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Computing visionaries today?

Recently I read some things about the early Apple Computer corporation -- books about Apple, and some early Usenet posts about the company.

And I was struck by how visionary the company was.  Not necessarily visionary in a technical sense, but in a social sense -- Steve Jobs had brilliant insight into how to make computers friendly and accessible and fun to use.

People on this board trash Apple as a company that is mainly fashion- and design- and lifestyle-driven, but to me Apple is brilliant in a much deeper sense.  This company understood how to make technology intriguing to people who are not techies.  And in that sense, they created the world that employs us today.  They helped nourish the demand for technology that keeps us employed (well, those of us who ARE employed).  You might never have become a programmer if not for Apple.

In a sense, Steve Jobs's visionary status was only possible because he combined a certain degree of technical knowledge, with an ability to be a dazzlingly persuasive evangelist for technology.

There is an early Usenet post describing a classic Steve Jobs encounter (I'd give you the link but I can't find it at the moment).  He sat next to a Congressman on a plane trip, and by the end of the plane trip, he had "sold" the congressman on the importance of computers for education, and landmark legislation was introduced not much later.

Like Steve Jobs or not, that episode shows why Steve Jobs is a leader, a visionary, a legendary figure.  He wasn't really a techie in way many of you regard yourselves as techies -- but he was a leader who understood technology as well as any of us, and so, in an important sense, he made this industry what it is.

So, my question is, who do you think the computing visionaries are today?  Or has something in the industry changed so that "visionary" contributions are unlikely?

programmer
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The computer industry is now a mature industry.

Once it was interesting, now it's full of drones, the type of people who once used to get jobs for a lifetime in banks, and large insurance companies and such like.

There is no need of any more vision. The deal's been done.

Realist
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Was Steve Jobs visionary? Or was he egotistical and the Apple just happened to be the right thing at the right time?

If you read some histories of Jobs and Woz and Apple I think you'll realize it's the latter. I realized Jobs had no clothes when the iMac had no floppy drive - Jobs had a "vision" that floppies should go away and forced it down the market's throat. The market reacted by ignoring the iMac.

As for current "Visionaries" - how about Bezos? Dell? McConnell? Spolsky? ;)

Philo

Philip Janus
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

...market ignoring iMac? Huh? What are you talking about?

AFAIK, iMac was one of the most successful computer products ever.

raindog
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

programmer,

agree with you, that is why apples have a single button on their mouse:-)

Prakash S
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Steve Jobs isn't a visionary, he's a salesman.  He's very good at recognising people with smart ideas (you know, actual visionarys), co-opting them, selling them, and taken credit.

Rodger Donaldson
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

coopting people ....like Woz, Roger?

The problem is you need a less mature industry for visionaries like Woz and Raskin and and other folks.  And generally what is released of theirs is a mere half-baked idea compared to their real idea -- the web is a big example of this one.

So find a new area of computing and there will be visionaries in that area.  We had those for the web, although we had a lot of psuedo-visionaries out to carve a chunk of the great wild web west.

Most true visionaries end up with brilliant creations that never make it out of the garage.  I know some people like this.  And lately, culture jamming and weird art are popular alternatives.

w.h.
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Paul Graham is a visionary in my opinion http://www.paulgraham.com

Read some of his articles on server based computing over the web.

Matthew Lock
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

My vote would go for Micheal Dell, Bill Gates & Mark Cuban (yup, you are reading it right.) in that order.

Prakash S
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

"My vote would go for Micheal Dell, Bill Gates & Mark Cuban (yup, you are reading it right.) in that order."

These are all businessmen and salesmen.  Mr. Dell keeps his inventory low and his price high.  Mr. Gates pretends to write code while pursuing his monopoly and giving away money that he feels "bad" about having.  Mr. Cuban watches HD TV all day.  Nothing really visionary here.

Woc, delleps drawkcab
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I'm not intimately familiar with how Dell has done what he's done, but he took a true garage business to the leading hardware provider in the nation. I realized last month that even the corporate standard has switched from Compaq servers to Dell servers.

And BTW, "salesman" and "visionary" are not mutually exclusive. Bill Gates is a salesman, no doubt. But his realization that catering to the developer would win him the market was truly visionary.

Philo

Philip Janus
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Odd, but developing every day with M$ tools, I hardly feel "catered to". "Assumed to be willing to pull my hair out for hours trying to figure out how this #@$^##@ API call works" is more like it.

sgf
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Programmer,

The fact that I am coding is down to Sir Clive Sinclair, who made computing so affordable it could be viewed by parents as an educational toy.  Commodore did the same thing.

Jobs just made the computer accessible to the Yuppie.

There are certainly no more visionaries like Sinclair.  This is why the field is now less interesting.

Oh, its also why computers are more reliable.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

david gelernter  is a visionary.  He main idea is that storage is so cheap that computers should never forget anything, and give us simple ways to extract a file, picture, e-mail, etc we've ever viewed.

