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Hayashi Nobuo ”Delving into the minds of the heroes of the digital revolution”

The same dream that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs saw:
A personal computer that anyone can use simply by looking at it

June 14, 2019

In today’s world, where there is an overflow of information, and everything is becoming digitalized, ”touchable digital technologies” have become commonplace. But not so long ago, there was a time when touch panels were considered magical in comparison to operations using the mouse.

What were the dreams of our forerunners about the future digital world? In the first part of this series, let’s focus in particular to the time when the personal computer was born and look into what was going on inside the minds of our forerunners.

Bill Gates: ”That ‘s not realistically possible!”

More than thirty years ago, when I was associate editor of Nikkei Personal Computing, I had the chance to sit face-to-face with Bill Gates, who was visiting Japan to conduct a business review of their Japanese subsidiaries, around a sunken kotatsu at Yamazato, a Japanese cuisine/tempura restaurant at Hotel Okura in Tokyo. This was before Windows came into shape.

”Why are MS-DOS-based personal computers very difficult to use? If it’s difficult for me, who have learned about minicomputer OS in college, ordinary businessmen and housewives won’t be able to use it all! Why don’t you make your computers the way Apple makes the Macintosh?”

Even before I could finish my question, Bill Gates replied angrily while stamping his feet on the slatted wooden floor under the kotatsu, ”There is no way you can do that with today’s CPU memory capacity! There is a price limitation for the memory that can be installed into personal computers for ordinary consumers, and we are providing the best environment possible within that limitation!!”

Deep inside, Bill Gates understood for a long time about the problem that I raised. He must have been quite irritated because he did not need someone like me to tell it to his face. Gates’s take on the matter was in fact completely correct from a business standpoint.

The realistic price for a PC for enterprise use should be around 200,000 yen, and for personal use should be around 100,000 yen. You have to think of the memory capacity, computing speed, and display resolution that are possible within that price range. If you would carefully consider all these factors, the best way to do it would be to increase the performance of a computer that performs control operations with character commands and to install applications in it. Bill Gates was thinking based on what necessity compelled.

Transforming information into something that you take and manipulate by hand

Times have changed since then; today, at a time when we have become accustomed to using game devices and smartphones, children give out a puzzled look when nothing happens when they try to touch the screen of a big, wall-mounted TV to change its channels. For them, information is ”something that you take and manipulate by hand,” you touch something to elicit a reaction and display the information you want right before your eyes. They regard digital information as something that has a life of its own.

But today’s TV screens that do not respond to touch are like yesterday’s telephones that could only be operated using numeric keypads, and computers that only allowed you to input commands like magic words using switches or keyboards. Before, computers, which functioned like electronic calculators, only silently performed numerical calculations according to human instructions and cranked out strings of characters as results. In the 1940’s, printers served as the display devices, until cathode-ray tubes (vacuum-tube display devices used before the LCD) were introduced in the early 1960’s.

The only way to operate computers during those days was through character-based ”commands,” wherein you have to type-in difficult and cumbersome commands sequentially line by line; that is, only the ”chosen few” who had received special training were able to operate computers.

Creating computers that anybody can use

Apple II, the forerunner of personal computers, was the first machine that could be set up on a small desk including its display and allowed writing a program simply by turning the power on, at a time when running a computer meant preparing an entire air-conditioned room for it. Apple II could be bought as a single set from a computer shop and allowed you to use the Basic programming language straight away after turning its power on. However, despite having become very accessible, after writing a program line by line, you had to save it on a audio cassette tape (!!), and run the program again from the beginning the next time you use it. Although efficiency was dramatically improved later on when Disk II, a device that allowed writing on a disc-shaped magnetic medium (floppy disk) came out, all operations still required inputting commands into the computer.

Co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, thought that a computer that could only be used by typing in difficult and magic-like commands could not be called a ”personal computer.”

The idea of creating a consumer-geared personal computer that gave users a feeling that they were directly touching and operating the displayed information, at a time when only characters could be displayed on screen, was like a spectacular ray of sunshine cutting through the darkness cast by the impossibility of the idea.

After Apple II, came Lisa, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) that could perform advanced processing functions simply by pointing an arrow to and clicking on icons (explicit and straightforward symbols) displayed on the screen. Although Apple managed to complete and launch it, Lisa’s functionality and performance was unfortunately too advanced for its time, which, ironically, made it difficult to sell.

Lisa, which boasted of a memory chip, a rare and precious commodity at that time, and a large, high-resolution display, was too expensive for the ordinary consumer. When it was first developed, the initial goal was to sell the product for 2,000 dollars, but after embedding all the functions Steve wanted to put in, the selling price rose to more than 10,000 dollars.

Although a major U.S. accounting firm bought them for their New York office and a leading university acquired them for research purposes, Lisa failed to meet the criteria for becoming Apple’s next business plan. Eventually, Apple’s managers forced Steve Jobs out of the Lisa project.

Creating a personal computer that even children can use simply by looking at it

Not about to give up on his dream, Steve Jobs went on to aim for an even more innovative project. He resolved to create a computer with a base smaller than a telephone book, with the graphical user interface of Lisa, but even faster. (iCon Steve Jobs: ”The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business”).

