Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on Steve Jobs (that will inevitably get me flamed) and Dennis Ritchie

Maybe this is me just being a cynic, but why do people act like he was such a great person? He made personal computers for the upper-middle class and he didn't design them all by himself. He founded a company of hardworking individuals that all together contributed to create the products Apple makes. Steve Jobs did not "create" the iPhone, he created what created the iPhone. It's not like he gives billions to charities...that would be Bill Gates. Most people that praise him do it because they use an iPhone. Is that what "greatness" has been reduced to? Creating luxuries?

I'm certainly not saying that I'm happy he's dead, or even "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone." I react to his death just like I react to any other person's death, and my philosophical view on death is another discussion entirely.

I'll definitely concede that years ago, Steve was very influential. Earlier on, Macs were pretty cutting edge and in that way, they were pushing the limits for computers in general. But in my own biased view, they've become more of a caged beast; they cater more toward their own consumers; you are either a Mac user, or you aren't. But then there are some people that just make my head hurt, saying "He brought us the concept of the mouse for computers as well as he introduced us to the touch screen system." First off, Apple did not invent the mouse, though they did popularize it. Secondly, he did not do any of that. Apple did. I think it's unfair to the company to place the glory on one person.

People have literally praised him as the "most important person in the history of technology." I cannot believe that that is true for a second. Even if he was "the most influential person," that does not necessarily mean the most important. Other places place him more realistically as "a symbol of innovation, of humanity, of change", and I would agree: he was a symbol. A less kind word would be a "figurehead", but I'm not going to use that. He was the embodiment of what most people saw good or at least wanted to see good in the computing industry. Even though his company had less-than-laudable tactics, he was still flawless. But is a symbol of something the same as that which it represents? (Is an iPad really magic because they brand it as that?)

I will give him this: he is an incredible businessman. But is that really enough to call him a "great" man? So many people say that he "changed the world," but did he really?


[UPDATE 10-13-11]
Wow, what amazing timing....about a week after Steve Jobs, Dennis Ritchie passes away. You don't know who Dennis Ritchie is? That's ok, I didn't know the name either. Yet somehow, his name isn't trending on Twitter. Yeah, there are articles out there, but it's more of an interesting tidbit to most people than the loss of a great mind. Well, settle in for a history lesson. (This lesson is for me too, by the way, via research.)

He developed the C language, and also worked on Unix. But that's not quite as flashy as an iPad or a Macbook Air, is it? But guess what the apps are made of on that iPad: Objective C. Guess what the OS is based off on that Air: Unix. I know that people don't know much about Unix, but it truly, undeniably changed the way computing was done, and it was powered by C.  It was the first operating system written in a high level language and it was also the first portable operating system. I don't mean portable as in PortableApps, I mean portable in that instead of having to re-write the entire thing for every single type of processor, all you have to do is rewrite the compiler. This may not sound like a big deal nowadays, but it was a major step forward in computing.

It's just astounding to think of where we are today because of this man and his colleagues. True, he stood on the shoulders of those that came before him, but C was unique enough that it catapulted the very definition of computing by leaps and bounds. And it's still used today! Not even in the minority: C is still a very real foundation in everything we do. As others in many articles I've read have said, you would not be reading this right now if it was not for C and Dennis Ritchie. As one article concerning his death put it:

"The C programming language, which he called “quirky, flawed, and an enormous success,” is the basis of nearly every programming and scripting tool, whether they use elements of C’s syntax or not. Java, JavaScript, Objective C and Cocoa, Python, Perl, and PHP would not exist without dmr’s C. Every bit of software that makes it possible for you to read this page has a trace of dmr’s DNA in it."

And the most amazing thing is that he was the silent hero. Nobody knows who he was. He did not come out on stage in a turtleneck and show off a fancy new toy. He did not work on the body of the car and the fancy paint job, but he did work on the precise tuning of the engine and all of the parts that are too sophisticated for most of us to comprehend.

As a Computer Science major, I am forever indebted to Dennis Ritchie and the men like him that helped build the field that I love, but even as a person who likes to use technology, I owe them the deepest thanks. Whether or not the Apple fans want to argue about if Jobs was a great man, I know for a fact that Ritchie was. Here's to one of the greats.

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