My thoughts on Steve Jobs

[editor's note:  I wrote this in August when Steve announced his retirement but I never published it.   Steve Jobs' death was announced this afternoon.] Today Steve Jobs announced he is resigning from Apple, although he is retaining his role as Chairman of the Board. He has been on medical leave for most of the year but this is his admission that he will not be able to return to full strength in his role at Apple.

This is not just about the CEO of a large electronics company stepping down - What this really means though is that he is admitting he is done with his multi-decade tenure of shaping the personal computer industry.

To say that Steve Jobs "made computers" is the understatement of the century, so really this announcement is admitting the end of his influence on the cell phone industry, the personal electronics industry, the music industry, and dare I say, the entire Internet.

There's a very personal aspect to this as well, since Steve Jobs' products and vision have influenced me since the very beginning.  My first exposure to computers was an Apple ][ in elementary school, programming in Applesoft Basic.  In high school I moved to Macintosh.  By the time I hit college I had a NeXT, later becoming the NeXTStep admin for the network of NeXTs.  I applied to work at Apple in 1997 on the CHIRP (Common Harware Reference Platform) team but that team got shut down when Steve returned to Apple.  I ended up being an intern for Apple as a grad student in 2003 which fulfilled a life-long dream to work for Apple.

Because I worked in the MacOS group, my office was in Infinite Loop-1, the same building as Steve, but two floors down.   I parked next to him in the parking structure and I thought it was cool that he parked right next to the "rest of us."   I crossed paths with him a few times but most people just stayed out of his way, lest they incur his wrath by catching him on a bad day.   There's a long-told tale that Steve Jobs had a reputation for arbitrarily asking random employees what they did for Apple and firing people who didn't have a good enough answer.   They say "never get into an elevator with Steve Jobs" because in the time it takes to pass a few floors you might be grilled about your value and lose your job.

One day I was walking across the lobby back from lunch and I saw Steve walking across the lobby for the elevator to his 4th floor office.  I'm on the second floor and I usually take the stairs but the chance to take the elevator with him and perhaps have a chance to defend my purpose was too much to pass up.   We both got on, he hit '4' and I hit '2' and looked off into space, not giving him any undue attention or otherwise acting "weird" around him.   The doors didn't close.   The silence got awkward.   He looked at me, looked at the lit buttons on the elevator, looked at me again, and walked right out, leaving me (at the fitness peak of my life) standing all alone waiting to take an elevator up one floor.

Sure, I was probably wasting his time by adding an extra stop.  Sure, I was just some pukey intern trying to stand next to Steve Jobs for a minute.   It was selfish but it was worth it.  I got into an elevator with Steve Jobs and escaped with my life!

I haven't worked for Apple since then but I live in Silicon Valley and I have a lot of friends who work there, and it is clear that the work they do is still directly influenced by Steve.

Mac Pro: not enough ports!

I'm moving my desk and computer around which means disconnecting the entire thing and reconnecting it in another room. So this is a fine time to think about the design of the Mac Pro, as it relates to ports on connectivity. There are some real nice features of the machine but a few disappointments. As usual with Apple products, remedying the downsides would be trivial and cheap so we must assume that Apple just didn't think about these things, or thought about them but decided they knew better than us how a machine should be designed. I should start off by clarifying that I'm talking about the Mac Pro desktop - not a laptop, and not a lower cost machine. This is the big machine that people buy when space, weight, power consumption, and cost are no issue. People buying this machine want the best, most powerful, most flexible machine available and they're will to pay over $3,000 to get it. Also, they're probably Apple fans.

First the good points:

  • USB and firewire ports on the front and back. I love the ports on the front, for things that I attach for short periods of time. Way better than having to reach around to the back of the machine for a quick connection.
  • Four internal drive bays. This is great for expandability. I'm using one bay for the boot drive and two bays for a striped RAID for performance. I use the fourth bay when I'm building up a new boot drive, which I do whenever a new major version of Mac OS comes out.
  • Two optical bays. This would be great for me if I cared enough to have a second optical drive. It costs less than $100 but I've only ever needed two at one time once. I REALLY like that you can install a SSD boot drive up there and regain another regular drive bay if you have lots of cash and need more space. I don't do this, but check out Diglloyd's Mac Performance Website for more info about that.
  • Lots of PCI slots. Now that more applications are taking advantage of GPU coprocessing I should get off my duff and buy a modern video card. It'll make some things in Photoshop faster, apparently. I like that I can put a few video cards in there and have a ton of monitors because often screen space is worth more than CPU speed.

