Tag Archives: steve jobs

Changing the World in 3/4 Decades

D&D games on the Mac? Yeah, I remember that.
Kicking it old-style…

Last week was a week of anniversaries. World-changing anniversaries, in fact, though I’m going have to make an argument for at least one of them.

The anniversary that got the most press inches was the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The launch is best known for that Ridley Scott advertisement invoking Orwell’s Big Brother, but recently a video came to light revealing a launch event in front of the Boston Computer society.

It’s a fascinating watch, mostly for the fact that it contains so much of the future. The Mac is front and centre, and it’s amazing just how much of what we take for granted in our computers today appeared right at the start of the Mac age. It’s not just the MacOS that still bears the ancestral marks of its progenitor. Every modern desktop/laptop OS can trace its ancestry back to 1984. Amazingly, it’s a trick Apple has pulled off more than once: its iOS is similarly the root from which the modern smartphone/tablet ecosystem arose.

It’s also instructive to watch Steve Jobs at work, long before his keynote speeches grabbed attention around the world. The delivery isn’t as smooth as it later became, but so much of those keynotes is already in place: the idea of the intersection of art and technology, the attention-grabbing video segments, the on-stage demonstrations to wow the audience. Jobs would soon be ousted from Apple, only to return and lead it to world leadership years later, and his keynotes would be much more controlled, so getting to see him do a question-and-answer with the original Mac team is a rare treat.

The other anniversary is for an event ten years earlier and one less easy to nail down. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons also changed the world, albeit in a less direct way than the Mac. It birthed, of course, the roleplaying game (RPG), a combination of board game and improvisational storytelling. RPGs have never been a big industry, but their influence has spread far and wide.

D&D drove an interest in fantasy, and followup RPGs drove interest in science fiction and horror, even as they followed trends in wider culture: Star Wars, Anne Rice, Ghostbusters, etc. RPG players got involved in the growing computer games industry and the entertainment industry, leading to a lot of what is now mainstream. Game of Thrones’ George RR Martin? A roleplayer. Joss Whedon? Roleplayer.

The Mac is still going strong, despite some dodgy moments along the way. D&D has lost its leading position everywhere except cultural memory, but the hobby it kicked off has endured and spread like a weed, its roots and tendrils going everywhere. The Mac changed how we interact with the world. D&D created a new spawning ground for content, and an avenue for storytelling and offbeat genres that wasn’t there before. Happy birthday to them both.

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Apple Gets Hyper Over Education

And you can play games on it too. That will be good for learning, I'm sure.
Apple's iPad has just got a big push into the education sphere

This afternoon saw Apple’s latest media event taking place in an unusual venue for the company – New York – and without the oversight of the company’s late founder, Steve Jobs. The focus of the event was education, a subject that Jobs claimed was close to his heart, and although the event was very much U.S.-centric, the announcements made there have much wider implications.

There are three main prongs to Apple’s education push: The first part is an upgrade to the iBooks application for the company’s iPad device in order to enable it to deliver media-rich, interactive text books for students in the U.S., focusing first on the high school level. The aim is to provide cheaper (assuming you factor in the cost of the iPad itself), more engaging, more up-to-date text books for students. That Apple has managed to get some of the main textbook providers on board already is undoubtedly due to the fact that if the technology company succeeds in turning the textbook market electronic, it will simultaneously kill the market in second-hand textbooks.

Prong number two is the new iTunes U app. I’ve been using the iTunes University section of the iTunes Store for a while, as it has an amazing selection of free audio and video recordings of lecture series. The new app takes that idea to the next step, allowing educators to create and manage courses and deliver them to students. Together with the iBooks app, it’s nothing less than an effort to make tablet computers in general and the iPad in particular central to education in the U.S. And where the U.S. leads in this regard, the world is likely to follow.

However, for me – someone who isn’t involved directly in education at the moment – the most interesting element of the announcement was the third prong: the iBooks Author application for the Mac. Although the focus at the event was on using this application to create textbooks, it’s clear that there’s much more potential here: iBooks Author allows anyone to put together rich media books, using video, audio, pictures and 3D elements together with text in an easy drag and drop environment. I’ve already downloaded it and am tinkering with it now to check out its capabilities, but already it’s reminding me a lot of a storied application from Apple’s past: Hypercard.