IanRae
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

People who claim that the computer industry is now so mature that it is no longer interesting, and that there are no more visionaries, remind me of the (urban legend?) story about the patent clerk in the early 1900's who says that he will have a cush and lazy career because everything that could possibly be invented had already been thought of and that there was no room for more ideas. After all, how could you possibly think of in idea more advanced than the steam engine?

I don't think that there is any way to identify today's true visionaries. They are currently toiling in a lab somewhere or writing code in some tiny obscure language that no-one has ever heard of. By the time their work gets recognized as being great, it will become massively commercial, and that person will get labelled as a sell-out or a salesman.

And perhaps the label is apt. By the time their vision becomes fulfilled, many visionaries become advocates for their existing ideas rather than going back into the lab to think of new ones. I don't see anything wrong with that, of course. It's just the way it is.

Benji Smith
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Ged --

Saying Steve Jobs "just made computers accessible to yuppies" is revisionist history.  It's just not true.  Apple became famous for producing computers used largely in schools.  A brilliant move, too -- a whole generation of children was introduced to Apples in that way, as I was.

The early Apples were by no means yuppie accessories, as you suggest.  They were good, serious computers.

On the other hand, the Sinclair/Timex computer (my first computer, by the way) was not nearly as influential as the Apple.  It wasn't a serious computer in the way the Apple was.

So, in my view, there is no comparing the influence of Apple/Jobs with the influence of Sinclair.  The Sinclair computers are dwarfed by the influence of Apples.

programmer
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

I think the importance of various figures depends to a large extent on your own position / nationality.  In the UK during the 80s Apples were not in schools, and certainly were not obtainable.  Sinclair was the old school techie, Alan Sugar was the clever salesman who popularised the PC.  Many still remember their PCW wordprocessors with great fondness.

I understand that in the states the Timex was very much a fringe machine.  Here in the UK the affect of the Sinclair Spectrum was massive.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

"And BTW, "salesman" and "visionary" are not mutually exclusive. Bill Gates is a salesman, no doubt. But his realization that catering to the developer would win him the market was truly visionary."

Bill Gates did not become significant by catering to the developers, he became significant because he catered to the general, non-technical public. Until Bill Gates, computers were pretty much only for techies and developers, leaving the public out of it. Whether out of some vision or simply the realization that "hmm, the general public, well, there's a couple hundred million of them, but only a tiny fraction of them are developers/techies, so maybe I'll make more money by selling to the rest of the non-tech general public." He simply chose a much bigger market to target, whatever else he may have done, for whatever reason.

I'm not saying anything about whether his products for the ordinary person or for the developer are either good or bad, simply that catering to the developer certainly never seems to have been his 'vision', nor is it what distinguished him from his competitors at the time.

Steve Case at AOL is another example of this -- in the days back around 91-92 or so, when AOL install fit on a 3-1/2" floppy, and compuserve members laughed and ridiculed AOL as being to 'simple-minded', Steve Case and AOL captured the massive market of the non-tech, low-speed, high-drag, general public. Hell, AOL even ended up buying compuserve, who couldn't begin to keep up.  A key thing he did was to target the larger market, just like Gates.

anonQAguy
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

" Until Bill Gates, computers were pretty much only for techies and developers, leaving the public out of it."

Not sure I agree here. In grade school (early 80's) I was using Apples.  Many of my friends had them too.  Those who didn't (they had "IBM Compatible" computers), were generally stuck at C:\

I would say that catering to the grade school population (and thier families) is a sizeable accomplishment, to a fairly non technical group.

apw
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

[There is no need of any more vision. The deal's been done.]

Realist, you are wrong. In the 19th century someone claimed that science had made all the important discoveries, and there was no point in young men studying physics because there would be nothing for physicists to do.
We may have reached some kind of plateau now that we have web browsers, word processors, databases and spreadsheets, but computers are still in many ways very stupid. There is infinite room for improvement. And in improving the intelligence of computers we will be learning an amazing amount about natural intelligence and about ourselves.
You are also forgetting that there will be dramatic changes and improvements in hardware. What about quantum computers, or whatever else is being developed? What about finding ways for computers to communicate directly with our brains? There are infinite possibilities if you have an open mind and some imagination.
And even just considering the hardware and the types of software we have today, there is so much that hasn't been done in terms of processing information and making it accessible.

PC
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

apw:

ok, I concede your point. There was a period where Apple/MAC were arguably dominanant in the marketplace compared to the PC/Clones.

So, ok -- other than those relatively few in the general public who were happily using apple/mac's, most of the other personal computers were in the hands of the techie-hobbiest community, not the bulk of the general public. Most of the general public went without at home (well, without computers, that is ;-)

Personal computers -- of any flavor -- were clearly not 'everywhere' in the late 70s through the late 80s like they are today.

