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Thursday
Oct062011

Never trust a computer you can’t lift 

Last night, in her reporting on Steve Jobs’s death, Rachel Maddow played a clip from the introduction of the very first Macintosh. If you’ve never seen it before (and I don’t think I had) it’s worth a watch:

 

At around 3:22, the voice synthesizer on the Mac reads this phrase:
I’d like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: NEVER TRUST A COMPUTER YOU CAN’T LIFT!

The crowd at the demo goes nuts at this, as they should - it’s a well-phrased snark at the then industry standard. But watching it now, with my iPhone, iPad, iPod, and MacBook all close at hand, it’s a promise of the future.

What “never trust a computer you can’t lift” really means is that your computer should fit into your life, not the other way around. The first Mac didn’t just have the infamous handle, it had a carrying case  so you could take it to class with you.  It had a graphical user interface and a mouse, so you didn’t have to spend years in school, or keep a cheat sheet of key commands on your desk, to get it to add 2+2. It made it easy to make things look good, because people appreciate beauty, and it had an engaging personality. One of my friends kept his Mac Classic alive and running well into the 90s; when another friend walked into his apartment and saw it, she ran up to it and gave it a hug. 

Steve Jobs didn’t come up with the idea of making the way people think and act the center of the computing experience. But just like he did with the mouse and the graphical user interface, he took an under-appreciated vision and he built the team that made it a standard. There would almost certainly still be a profession like interaction design if there had never been an Apple. But it would have fewer tools, fewer resources, fewer success stories, and it would almost certainly be a lot smaller. I owe Steve Jobs for frog design, and the six years I spent there, but I also owe him so many of my friends who never worked there at all. 

Particularly as someone who spends a lot of time designing for mobile UIs, I owe Steve Jobs a huge thanks. I love to tell the story of the way the frogNY studio reacted to the original iPhone keynote: there was honest-to-God jumping up and down and screaming. And that wasn’t because we were all giant Apple nerds, although we were - it was because we’d all worked on mobile projects that had gone nowhere. You’d come up with something innovative for a telco, but they couldn’t get the handset manufacturers on board, and vice-versa. None of the ideas behind the iPhone were things I hadn’t seen in concept pieces — what made it extraordinary was that it was finally real. Apple was one of the few companies that could have come in and broken the mobile industry’s logjam, and probably the only one of that handful that would do so thoughtfully and usably. Everything that has happened since to make our telephones into our mobile assistants, smart extensions of our homes and lives, comes in some way from that moment. No wonder people were jumping up and down. 

Last month I sat with my nephew at his first birthday party and showed him how to scroll through the pictures on my iPhone. He sat transfixed, watching pictures of himself and his sisters go back and forth on the screen. It must have seemed to him, like it still seems to me, like magic. Steve Jobs was no magician, but he gave the designers and engineers he hired a vision, a goal, and a standard to meet. All of us who make things for other people to use are in his debt, and we’ll continue to carry his computers — now even easier to lift.

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