If you don’t know what Hypercard is (and unless you used a Mac in the late ’80s, you probably don’t), you could take away a few elements of the above description of iBook Author and it would apply pretty well: Hypercard created stacks (read: ebooks) into which content creators could place audio, graphics and even video, linked together with a programming language that prefigured the HTML code of the World Wide Web. iBooks Author may not offer the same degree of interactivity and expandability, but the capability is definitely there, and the drag-and-drop creation is much easier. The ebooks sold through Apple’s iBook store may be called books, but they’re really standalone apps, designed to run on the iPad. They’ll deliver content first and foremost, but the manner in which they do so will be limited only by the imaginations of those who use the app itself.

Of course, this being a brand new program from Apple, some caution is warranted. It’s already been pointed out that the EULA attached to iBooks Author may be overreaching itself. Similarly, Apple’s applications and devices tend to really hit their stride only when they reach the 2.0 milestone. Compare the original iBooks app, a polished but underwhelming competitor to Amazon’s Kindle, with the new textbook delivery system it has become. iBooks Author has a limited number of templates at present, and it will be a while before its users get to grips with what it can do. Already, however, I’m impressed with what I can see and am looking forward to playing with it and seeing the results.

November Reviews

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November was a month of major readjustment for me, keeping me busy and reducing my opportunities to add to this blog. Hopefully that will change in the weeks to come. In the meantime, here are some reviews of the books and movies I managed to avail of during the month.

Book Reviews

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson: Written with the full cooperation of the Apple founder in the years before his death but without his editorial interference, Isaacson’s in-depth review of Jobs’ life reveals him to be a complex, often unlikeable, character who is redeemed by a life trajectory that saw him learn from his failures and recover to change a range of global industries. Isaacson’s interest is in Jobs the man rather than Jobs the technological pioneer, and this book is likely to disappoint those who have criticised or lauded him over the years from within the technology industries, but as a portrait of his personality, it’s exhaustive. It’s not likely to become a classic of the biography field, but as a portrait of Jobs himself, it will probably never have a rival.

Temeraire, Naomi Novik: Taking fantasy out of its traditional faux-medieval setting can be tricky, but Naomi Novik manages to make it very rewarding as she delivers a Napoleonic-era tale embellished by the addition of dragons. Not only is the impact of dragons on the world carefully thought through, but the characters are rendered with due care and attention to detail, creating an overall package that is emotive without being overly sentimental. One of the best new fantasy offerings in years, it not only tells a fine tale but also sets up a world that most readers will be keen to explore in subsequent books in the series.

Movie Reviews

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: One of the finest assemblages of British acting talent in years (all white and mostly male, mind you) offer up a masterclass in acting as they move through a spy thriller where the smallest gesture or glance carries a novel’s worth of meaning. Based on the Le Carre book, this is as far from James Bond as you can get, with the unravelling of the treachery at the heart of the plot requiring patience and psychology, with guns kept off the screen except for a few moments at the beginning and end of the film. A film about loyalty and betrayal as much as it is about the Cold War conflict it depicts, it is intricate enough to reward repeated viewing if you’re determined to winkle out all the nuances on display by the first-rate cast.

Wuthering Heights: Taking the latest shot at the classic tale of gothic moorland romance, director Andrea Arnold strips away the framing narrative and minor characters to deliver a version that proves heavy on the atmospherics but somewhat muted in terms of passion. Extreme closeups are seemingly meant to remove the emotional distance between the audience and the cast, but everything proves to be downplayed to the point where the adult character of Heathcliff, more central than he is in the book, never quite escapes the sulky victim of circumstance he’s portrayed as in his youth. The film itself is stark and easy to follow, even given the lack of dialogue, but for all of its apparent efforts to get to the heart of Emily Brontë’s tale, it doesn’t reveal much worth knowing.