Thursday, October 06, 2011

So Long Steve

1955 - 2011

It's taken awhile for the death of The Steve to sink in. I never knew the man, but certainly knew the fruits of his genius stretching back to the Apple II.

It was the Apple II that helped me finish up my engineering degree. I was always captivated by the 6502 and the products it was used in. During my second attempt at an engineering degree the school lab where I was toiling away on a project had several along a back bench. I was building my own 6502-based embedded system. In order to program mine I would start by writing 6502 mnemonics on multi-column paper and then hand-assemble them on the same page. I'd then walk over to the Apple II and type the resultant hex codes into a chunk of its memory, then use a third-party EPROM programmer to burn the buffer onto the EPROM. I'd then pull the EPROM, plug it into my little system, power it up and debug all the functionality. Lather, rinse, and repeat until it was fully debugged. It wasn't until much later I was able to scrape enough together for a 6502 macro assembler.

I quickly came to know every opcode for the 6502 without having to look it up. I could do hex arithmetic as naturally as regular arithmetic, which came in handy when calculating relative offsets for branch instructions. The project garnered me an A; the hardware and software skills I learned laid the foundation for other embedded system designs I did for pay until the mid-1990s.

My first real engineering job was for Digital Communications Associates (DCA) in Atlanta in 1982. I started out as a customer engineer, then became a software/hardware engineer, then went back out in the field as a field engineer. Along the way I traveled to Silicon Valley to help install DCA's products, which were custom networking systems based on statistical multiplexing. I remember distinctly being out there the fall of 1983 in a local computer store.

I started talking to the manager about the current Apple II systems and how they compared to the IBM PC and newly released PC XT. The manager told me about a new super secret computer that Apple was supposed to release the following year (1984) and how it would change everything. I had no clue that it was the Mac he was talking about.

Soon I was back out in California on another trip. I managed to sneak into the "official" Mac introduction. I guess I wasn't close enough to the RDF, as I left rather quickly, not being too impressed with what I saw. I thought I knew more at the time than I really did and that it was No Big Deal. I knew the specs on the machine, especially the use of the Motorola 68K (yeah!) with 128K of memory (boo!). DCA was using 68000s in their products with 512K of memory. I was hoping Apple would allow for more than 128K. Instead, in January 1985, I picked up the Dr. Dobb's issue, along with the special Torx screwdriver, and fattened my Mac up to 512K.

I hung around the Mac, as it were, until 1987, when I dropped a small fortune on a Macintosh SE. I'd picked it because it came with a 20MB hard drive, expansion capabilities (SE stood for System Expansion), and wonder of wonders, a cooling fan. After that I purchased Intel 386 and later personal computers. It would be almost 20 years before I'd buy another Mac.

From the late 1980s all the way through the 2000s I was a Wintel kind of guy. I wasn't particularly thrilled with Microsoft Windows, choosing instead to work with either DOS or early versions of Unix and Xenix that would run on those platforms.

I still have my Windows 1.0.3 SDK, on 350K floppies. It was an embarrassment and a joke compared to the Mac desktop. I wasn't a real Windows user until Windows 3.1 was introduced in 1989. Before then the only time I used Windows was as a runtime for Microsoft Excel. Real, usable Windows wasn't introduced until 1995 with Windows 95. With Apple in serious decline and Microsoft ascendant, I along with the rest of the world thought Apple was close to dying, not worth considering. That was right before Jobs Second Coming. Boy, were we ever wrong about Apple.

I should note that during the 1990s, while my kids were going through elementary and middle school, that we saw every single movie Pixar produced, starting with Toy Story. My favorite Pixar film? All of them. Every single one.

During the 2000s Jobs produced an incredible stream of innovation. The most important innovation wasn't the products or services, but the destruction of conventional wisdom that only startups could be as innovative. Jobs took a damaged Apple, cleaned it up, and turned it into the juggernaut it is today. But then Jobs was all about breaking with conventional wisdom.

And I've started buying Macs again. My wife has a Macbook, and my daughter has an iMac (that got her through most of her undergraduate work as FSU) and a Macbook Pro. Me, I still have my little iPod Touch 2g. It still works and I still use it.

I never fully appreciated Jobs when he was here, and I'm sure I won't now that he's gone. But I am certainly going to miss him. It hurts, almost like loosing a family member. He was, as someone else wrote, not the kind of genius we deserved, but the kind we needed and got.

So long, Steve, and thanks for all the gifts.

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