Steve Jobs: ‘Computer Science Is A Liberal Art’
Heard on Fresh Air from WHYY
October 6, 2011 – TERRY GROSS, host: When Steve Jobs died yesterday, many of us felt a sense of personal loss because his work transformed computer technology and changed our lives. He was a visionary. He co-founded Apple and played a key role in the creation of the Mac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, iPad and other innovative devices and technologies, which so many other companies have done their best to imitate.
Jobs was 56 and had pancreatic cancer. He had a liver transplant in 2009 and stepped down as Apple’s CEO last August. We’re going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Steve Jobs in 1996, 11 years after he was ousted from Apple. He returned to Apple the year after we spoke.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
GROSS: From what I’ve read, it sounds like you were really the advocate for having a mouse on the Mac. Why did you push for that and what was the argument against it?
STEVE JOBS: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I went to Xerox PARC, Palo Alto Research Center, in 1979 and I saw the early work on graphical user interfaces that they had done. And they had a mouse and it was obvious that you needed a pointing device and a mouse seemed to be the best one. We tried a bunch of other ones subsequently at Apple and a mouse indeed was the best one. We refined it a little bit.
We found that, you know, Xerox’s had three buttons. We found that people would push the wrong button or be scared that they were going to push the wrong button, so they always looked at the mouse instead of the screen. So we got it down to one button so that you could never push the wrong button. Made some refinements like that.
The Xerox, you know, mouse cost about $1,000 a piece to build. We had to engineer one that cost 20 bucks to build. So we had to do a lot of those kinds of things. But the basic concept of the mouse came originally from a company called SRI, through Xerox and then to Apple. And there were a lot of people at Apple that just didn’t get it. We fought tooth and nail with a variety of people there who thought the whole concept of a graphical user interface was crazy, but fortunate…
GROSS: On what grounds?
JOBS: On the grounds that it either couldn’t be done, or on the grounds that real computer users didn’t need, you know, menus in plain English, and real computer users didn’t care about, you know, putting nice little pictures on the screen. But fortunately I was the largest stockholder and the chairman of the company, so I won.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I know at Apple there was, at least early on, a very informal, you know, non-corporate type of atmosphere. I wonder if there are any lessons you learned about what worked and didn’t work in the corporate lifestyle at Apple that you’ve applied to your current companies, NeXT and Pixar.
JOBS: Well, you know, I don’t know what a corporate lifestyle is. I mean, Apple was a corporation, we were very conscious of that. We were very driven to make money so that we can continue to invest in the things we loved. But it had a few very big differences to other corporate lifestyles that I’d seen. The first one was a real belief that there wasn’t a hierarchy of ideas that mapped into the hierarchy of the organization. In other words, great ideas could come from anywhere and that we better sort of treat people in a much more egalitarian sense in terms of where the ideas came from.
And Apple was a very bottoms-up company when it came to a lot of its great ideas. And we hired, you know, truly great people and gave them the room to do great work. A lot of companies – I know it sounds crazy – but a lot of companies don’t do that. They hire people to tell them what to do. We hired people to tell us what to do. And that led to a very different corporate culture, and one that’s really much more collegial than hierarchical.
GROSS: What do you think the state of the computer would be if it weren’t for Apple? This is a chance, I guess, for a really self-serving answer. But, I mean, I’m really curious what you think.
JOBS: I usually believe that if, you know, if one group of people didn’t do something within a certain number of years, the times would produce another group of people that would accomplish similar things. I think that, personally, our major contribution was a little different than some people might think. I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.
GROSS: Yeah, explain what you mean by that.
JOBS: What I mean by that is that, you know, if you really look at the ease of use of the Macintosh, the driving motivation behind that was to bring not only ease of use to people – so that many, many more people could use computers for nontraditional things at that time – but it was to bring, you know, beautiful fonts and typography to people, it was to bring graphics to people, not for, you know, plotting laminar flow calculations, but so that they could see beautiful, you know, photographs, or pictures, or artwork, et cetera, to help them communicate what they were doing potentially.
Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been, you know, a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience. And…
GROSS: What made you think that that more liberal arts direction was the direction to head in?
JOBS: Because in my perspective, and the way I was raised, was that science and computer science is a liberal art. It’s something that everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be, you know, should be relegated to five percent of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to, everyone should have a mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed, you know, computation or these computation devices.
GROSS: And you think that, you know, that that concept really caught on in the whole industry, eventually?
JOBS: You know, it’s in the – Apple certainly – that’s the seed of Apple, you know, computers for the rest of us. And I think the sort of – the liberal arts point of view still lives at Apple. I’m not so sure that it lives that many other places. I mean, one of the reasons I think Microsoft took 10 years to copy the Mac was ’cause they didn’t really get it at its core.
GROSS: Steve Jobs, recorded in 1996, before he oversaw the creation of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. We want to add our thanks to him for his many innovations.
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