Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bicycles for the mind... A Steve Jobs talk from long ago.


In the Introduction talk to Udacity CS101, Professor Evans mentions Steve Jobs having compared computers to "bicycles for the mind".
I think I've now stumbled across the talk where Jobs more or less said that. Run time for the Jobs talk is about 20 minutes. The bicycle reference is around the 6 minute mark in the Jobs video. Evans attributed the quote to circa 1990, but the talk is said to be from 1980, and given Steve's youthful appearance in the video, I believe the 1980 date.

Speaking of small errors, one of the annoying things in Jobs talk is he speaks of meeting with some 4th and 5th graders, but he then calls them 4-5 year-olds. I think 9-11 year-olds would be a lot closer to correct. 20 kids and 6 Apple computers? What a depressing student/machine ratio that would be these days!

Jobs mentions Visicalc in his talk like that is something that everybody in the audience knows of. But here we are some 30+ years later and I'm no longer sure that you all know what Visicalc was. Happily, Wikipedia remembers. Even if you remember Visicalc, I recommend that you visit the Wikipedia page. It has some wonderful interesting links, including one that lets you download a free copy of Visicalc for your x86 Windows PC. That version was written for DOS 1.0 so it only works within the current directory. DOS 1.0 didn't have directories, just disk drives. Most folks back then didn't have disks with any more capacity than a 5.25" floppy disk. In 1980, that would have maybe been 140KB of storage space.

One other link to particularly take note of is the one that asks "What if Visicalc had been patented?". If you haven't been paying attention to the arguments about software patents and why they are not good for the economy, you really should Google up some background reading for yourself, maybe sit through a Richard Stallman talk or 2 about "intellectual property". Be forewarned that Stallman's talk is a 2 hour talk, so take a bathroom break and get yourself a fresh mug of coffee, tea, or whatever before you fire up the Stallman talk.

If I'm going to mention Steve Jobs and Richard Stallman in the same blog post, it is probably appropriate for me to point also you to this short video where Stallman contrasts his own accomplishments vs. those of Jobs and of Bill Gates.

Time marches on, but progress?

Listening to Jobs 1980 predictions for what the heck we'd do with even more computing power, I can't help but be disappointed with how little real progress we've made on that front. The computing power has, of course, materialized as predicted, and I suppose the graphical user interfaces of Windows, MacOS and web browsers is something of a usability improvement compared to DOS 1.0, but I was sending e-mail and posting netnews items aplenty back in 1980 and it isn't like that process is hugely different today. To keep things in perspective, the Macintosh computer was introduced in 1984. Here's an early 1984 video of Steve Jobs giving a timeline leading up to the Macintosh. It's only about 7 minutes long and includes the famous "1984" teaser ad for the Macintosh; an ad still worth watching, in my opinion. Here's a 10 minute video of Steve Jobs actually introducing and demonstrating the Macintosh.

Still, if you have a problem that you want to solve with a computer, are the barriers to solving your problem significantly lower today or about the same despite the powerful GUI computers that are now available today? If there's an existing product that fits your needs ("there's an app for that"), your path is easy, but if you really need custom software, perhaps a custom database, I expect you still have a rough road ahead. "Cobol is to Visicalc as Y is to Z", but what are Y and Z?

Comparing the Python language to the programming languages of 1980 (C, PL/I, Cobol, Fortran) I guess there's some evidence of our having learned to apply plentiful compute power to making the programming job a little easier, but there's still a steep hill to climb to bring computers to bear on your problem, whatever your problem might be. The Internet, the World Wide Web and search engines seems to be the most evident signs of progress in the computing world since 1980. I do wish the world had more progress to show on reducing the barriers to applying computers to solve problems given the passage of 30+ years since that Jobs talk. Are there specific improvements in the computing world that I'm overlooking here and not giving proper credit to? Should smartphones get mention or are they just scaled down screens with battery powered small computers.

If I was better at HTML, maybe I could rig this article to provide background music as you read the previous paragraph. Or am I being too sentimental about lack of technological progress?

If you are completely unfamiliar with Stallman's contributions to the notions of "free software", you might give a quick read of a past blog post of my own as a way to get started at understanding software licensing and Stallman's GPL in particular: See "Copied Code or Unfortunate Coincidence".

06/11/2014 - Updated: The Steve Jobs talk link went bad! Why didn't anyone tell me with a comment so I'd know? Anyhow, I found a link that works (today).