die young, though he didn’t necessarily know why.  I presume that his poor health had to do with his crazy dieting as well as his early use of drugs, and was compounded by his crazy works schedules, particularly when he ran both Pixar and Apple.  It was further compounded by his refusal of modern medicine early on, relying rather on his crazy diets.  

    But Jobs was also a class A jerk.  He could push people to excellence, but he could also drive people into the ground by the way he treated them.  He refused to acknowledge the fact that he was the father of his first daughter, Lisa, whom the computer in the photo was named after. He routinely ignored his daughters later on in his life.  

    Is the world a better place because of Apple?  I mean, better in the sense that it would be worse off if Apple had never existed, or had failed in the 90s, before Jobs revived it?  I don’t think so.  I love my iPhone, I love my iPad, my Mac isn’t any better than my PC.  But if they didn’t exist….

  4. Charles Breiling

    I had the fortune to be present for five of Steve Jobs’ keynote addresses at various conferences, and let me tell you, the reality distortion field is real. But I’m thinking this is because he was such a visionary, he could sell an audience on a concept, even if it wasn’t entirely realized in the current shipping product. The man was a genius.

  5. Spin

    …I would still be happy.  And Obama would still be President.  And 911 would still have happened.  Etc., etc.  

    The thing I’d miss most if Jobs had just faded into obscurity?  Toy Story. That is his truly great achievement.  

  6. David Williamson

    In 1983 I had an HP9816 – for scientific computing it was way ahead of Mr Jobs’ clunky box – but he soon caught up and overtook HP, who are now just another PC maker.

    I also had more hair in those days ;-)

  7. Adam Freedman
    C

    Steve Jobs didn’t build that company! 

    Just kidding. But the fact that Steve Jobs created so much wealth does help to show the folly of government picking winners and losers in the marketplace. You cannot centrally plan for people like Steve Jobs.  The best government can do is reduce barriers.  As Indaba says, entrepreneurship is hard, the fewer barriers to entry, the more people will be willing to try to execute on their ideas.

  8. Adam Freedman
    C
    David Williamson: I also had more hair in those days ;-) · 13 minutes ago

    Me too.

  9. Travis McKee

    It gets more interesting when you contrast that cassette tape with the predictions of science fiction writers made in a time capsule buried by L Ron Hubbard. It was recently dug up, and the bulk of writers believed we’d either be too illiterate to read their predictions or dead from nuclear war, or too starving to care from overpopulation.

    What made their predictions of nuclear holocaust more LOL-worthy is that they foresaw this just a year or two before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Job’s, it appears, correctly foresaw that things would work out, that inventors would invent, and designers would design.

  10. Travis McKee

    Oh, I’d like to add that I’m more impressed by Jobs’ other company, Pixar, than with Apple. Lots of Apple products were derivative. The iTunes store, for example, had a forerunner in Liquid Audio, but Pixar did things truly ahead of it’s time.

    Can you believe that Toy Story was made in 1995?

  11. Spin

    To infinity…

  12. Pilli

    As an avid science fiction reader since age 9, I have read about many things that have since come to pass.  The SciFi writers didn’t necessarily invent the devices or techniques, they just spoke of them as did Jobs.  The difference is that Jobs made things happen.  High tech inventions do not surprise me.  I’ve been waiting for them.  I still think they are cool though.

  13. Gregory Conterio
    Actually what I find remarkable about this post is the borderline-idolotry of Jobs.  His untimely death has made a martyr of his career. I have been involved in the IT field since the mid-1980s, certainly not as any sort of mover or shaker, just a young, hourly grunt, but like everyone in the odd (at the time..) field of IT, I was connected into what was going-on, and what everyone was working on.  The list of Job’s predictions is not all that remarkable, it’s essentially a laundry-list of what people in the industry were all discussing at the time.  Jobs was no more insughtful than a few dozen other industry leaders in those days, who were all speculating about the same things for the future.  To someone not involved in a career in IT in the ’80s, it may seem precient.  To those of us who were, none of it is remarkable.
  14. Jimmy Carter

    Where would We be if Jobs followed the advice of “Just Say ‘No’?”

    The world will never know.