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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lives And Legacies Of Steve Jobs And Dennis Ritchie

The month of October 2011 has seen demise of two towering figures from the world of computers, tributes for one of them have been pouring down on the web almost infectiously while a very few people are aware of the death of the other person whose contributions has been incalculable . Of  course, the first one is Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc and Pixar Animation Studios while the other is Dennis Ritchie who built Unix and C programming language. Together they represent the two ends of a spectrum- the digital and the physical world.



I must confess that I am not really sure why Steve Jobs' death turned into an Internet meme,his contributions to computing world or his life history. Jobs did have an interesting and eventful life. Born to a Syrian Muslim father who abandoned him, given up by mother for adoption,dropping out of college because his foster parents couldn't afford it, walking 7 miles for a full free meal at Hare Krishna Center, founding Apple and making it this big has all ingredients of a story of  an individual's triumph over hardships that life offers. However, his single great achievement was his ability to marry artistic perfectionist in him with his entrepreneurship skill. Personally I find solace in the fact that despite his eccentricity,rule-breaking ways he could succeed to the level in a world that worships mediocrity.

However, I do resent the way most obituaries and tributes have portrayed Steve Jobs as a genius who changed the world. I have always followed the latin dictum De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (speak no ill of the dead), so I don't intend to criticize him but his fans seem to have gone overboard in singing paeans of praise. I am yet to be given information on how his work has made the world a better place. He was one of the best entrepreneur, a visionary and and a genius but he was also ruthless businessman interested only in profit. Nearly all his products are not meant for more than 90% of people worldwide because of the exorbitant price, and it wasn't his brain child either. Both Apple and Microsoft had borrowed the idea of mouse driven GUI from Xerox Parc and later fought with each other in the court on charges of stealing the design, followed by Xerox accusing Apple of the same.

So it was not Apple but IBM-Microsoft that took the PC to the masses, they weren't really doing anything different except going cheap and compromising on quality which Steve Jobs wouldn't allow, even if it was hardly affordable to common people across the world. Microsoft has often been criticized of commoditizing shared knowledge and monopolizing the market with it. Apple was a step ahead (or below) when it came to closing access to technology.  A lot of people feel scandalized when I say I don't like Mac. There is no doubt that no other GUI comes anywhere close to the "look and feel" of a Mac but it also gave me the feeling of it being a highly interactive television rather than a computer which I can use in any manner that I want to.  And its not just my discomfort,there is something unethical about making your users completely dependent on you. But those restrictions were nothing when compared to the restriction he imposed on iPod, iPhone and iPad and even on music industry through Apple DRM  restrictions.

Richard M Stallman, GNU founder/guru, rather insensitively blogged 
    Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died. [full post]
However insensitive the comment may be, Stallman's contribution to computing world has been greater as has been other Open Source stalwarts such as Linus Trovalds. Linux today finds use in a variety of devices, from communication satellites to $35 tablet yet I can't remember the last time Linus was in news. The web has become the indispensable communication,collaboration platform and a part of our lives ,yet I wonder how many people surfing web know the name, Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web. Where would Apple (OS built on Unix) or even Microsoft ( C programming) be if Dennis Ritchie did not create Unix and C programming language ? After his death Wired magazine did publish an obituary, Dennis Ritchie:  The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On but even this was more of a lamentation on how supremely apathetic web users were towards the person who laid the foundation on which Steve Jobs and Bill Gates built their business empires. A very fitting (anonymous) tribute found on Web best draws the distinction.

  #include
  int main()
  {
    printf("goodbye, dad");
    return 0;
  }

  What Apple (and Microsoft) fan boys and girls need to understand is that despite his creative genius his efforts were aimed only at making profit, not giving something to the world. What if Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Trovalds , Dennis Ritchie, Larry Wall and a whole bunch of people like them had adopted Steve Jobs' attitude ? Similarly, in every walk of life, it is not the contributing individual who is given recognition but the already popular one. Isn't it ironic that in this post too, almost everything is about Steve Jobs ? I have made just passing references to Dennis Ritchie, Tim Berners-Lee, Richard M Stallman, Linus Trovalds, Ken Thompson and Larry Wall. !  

Nearly all of them and more had far less eventful lives,their existence known only to those in the programming circles not the share-holders and neither mainstream journalists. I don't think they care much, they are too busy researching, innovating to take computing to the next level, until a lucky entrepreneur  comes along. Products,however, advanced and sophisticated would with time and competition become obsolete, but technologies like Unix and C are the building blocks of the digital world and here to stay.


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