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.