Although project members felt intimidated by the unreasonable demands from Jobs, who had already become left out in the cold within the company, his determination and the value of the dream he desperately wanted to realize inspired them, too.

When development finally went full swing and as the project entered the manufacturing phase, Steve Jobs addressed an elite team gathered at an expensive resort hotel saying:

”It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.”

The next morning after the team members came back, they hoisted a pirate flag at their headquarters in Cupertino.

They were determined to create a product that would be completely different from all of Apple’s projects thus far.

The team was bent to do the unthinkable through revolutionary methods; to accomplish what people say could not be done with the existing technologies. The Macintosh team was bound by both a sense of solidarity and disruptive potential inspired by Steve Jobs.

On its 40th anniversary on April 1, 2016, Apple flew a pirate flag over its headquarters. Why?
Photo from Mynavi news.

These words summarize what was going on in Steve Job’s mind at that time:

”Computer for the rest of us”

These were the words written on the banner of the pamphlet when the Macintosh was launched in 1984: ”Computer for the rest of us.” This meant that the computer was no longer only for professionals. They have created an instinctively useable computer that even the ”5-year-old Chiko-chan,” who is a popular character in a Japanese TV show. would know how to use simply by looking at the screen.

Excel was created for the Macintosh

Steve Jobs visited Bill Gates in Seattle to ask him to develop a new application for the Macintosh: ”I have this great idea for a desktop computer. Come to Cupertino to see it, and create an application for it.”

From afar, Jobs and Gates appeared to be at odds with each other like archenemies determined to bring each other down, but in reality, they were not. Convinced by Jobs, Microsoft created the spreadsheet software Excel for the Macintosh, and moved it to Windows after the later was completed. In other words, even though Bill Gates knew the architecture of Macintosh inside out even before its release, he decided that it did not match his own business undertaking, and patiently waited until existing manufacturing technologies would catch up to suit his own plans.

The author’s interview with Bill Gates mentioned at the beginning of the article happened after this. He got upset because an editor of a Japanese computer magazine hit the nail right on the head.

With the release of Windows 95 in the fall of 1995, Windows was transformed into a graphical user interface with the smoothness and straightforwardness of the Macintosh, after patiently going through a long time of biding, so to speak. The contrasting approaches of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates present a thought-provoking dilemma among businesspersons.

Current Director of the MIT Medial Lab, Joichi Ito, saw up close Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as they were tossing out jokes at each other on stage when they were invited as guests at the All Things Digital 5 in 2007, while they were being interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, technology columnists for the Wall Street Journal at that time.

”We’ve been silent about it, but we’ve actually been married for ten years now” (laughs) (Steve Jobs)

”I’m not fake Steve Jobs.” (laughs explosively) (Bill Gates)

The complete episode of that year’s D5 interview is freely available as a podcast on Apple iTunes.

(https://itunes.apple.com/jp/podcast/steve-jobs-and-bill-gates-together-in-2007-at-d5/id529997900?i=1000116232197&mt=2)

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. All Things Digital 5 in 2007. Photo by Joi Ito, Taken on May 31, 2007, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The Macintosh’s poor performance led to Jobs being driven out of his own company

The message of the Macintosh commercial video directed by Ridley Scott that was shown during the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sports event, held on January 22, 1984 was so sensational that it was take up by TV news programs across America. The launching was spectacular, as Jobs had planned it to be.

In reality, however, as Bill Gates had claimed, the price of the Macintosh could not be brought down to a price range that ordinary consumers could afford, and it needed additional memory to fully maximize the functions it aimed to provide and required the use of hard disks and other large-capacity storage devices. As a result, sales targets were not met, and Steve Jobs ended up being driven out of the company he had built.

After that, Apple went on a steady decline and came to the brink of bankruptcy. When Steve Jobs came back later to save Apple, he came up with the ”Think Different” catchphrase.

True to what the advertising slogan said (”the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do”), Steve Jobs went on to deliver unconventional and revolutionary products and services one after the other, such as the iMac, iTunes Music Score, iPhone, and iPad. Apple’s market capitalization overtook Exxon Mobil to make it the world’s most valuable company at the close of Wall Street on August 10, 2011. For comparison, its market capitalization was equal to the total value for the top five companies in the Tokyo Stock Exchange (Toyota, NTT DOCOMO, NTT, Canon, and Mitsubishi UFJ) at that time (based on August 29, 2011 values).

After his death, the narration done by Steve himself, which began with, ”Here’s to the crazy ones,” was played during his memorial service at Apple’s headquarters, bringing the young engineers and marketing staff to tears.

”Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The video of the ad for which Steve Jobs himself did the narration can be found in YouTube (https://youtu.be/8rwsuXHA7RA). Indeed, rebels like Steve paved the way for frameworks that were previously thought impossible. Without someone like him to lead the way, nobody would have felt the urgency of the demand for a few tens of gigabytes of memory for a personal computer designed for ordinary users, and the sophistication and the increase in capacity and speed of the memory or the CPU would not have moved forward as they had.

His persuasiveness, as he speaks in a calm and steady voice with a no-nonsense, finely honed sensibility, still strongly resonates with the present generation.

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