What the hell is up with all the Jobsophilia since Steve Jobs died? The Tech Curmudgeon has noticed that there’s a hell of a lot of supposedly smart people reporting and blogging on “technology” claiming that Steve Jobs was the most visionary tech guy in the last 30 or 40 years. Or they’re fellating Jobs’ reputation and going so far as to claim that the man changed the world more than anyone else in the history of technology. The Tech Curmudgeon wants some of what they’re smoking, because it’s clearly better than mescaline and LSD.
So lets look at some of Jobs’ contemporaries who are more important than he was to things that, you know, actually matter to the real world.
Fujio Masuoka, inventer of FLASH memory
Do you have a solid-state hard drive for your laptop? How about an iPad or a portable MP3 player or a cell phone or a thumb drive? Thank Masuoka for inventing the non-volatile memory that stores all those games, music, and files that you use all the time. Without his invention, you’d still be using rewriteable CDs, DVDs, or even floppy disks to carry your data from one place to another. Even in a world of cloud computing, sometimes WiFi and the Internet just don’t cut it and it’s time to walk your data from one place to another a la “sneaker-net.”
Jobs may have made MP3 players popular with the iPod (the Tech Curmudgeon grudgingly owns one, although he listens mostly to Pandora these days), but without FLASH memory the iPod would have remained limited by its power-hungry, skip-susceptible hard drive instead of becoming the runner’s preferred pace-setting entertainment device.
Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, inventors of the TCP/IP internet protocol, and Lawrence Roberts, inventor of packet switching
Speaking of the Internet, let’s talk about these three men, without whose inventions there would be no Internet. Every time you use a computer network, you use their inventions. Hell, these days just about every bit of data created by anyone goes through a packet switch somewhere, even cell phone and ancient landline telephone calls. The Internet has grown from the initial ideas of these men into something that has the potential to overthrow autocratic governments, make available nearly every scrap of information ever created by a person anywhere, and choke human progress in that very same information.
Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit
But neither FLASH memory nor the Internet would exist if it hadn’t been for Kilby, who invented the first integrated circuit in 1958. Nearly every device that runs on electricity today has an integrated circuit in it, from your computer and cell phone to your coffee maker and oven to your car and street lights. Now that’s what the Tech Curmudgeon calls having an impact on the world. The Tech Curmudgeon considers the invention of the integrated circuit to be one of the most important inventions in human history, and given it’s only been 54 years since it was invented, its importance is only going to increase.
Without Kilby, Jobs wouldn’t have had an Apple Inc. to found in 1976.
Akira Yoshino, developer of the modern lithium-ion battery
Rechargeable batteries have been around for a long time, but it took the commercial lithium-ion battery developed by Yoshino before rechargeables went mainstream. The problem with older rechargeables was that they were heavy and dangerous (like lead-acid car batteries) or they didn’t hold a charge well or they wore out fast (like Ni-Cd). Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries now power everything from iPods to electric cars
The Tech Curmudgeon is imagining the iPad powered by a car battery (the extra weight would be great for a workout, though), or an iPhone with a built-in battery that lasts an hour and needs to be replaced every couple of days because the battery has died. He’s quite amused by the mental images.
Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone
These days more people own cell phones in the world than own computers, and the computing power of recent smartphones is exceeds that of full desktop computers from just a decade ago. But Cooper did it first at Motorola (and, in a display of bad sportsmanship the Tech Curmudgeon heartily approves of, made the first call from the device to competitor Dr. Joel S. Engel at Bell Labs to gloat).
Sony ushered in the age of mobile music that Jobs made ultra-portable, but Cooper upended the entire concept of telephony long before Jobs came along and made smartphones cool. And today, people in rural Africa and the middle-of-nowhere SE Asia carry around a small computer that they can also make phone calls on.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, inventors of the modern search engine
Last but certainly not least, Page and Brin attacked head-on the single biggest problem facing the Internet, the aforementioned choking of human progress by an unending firehose of information. By inventing a way to sort websites so that the most popular ones float to the top, Page and Brin turned search engines from dumb and nearly useless tools into highly tuned information filters. The next step, in the Tech Curmudgeon’s not even remotely humble opinion, is for someone to figure out how to rank websites so that popular sites that spout bullshit and lies are ranked below less popular sites that are factual and truthful. The Tech Curmudgeon can dream, can’t he?
The founding and subsequent explosive growth of Google has also pushed open source applications, operating systems, and crowd-sourced solutions more than anyone since Richard Stallman thought up the GNU project and created the Free Software Foundation. In the process, Page and Brin essentially became the antithesis of Jobs, pushing for an open software ecosystem instead of the walled garden that is Apple Inc and every single one of their products.
So what was Jobs actualy good at?
All of the people the Tech Curmudgeon has discussed are critical in some way to modern technology, and in ways that far exceed the reach of someone like Jobs, even though most of them are nowhere near as well known. So why is Jobs undeservedly considered a visionary while most of the actual engineers who did the hard work of invention languish in obscurity?
Jobs was a marketeer (rhymes with “privateer”) and businessman who leveraged a small Apple product cult into a major religious movement with himself as its messiah. His products were expensive and often lower quality and lower featured than competitive products, but because he demanded that Apple build things that were easy to use and looked cool, he was able to convince legions of Apple fundamentalists to evangelize the Apple gospels to everyone around them.
Jobs was merely smart as a technologist. His genius was in marketing and psychology. And the fact that so many otherwise smart technology journalists still don’t realize that they’ve been snowed shows just how good at both Jobs really was.