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Ken North

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Steve Jobs: 35 Years of Vision and Innovation

October 06, 2011

During my career of several decades, the computing, software, and database industries have seen people we'd call a "flash in the pan." They made a brief contribution and then faded away. In another class are the innovators and visionaries whose lives had a significant impact on the technology we use. Unlike the former type, the contribution of people in this group was not marked by a singular moment of brilliance.

Previously in this blog, I've written about Grace Hopper and Ken Olsen, two people who helped shape the history of computing. Add Steve Jobs to that list.

Steve Jobs was an industry icon whose vision and continual innovation benefited us for decades. Besides being an important influence on technology, he was the founder of several important companies and helped steer the course of the music industry.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak didn't invent the microcomputer, but their Apple computer expanded the base of users beyond the hobbyists who were building personal computers. Steve Jobs didn't invent digital audio, but he understood how the iPod and iTunes could change the listening habits of millions (and generate billions in revenue for Apple).

Younger Apple enthusiasts might be unaware that Steve Jobs was forced out of the company in 1985 and launched other ventures before returning in 1997 to resuscitate Apple. Jobs founded NeXT computer, a company that produced a high-end workstation in 1988. A NeXT computer used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee became the first web server on the Internet. NeXT stopped manufacturing hardware in 1993, but continued to innovate in operating systems and software until Apple acquired it in 1996. Today's Mac OS X software is derived from the NeXTSTEP operating system.

Steve Jobs didn't invent digital video but he recognized its importance. Dick Shoup, Alvy Ray Smith, and Ed Catmull had a history of work with the leading edge of graphics and video, and with Alex Schure, they wanted to create the first computer-generated feature film. The researchers were not happy with the initial product and eventually they migrated to Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). When George Lucas experienced money problems due to a divorce, he had to divest himself of his "Pixar" division. Steve Jobs stepped in with an offer and purchased Pixar in 1986. The company produced the Pixar Image Computer, created a variety of innovative software, and received multiple Academy Awards for technical excellence. Pixar's success with Toy Story led to a contract with Disney, and a string of successful animated films, including A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL_E, and Cars. Jobs sold Pixar to Disney in 2006, becoming Disney's largest stockholder and a member of the Disney board.

As we celebrate Steve Jobs' life, we should remember the important work he did throughout his entire career, not just the years at Apple. In doing so, we are reminded of the breadth of his success and vision, and that he had a long-running history of innovation.

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