Monday, October 10, 2011

Jobs as innovator; the evolution of a concept

from "Steve Jobs, patent pending" :

It was the fall of 1979 and Jobs was the 24-year old co-founder of a small computer startup. He wrangled a deal with Xerox, offering to sell them $1 million worth of pre-IPO Apple stock in exchange for sharing some of the ideas they'd developed.

Among the inventions the Xerox engineers showed off that afternoon was the Alto, a device that was arguably the first personal computer. The Alto was never a commercial product, but it had a number of features that Jobs realized were revolutionary. While most computers of the era relied on a command line interface — where users had to type in instructions from a keyboard — the Alto had a graphical user interface. One could use a mouse, another startling new invention, to control a cursor on the screen, clicking on an icon to open a document.


The idea for the mouse actually originated at Stanford University in the '60s, where researcher Douglas Engelbart was studying human-computer interaction. In 1970 he received patent No. 3,541,541 for what he called an "X-Y position indicator for a display system." His invention never really made it out of the lab.

The folks at Xerox were focused on building a graphical user interface, and that required a mouse or some other sort of non-keyboard interface. Their version of a mouse was better than Engelbart's, but it was still clunky, hard to use and cost $1,000 to produce.

Jobs noticed that when the Xerox engineers were using it, they had to look at the mouse to figure out which of the three buttons they were pressing. He knew that for it to really work, users needed to have their eyes on the monitor. And for it to be viable as a commercial product, he needed to figure out how to build it for $15.

And that's what he did, taking a crudely realized concept and turning it into to a commercial product. It wasn't merely taking someone else's idea, but improving on it. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an article for the New Yorker: "If you lined up Engelbart's mouse, Xerox's mouse, and Apple's mouse, you would not see the serial reproduction of an object. You would see the evolution of a concept."

The real genius of Jobs was his role as an innovator, not as inventor:

And therein lay Jobs' true genius. He didn't invent smartphones or tablet computers or MP3 players. But he knew how to make them better and more accessible to a mass market. He knew that by making things sleek, simple and intuitive, he could take a great idea out of the labs and put it into the hands of millions of consumers.

***In passing, note


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