A Developer View of the Impact of Steve Jobs

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2011-10-06

A Developer View of the Impact of Steve Jobs

SAN FRANCISCO - JavaOne has become a tradition for me. I have not missed one yet. Each year is memorable for different things. This year it is memorable as the place where I learned of Steve Jobs' passing.

I was in a meeting with a source at JavaOne here when he received a text informing him that Jobs had passed away. After that, nothing else that had been announced or talked about at the show made much difference anymore. The news was jarring.

Another annual tradition at JavaOne for me has been a meeting with Java creator James Gosling. Though Gosling no longer works for Oracle and has no direct impact on the language he created, tradition is tradition. And, as we share an affinity for roasted Dungeness crab and savory garlic noodles, we were scheduled to have dinner on the day the news came down. As soon as he heard, Gosling called to see if I was still going to make it or whether I might be involved in writing stories celebrating Jobs' life. After checking in with the editor on duty and learning that the Jobs story was in the very capable hands of a colleague, I headed over to crack crab with the Java Man.

As much as we tried to fight the urge to talk shop or get into trouble with stories that might cause headlines, the conversation eventually but briefly ventured to Jobs and mortality, as Gosling described his brush with death as a spectator at the Reno Air races, where he escaped unscathed despite being just 40 feet away from a fatal plane crash.

However, I wanted to get a developers' perspective on the impact Jobs and Apple has had on developers and the developer mindset. Who better to ask than a guy who created what has become the most popular programming language around (and one who also has been a self-proclaimed Apple fan)? Plus, the JavaOne venue was full of developers to talk to about the impact of Jobs on developers.

Gosling shared a few thoughts and said he had a lot more to say on it. Those thoughts eventually wound up in a very potent blog post on Jobs and Apple.

Said Gosling in his post:

He was unique. Apple cannot replace him, and I don't think that they should try. He was a messiah. Within the company there was a cultish reverence toward him.  He was famously difficult to work for and unrelentingly demanding of perfection. I interviewed for jobs with him 3 times: once before he was fired, once at NeXT and once after he returned. Each was a long lunch at The Good Earth.  Each was a wonderful, intriguing conversation, but I left each thinking, -No, I can't work for this man: he's mad!' That visionary madness drove him and his company with a tremendous force. He was personally not an engineer or a designer, but he had a tremendous sense for excellence. Many companies use -focus groups' to help them refine products, but not Apple: they just had Steve. He was often criticized for being a -control freak,' but that was all in pursuit of excellence: anything out of his control was out of his ability to improve.  He didn't just have a sense for Apple's products, he had a sense for Apple's customers and what would delight them. As much as he was devoted to Apple, he was more devoted to Apple's customers. One of the biggest drivers of Apple's success in recent years is the delight their customers feel in every part of the process, even something as simple as opening a box is thought through carefully. Every detail matters.

Ari Zilka, CTO at Software AG's Terracotta, the maker of scalability and performance-enhancing software, played up the coolness factor of Jobs' designs and how they make programmers feel good and want to work.

"Jobs' computers and technology make devs love to program," Zilka, who was present at JavaOne, said. "Personally, I loved DEC [the defunct Digital Equipment Corp.] machines because they were elitist and purpose-built. I hated Windows machines and just couldn't get myself to do much work on them. Ever see a real died-in-the-wool hacker unzip his backpack and whip out a Dell to start coding on some idea he and some friends have in a coffee shop? That scene always seems to include Macs and only Macs; geeks in the corner of the Starbucks use Macs because it's a device for the passionate. Jobs forced Windows to change to survive. He forced Linux to change to survive. He lived at the nexus of technology and art, and that's exactly what his machines are. I thought I was a 'fanboy' of Apple till I realized last night I am a 'fanboy' of Steve."

Grady Booch, another world-class programmer, co-creator of the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and Mac lover, said, "This generation, this world, was graced with the brilliance of Steve Jobs, a man of integrity who irreversibly changed the nature of computing for the good. His passion for simplicity, elegance, and beauty-even in the invisible-was and is an inspiration for all software developers."

Many developers focused on Jobs' artistry in commenting on his contributions.

"Steve Jobs appreciated that work without passion was a waste," said Jim Jagielski, co-founder of the Apache Software Foundation, consulting software engineer at Red Hat and all-around open-source software aficionado. "He recognized that technology was art, and that developers were artists-that hardware and software were not just intellectual exercises for -techies' but should be visceral expressions of that passion."