Now let's talk about what I don't like.

  • Not enough USB ports! I generally have the following USB devices connected to my desktop Mac:
    • keyboard
    • mouse
    • Wacom tablet
    • HP printer/scanner/fax
    • Canon photo printer
    • docking station for Garmin bike computer

    That's six items that I would prefer to connect to the back, but there are only 3 ports. Yes, I can buy a powered hub but I'd prefer not to. It's one more thing to plug in and a ton more wires.

  • No balanced audio. I'd like to see balanced audio in and out. I'm talking 1/4" TRS or XLR ports, which are industry standard on professional audio equipment. I realize there's optical audio in and out but the things I'd like to connect to (a Mackie mixing board, or my home stereo) don't have optical.Yes, I could buy an external firewire sound module with tons of balanced ins and outs, but a basic stereo in and out is all I'm asking for. I've never heard anyone else bitch about this so perhaps I'm the only one who misses this.

That's about it. I'm very happy with the machine overall. It's a lot faster than my laptop and I love working with the full size mouse and keyboard, as well as multiple monitors. The built-in RAID stripe is big and fast with no external cables which is really nice.

I'm just sayin' that there could be a few more ports on it, that's all.

Embracing the iPhone in small steps

Thanks to a hand-me-down 32 GB iPhone 3GS, I'm giving the iPhone another try. Things are working out a lot better this time around, even though I'm still kicking and screaming while resisting being sucked all the way into the Apple Reality Distortion Field. I've got an iPhone but I haven't activated the phone service with AT&T so for me it's really just a little tiny tablet computer. In my last blog post I ranted against using the iPad as a content _creation_ device, but it's clear that it makes an excellent content _consumption_ device. And for the purposes of this blog, that means viewing photos. It turns out the iPod is a pretty cool little photo viewer. The biggest drawback is obviously the screen size but the quality of the photos (sharpness, color, etc.) seems to be pretty good.

I don't use iPhoto and the machine I sync my iPhone on is not the machine that my photos live on so there are a few little hoops to jump through but it's not bad. The saving grace is that Apple gives you the option of syncing a directory hierarchy of photos to the device instead of syncing from iPhoto: First I tell iTunes to sync photos from the "iPhonePhotos" directory on my laptop's desktop. Then I just mount that directory over the local network and export groups of photos from Lightroom in whatever structure I want and iTunes takes care of the rest. It's not as cumbersome as it may sound. Yes, MobileMe would probably make it easier, but oh well. I'm pretty happy with this solution.

Next time you see me, ask to see some photos on the iPhone!

Camera Bits (Photo Mechanic) President describes why the iPad is a non-starter for photographers as an editing platform

There are a lot of photographers that saw the iPad and immediately thought it would make an excellent mobile platform for downloading pictures from a camera, quick editing, and uploading to the Web. Well, there are a lot of reasons why this isn't so. The two main reasons are power and openness: 1) Power: Photo editing requires a lot of computing horsepower. 20 Megapixel, 16 bit images are BIG, and giving you instant feedback when you move those brightness sliders around takes a ton of computing which the poor little iPad/iPod/iPhone just doesn't have. Also, since the hardware is so hobbled with respect to I/O, you have trouble just getting your photos onto the device.

2) Openness: Assuming hardware power wasn't a problem you would still be up against Apple's stance about app development in the iPad ecosystem. As Dennis Walker pointed out in his letter below, "the iPad is meant for the consumption of media, not the production of media content." Apple won't let you read from flash cards and they won't let you access the filesystem. Combined with the threat of having your app pulled if it becomes too full-featured (a full-featured app might be pulled for duplicating Apple functionality), and there's really no way to expect a serious photo application on the platform.

These have always been my thoughts and now Dennis Walker, the President of software company Camera Bits has written a blog entry saying just as much. You can read his blog entry here.

He goes into more detail than I could but his essay mirrors my thoughts exactly. I'm amazed how excited people are getting about tablet computing. I'm a firm believer in the laptop and I really wish Apple would make a netbook. But an iPad isn't the right tool.