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    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Newton's Apple

A visionary is someone who has foresight beyond the horizon that limits the vision of those around him. This word is often thrown around carelessly, but in the case of Steve Jobs, who passed away last night, this description is truly appropriate. As Issac Newton once wrote in a letter to a friend, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The same can be said of Steve Jobs, who was in some ways the Issac Newton of the personal computer.

Issac Newton realized the impact of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler while his contemporaries were still trapped in a geocentric Aristotelian universe. Similarly, Steve Jobs realized the true impact of the graphical user interface, the internet, and wireless communications. Ironically, the two inventions for which Jobs will be most remembered were invented by other people, but it was Steve Jobs who would bring these ideas to their fullest potential.

The graphical user interface was developed by Xerox. In 1979, Jobs was given a glimpse of the Xerox Alto which Xerox had stored away in a back room. Xerox failed to grasp the potential of the personal computer and by the time Xerox began to take interest, Jobs had already created the enormously successful Apple Macintosh. For the first time, the power of the computer was available to ordinary non-technical people at an affordable price.

Similarly, before there were smart phones, there was the aptly named Apple Newton, which was created in the 1990’s while Jobs was running Pixar. The CEO of Apple at the time, John Sculley, even coined the phrase, “personal digital assistant.” Unfortunately, the Newton tried to accomplish too much, too quickly, and was limited by the high cost of miniaturized components at the time. Also, the Newton was created before cell phone networks had the capability to provide wireless internet connectivity. As a result, it was an enormous flop.

After his return to Apple in 1996, Jobs aggressively restructured the company to focus on its core strengths. As always, the hallmark of Jobs genius was the simplicity and intuitive nature of his products. The iPod and iPhone can trace their beginnings back to the Xerox Alto and the Apple Newton, but it was Jobs who built on the work of others to make these ideas attractive, profitable, easy to use, and ubiquitous. In short, Steve Jobs put the internet in your pocket.

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