Prashant Sridharan, vice president of marketing at software quality tools maker Corensic, former Microsoft tools hawker and everything Apple lover, said of Jobs:

I think he did two things. First, he gave developers a masterpiece to aspire to. No longer was it okay to ship something with bad design. Everything had to be "Apple-like." Even when I was on Visual Studio 2005, I tried [and likely failed] to emulate "the Apple way" in our packaging and pushed the team to emulate the same in the setup and user experience of the product. The second thing he did with iPhone, iPad and the App Store is provide a magnificently simple and simply magnificent way for developers to go from idea to execution to mass distribution of their creation. I bet he took great satisfaction on that particular effect of his work. After all, what genius inventor doesn't like to be surrounded by other genius inventors?

And Sacha Labourey, CEO of CloudBees, who also attended JavaOne, added: "Steve has reconciled designers and geeks on the same platform; was that even possible to start with? The Mac has pretty much become the de facto platform for developers. This also shows how hard-core open-source components [BSD, etc.] can be leveraged to build a poem."

Another key element of the developer community, open-sourcers, flocked to the Mac-and not simply as an anti-Microsoft move. Mik Kersten, CEO of Tasktop Technologies and creator of the open-source Eclipse Mylyn project, said, "Steve Jobs' unyielding passion for user experience has driven one of the biggest shifts in the app dev platform landscape. Mobile is the new Web, native apps are back, and the economics are finally in place for a growing number of casual developers to put their ideas to code and get them into our hands. Since the initial disruption that came from iOS, many of my conversations with SpringSource founder Rod Johnson have been anchored around what needs to happen to bring the seamlessness of the iOS user experience to Java developers. 

"While platform vendors focus on the intricacies of cloud infrastructure components and tenancy models, Jobs would view these as implementation details. One of the biggest challenges that lays ahead of us in developer tools is to channel his vision by bringing the huge mix of Java SDKs, PaaS [Platform as a Service] and ALM [Application Lifecycle Management] components into a seamlessly integrated and developer collaboration-centric window on the application development lifecycle," Kersten said.

Dylan Schiemann, CEO of SitePen, who co-founded and has been a major contributor to the open-source Dojo Toolkit, said, "His influence and demand for excellence inspired us all and proved that thinking differently always results in doing differently."

At the 2007 Apple WWDC, it was announced that Ajax was the SDK for iPhone, Schiemann said. Schiemann, along with then SitePen software engineer Alex Russell, were honored to deliver one of only two Ajax talks. "The emergence of Mac OS X inspired many features in the Dojo toolkit and helped us be more productive developers," Schiemann said. "To say that Steve Jobs was influential to the Dojo community and to the developer community at large is an understatement. While we are saddened by the news of his passing, we are grateful that he left us only after establishing a path forward for Apple to continue inspiring us all."

From a different perspective, some members of the developer community point to Jobs' ability to borrow technology and design from other sources and make that palatable to the masses as a core strength.

"I've been around for a long time," said Mike Milinkovich, executive director or the Eclipse Foundation. "So for me a big part of Steve Job's impact was popularizing the seminal research from Xerox PARC in the 1970's and early '80s. Bringing concepts such as graphical user interfaces and the mouse to the broad consumer market took someone of Job's drive and vision."

Jobs Genius Was in His Singular Focus on a Vision


Eric Newcomer, chief architect of the investment bank at Credit Suisse, said, "The legend about Steve Jobs is that he -stole' the idea of the mouse and graphical interface [i.e., Windows] for point-and-click computing from Xerox PARC. While it's true Xerox PARC invented these things, they were developing them for a highly technical audience, and the engineering was very expensive. Steve adapted the ideas for the mass market in creating the original Mac in 1984, cutting the price while improving the usability. Once he was done, the result was very different. He understood the price points and usability thresholds of the mass market, and had the ability to adapt highly technical concept and designs for it. In effect, bringing the power of the computer to the masses."

Cameron Purdy, vice president of development at Oracle, said, "Steve's genius was in his unapologetic and singular focus on a vision that only he could realize in advance, and which the rest of the industry would inevitably and immediately adopt as their own-without attribution-as soon as he would unveil it. In a world full of charlatans and snake oil salesmen, Steve was truly larger than life, and true to his vision. His aesthetic influence has forever altered our expectation of how technology can be shaped to serve and interact with us, in spite of an industry that is perpetually fixated on altering our behavior to fit with technology."

