Thursday, October 6, 2011

SEED. STEM. SKIN. CORE.

An apple is full of four letter words: seed, stem, skin, and core.

This time of year is apple season for me.  I can get apples year-round nowadays, but I still most associate it with this time of year - picking apples, eating them whole or in slices before the pulp browned, making pies and apple sauce.  I grew up with tales of Johnny Appleseed and friends who had apple trees in their yards.  I wait every year for the few weeks that my favorite flavor of apple is available at the stands, and I relish the taste and texture that only a fresh-picked apple has.  I love apples.

Apples are strange fruits.  If you take a seed out of an apple, plant it, nurture it into a tree that bears fruit, and sample the fruit... chances are good that the fruit will bear no resemblance in size, color, and/or taste to the original.  To deal with this, growers use cuttings from a tree that bears a "known quality" of apple and grafts them onto another apple tree that is, hopefully, of a more heartier stock, even if the graftee's fruit weren't that desirable.  So all macintosh apples you eat all, once upon a time, came from a single tree, whose branches over the years... branched out.

Picking an apple is a delicate task.  They perch, usually just out of reach of a child sitting on his father's shoulders, hanging from a stem.  But a good grasp and a twist will bring them into your hand.  But twist it wrong, or if you don't have a firm hold on it, and it goes tumbling down to the earth.

Once you have the apple in your hand, and just before you bite into it, you can admire its artistry.  The color of its skin is varied and, in many apples, richly patterned and textured.  Its shape is distinctive.  It is both new and classic at the same time.  When you bite into one, the sound it makes as you pierce the skin is unlike any other - it sounds as crisp and flavorful as it tastes.

But all is not wonderful about the apple.  At its center is its core, relatively large and nearly universally bitter.  But we are willing to discount this, and then discard it, because of the apple's other features.


All of this is a long lead-in to note the passing of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers and driving force behind so much more.

I was never as much a Steve Jobs fan as many of my contemporaries.  The burnished grey of the TRS-80 and the futuristic white of the Commodore PET were the tools I learned with, instead of the putty colored Apple.  My first exposure to Jobs was in this article in Time Magazine as part of their Man of the Year award to The Computer in 1982, and it did not paint an entirely flattering picture to me.  Re-reading that article last night, written half a lifetime ago, I was struck by some elements that were almost fortune telling - they used the term "reality-distortion field" to discuss how he could convince people of his vision; a quote from Woz that Jobs was not "careful down to the last detail, which is really the key to high-level engineering"; his focus on the "practical applications of technology"; long before he sold Pixar to Disney, becoming its largest shareholder, a former Apple manager commented "he should be running Walt Disney".

Once I started using an Apple, first the ][+ and then a //e, I came to appreciate some of its features, and increasingly the sales genius of Jobs.  As the doomed Lisa and successful Macintosh came out, I continued my love/hate relationship with Jobs and his company.  Up until 3 years ago, I had never met a Mac that didn't crash within 10 minutes of me trying to use it.  I admired the rich design details that Jobs strove for, but for every brilliant element that made my job in technology better, there were at least two that made it worse.

What Jobs sold wasn't unique.  He was not an inventor.  He was, however, one of the best examples of an innovator.  He did not invent the computer, or even the computer he sold - but he sold them to people and not companies.  He did not invent the mouse - he made it a household creature.  He didn't just say that computers were the wave of the future, he provided the graphical surfboard for that wave (to borrow part of a quote from Ted Nelson).  He didn't invent animation, or even computer animation, but he saw how it would transform the industry and drove it that way. He did not invent the digital music player - but he legitimized it.  He did not invent the smartphone, or even make the first successful smartphone, but he convinced the everyman that it would be as personal as they were.  He did not invent the tablet computer - but he made it the new surfboard.

I am still not a Steve Jobs fan (although I now use a Mac).  He had many failures, and did not acknowledge all of them.  There are dark sides to his great successes.  And despite his rabid desire for perfection and attention to detail, I can still rattle off a list of problems in his products.  But every element of criticism stems from the highest expectations and the pursuit for excellence that he inspired.

There will never be another Steve Jobs.  There never should be.  He was as unique as the seeds of an apple.  And until another of his caliber, but different flavor, comes along... we will all graft onto his inspiration and try to bear fruit on our own.