Published in The Hindu on October 7, 2011
Steve Jobs, the iconic co-founder of Apple was a true visionary of the digital age. He was not an inventor in the classic sense but used the existing technologies in his products. In doing so he made his products easy to use and hence responsible for popularising these technologies. Such was his magic touch that the launch of each product was awaited with feverish excitement.
Where others failed, he could see the potential of a technology and put it to good use. What better example than the mouse that has become a part of personal computers today. The story goes that a visit to the Xerox PARC research centre in Palo Alto, California in late 1979 changed the look of Macintosh, the first personal computers that Apple manufactured.
Standing in front of Xerox Alto, PARC’s personal computer, Jobs and one of his software engineers, Bill Atkinson, saw the marvellous way the operator used the mouse to scroll the computer screen. Unlike the conventional computers of those days that required some punching of commands on the keyboard, a click of the mouse was all that was needed to move from one task to another.
The idea was born and a mouse with a single button manufactured for the Apple Lisa computer became the first to become commercially available. The steel ball used in the mouse initially gave way to a rubber ball. That was to soon change when an optical mouse eventually replaced the roller ball. Now even the optical mouse has become passé and has been replaced by a technologically superior one — a magic mouse.
The mouse by itself would have had little meaning without the icons on the monitor. Fortunately for Apple, the Xerox Alto had the Graphical User Interface (GUI) called Xerox Star that enabled users to move the mouse and open the icons with just a click. Apple added a few icons like the wastebasket, folders and a horizontal drop-down menu bar in its personal computer. The mouse together with the icons made the personal computer easy-to-use.
While Xerox failed to make it big with the launch of a successor to the Alto in 1981, Apple made history with Macintosh.
If today the touch screen has become ubiquitous in smart phones and tablets manufactured by different companies, the technology popularised by Apple has had its humble beginnings not at Apple. It emerged from academic and research laboratories in the second half of the 1960s. One of the first places where it gained some visibility was in the terminal of a computer-assisted learning terminal that came out in 1972 as part of the PLATO project built by the University of Illinois.
But it took the launch of the iPhone to make touch screen technology a roaring success.
The latest from the stable of Apple is all set to revolutionise another technology. Siri, a voice-recognition technology used in iPhone 4 allows users to control functions and apps through voice commands. “Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. You’re actually having a conversation with your iPhone,” notes the company website.