Citing Jobs' ability to effectively channel a developer spirit and connect directly with developers, Dion Almaer, vice president of mobile architecture at Walmart.com and a Web development guru, pointed to his blog post around Jobs' conversation with developers at WWDC 97.

Almaer added that Jobs' pursuit of perfection made him work harder, by example, to deliver better software. He said:

In life it is so easy to take the easy path," Almaer said. "The -good enough' path. A few people strive for perfection, and he was one of them. He wanted users to have products that they could connect with and love...not just use. For that to happen he needed developers to be on the journey for him. The Apple community has his spirit in that many of them truly focus on the product. Not just the basic form and function-the full experience. The feeling of the software. For me this even shows in APIs. I have long cared about developer ergonomics and the feeling of giving other developers great APIs that they will love to use. If I think of Steve I spend the extra time and effort on those APIs. I don't take the short cuts. I care.

Theo Schlossnagle, uber DevOps geek and CEO of OmniTI, echoed Almaer's thinking, in that he says Jobs' example and success made Schlossnagle work extra hard to deliver better solutions for customers.

"Steve did two profound things for developers," Schlossnagle said. "The first is he gave us was a development platform that we never had to think about operating. The second was more visionary and profound. He showed us that building great software wasn't enough; you also had to improve the lives of the user. Software is better today because of this imbued attitude.  He had much more impact than just this, but these are the two things I will feel every day during the rest of my career."

Monetization Schemes for Developers Were One of His Greatest Contributions


Meanwhile, others consider Jobs' contribution of monetization schemes for developers as among his greatest achievements.

For instance, Rod Cope, CTO and co-founder of OpenLogic, said, "Two things stand out to me: app store and user focus. The app store concept created a new world where independent software developers can quickly and easily participate in a commercial ecosystem. It's a win-win-win situation for Apple, the software developers, and especially the end users who get a large and accessible market of competitive products. The only other place I've encountered such a large and diverse software market is the world of open source."

Moreover, added Cope: "Perhaps even more important than the app store was Steve Jobs' obsessive focus on the user experience. He realized that adding more features to a piece of software or hardware just for the sake of having new features leads to complexity, bloat, poor performance and more bugs. He applied incredible discipline to each new product and revision to make sure that the human using it would have an improved experience. That might mean removing a feature, adding a very small tweak, reinventing a product family or creating an entirely new market.  I believe he saw each of these as implementation details. The important thing was to make the best user experience imaginable, no matter what it took."

From more of an external point of view, some industry analysts also picked up on the developer ecosystem Jobs created around Apple.

"I think one of the biggest things Jobs did was to elevate developers to a preeminent position in the mobile ecosystem," said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Before the iPhone, carriers thought of developers as unimportant; all you had to do was talk to the business development guys at a company when you wanted to get an application built for a new whiz-bang hero phone.

"Now the carriers and more importantly the platform vendors fight tooth and nail over developers, because they are so critical to a platform's success. Developers get free stuff, early access to technology and most importantly the tools they need to directly profit from their creative ideas. Jobs played a big part in making this current golden age for developers, and making them direct beneficiaries of their own talent," Hammond said.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, said: "Apple is one of two or three companies in the world that was successful in building a mass developer ecosystem around its products, first around the Macintosh and recently around iOS. And Apple is of course Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is Apple. We also tend to forget that the programming language and environment around iOS originated with the NeXT computer, which Steve created after he was forced out of Apple.

"While NeXT itself was not a business success," Hilwa said, "the innovations in application platform and development tools are direct descendents of Mac OS and iOS because Apple bought the company in 1996 and snapped together its technologies with Mac OS. The story illustrates Jobs' extraordinary entrepreneurial tenacity and vision in general, but also that the construction of applications and an application ecosystem are the key goals of a computing platform."

Meanwhile, in his reflection of Jobs, Gosling discusses Apple and its future without Jobs:

So what is a post-Steve Apple? Even though everyone there has been mentally preparing for this moment, it is still a shock. Will Apple crystallize and just repeat the playbook? That will be successful for a few years, but it will eventually veer off. They collectively need to find a new way. There won't be a new Steve. There will certainly be apostolic claimants, but they won't be Steve. The New Apple will have to be a collective result of Steve's teaching to each employee individually. His pursuit of excellence will no longer be imposed. It now has to come from the hearts of everyone.



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