Speaking just about Bill Gates, independently from any similar contributions anyone else may have made, Bill's significance derived from his decision, like Steve Case did, made the 'everyman' their target market, **not** developers.

That was my point--I was disagreeing with an earlier poster who'd asserted that Bill was visionary because he had catered to developers.

anonQAguy
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Ged Byrne -

Question -- Since you indicate you're in (or were in) the UK, wasn't Commodore pretty big in Europe up to maybe the late 80s?

I was following them at the time here in the US because an oddball Commodore model was my first PC. It seemed that here in the US, the Commodore 64 was fairly popular overall, and was the only meaningfully popular Commodore model of any kind over here. Overall, my perception was that Commodore was a much more significant player in Europe than here in the US.

Do you happen to recall if such was the case, or not?

Just curious,
Thanks,

anonQAguy
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Damn - flubbed that:
"...Bill's significance derived from his decision, like Steve Case did, made the 'everyman' their target market, **not** developers...."

should be:
...Bill's significance, like Steve Case's, derived from his decision to make the 'everyman' his target market, **not** developers..."

anonQAguy
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

w.h. - not just with Woz, but also with many of the NeXT and Pixar crew.  There are a lot of very talented people in both those organisations with whom Jobs appears to enjoy an Edison like relationship.

To be honest, the guys I admire most are the ones like Woz and Paul Allen who change the world, make some money, and know when to get out and enjoy their lives (in a very worthwhile fashion, in Woz's case).

Rodger Donaldson
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Why bother looking? It's like asking what's on tv? Okay, fog creek's discussion group is a little like watching TV--Tech TV more like. Anyone can innovate, anyone can sell a good idea. You can do it if you want.

Li-fan Chen
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

anonQAguy: The C64 was very big in many Commonwealth countries, as was the predecessor (the Vic 20) and the Amiga.  Ditto the Atari ST, the Spectrum, and the various Acorn computers.

Rodger Donaldson
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

AnonQAGuy,

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Compared to the Spectrum, the Commodore 64 was from the future. It used the Vic-20's full-size keyboard, it had 64K of memory, 16 colours with none of the Spectrum's attribute clash, sprite graphics, a 40 column screen and a built-in sound chip. Like all the Spectrum's other competitors its only weakness was its price - Ł350 on its launch in Britain. However, it would prove to be Sinclair's only real rival for the next five years, even if it never managed to dislodge the Spectrum from the number one spot. In America, its absolute dominance meant that no other manufacturer even got a look in and the way it was aggressively marketed almost put Atari out of business.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Taken from http://www.zxgoldenyears.co.uk/1982.html .

The key thing was the price.  £350 was more than the average family could afford.  It was the Sinclair machines that made computer affordable.  Half the price of a 64.  Commodore were then forced to lower the price to compete.

There does seem to be a great atlantic devide here.  In the UK most children had a computer at home before they had access to one at school.  When they did arrive in school a group would have to huddle around a single Acorn machine.

Before Windows 95 the PC was seen strictly as a business machine.  The Commodore Amiga was the machine that most people had at home.

Back then the PC has CGA graphics and an internal beeper.  While the PC had DOS, the Amiga had a full WIMP environment with multitasking.  It took half a decade for the PC to catch up with the Amiga in terms of multimedia capabilities.  The Amiga ruled at home, and MACs were mainly used for DTP.

Ged Byrne
Thursday, February 13, 2003

http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_computing_1980-1989

This is an interesting Wikipedia entry.  The Lisa and Mac entered the market after the Commodore and Sinclair machines, at 10 times the cost!  I'm afraid the argument that Apple brought the computer to the masses seems a little weak.

They did, however, have the first GUI.  I think they were definately pioneers and visionaries in the field of HCI.

Ged Byrne
Thursday, February 13, 2003

Ged,

You do know that the Mac was not the first Apple computer? Check the previous page of the wikipedia on the 1970s.

Ed the Millwright
Thursday, February 13, 2003

At $1298 the Apple II was still priced out of the income for most people.  My argument is that their machines were not for the 'masses'

Once again they led the field with the interface - the first home computer to have color graphics.

The Apple I was chear ($666.66) but it was scrictly for the hobbiest.

I'm not trying to distract from the companies importance in terms of technical innovation, they were always ahead of the pack.  Its the claim that Steve Jobs is responsible for us all having access to a computer that I dispute.

Ged Byrne
Friday, February 14, 2003

Is is fair to say the gaming drives the hardware technology?  Advances in graphics hardware/ cpu's to handle graphics, fast memory to move data from the computer and out to the screen - all of these advances aided the PC to become what it is today.  Too bad todays GUI and software to run against it didn't follow that same aggressive path (high quality, low cost)

To find the answer I would look at gaming and its evolution.

apw
Friday, February 14, 2003

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