In 1983 Steve Jobs gave a speech to a small group of designers and artists at the International Design Conference in Aspen. The speech sat in obscurity until mentioned in a Smithsonian Magazine article written by Waster Issacson, Jobs’ biographer. One version surfaced on the Internet which covered the first 20 minutes of the speech, where Jobs gives a general talk on the state of computation (and predicts a technology eerily similar to Google Street View). The last 40 minutes of the talk, wherein Jobs takes questions from the audience, was considered lost.
Last year, Marcell Brown received a copy of a tape from the conference entitled “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be,” from one of his clients John Celuch of Inland Design. Celuch attended the conference nearly 30 years ago and received the tape at the end of the event. After holding onto it for so long, he gave it to Brown as a gift without realizing the value of its contents. Brown now has ripped the audio into a digital format and made the 54 minute speech available for all to hear.
While 1983 might not seem to long ago, in terms of technological progress it’s a completely different era. At this point in time the Macintosh had not been released and Apple was currently working on Lisa, which Jobs’ talks about and commends its ability to allow him to make visual art. Other than the Apple II, IBM was the only other company making a successful personal computer at the time.
The talk is available on SoundCloud and Brown’s website Life, Liberty, and Technology. Jobs demonstrates his remarkable insight and predicts multiple technologies and habits such as an iPad like device, mobile Internet computing, disruption in the music industry, and complications of making voice recognition technology. Below are multiple excerpts from the talk.
Jobs on computers as magic
“The thing about computers is they’re really dumb. They’re exceptionally simple. But they’re really fast. the raw instructions that we have to feed these microprocessors—even the instructions we have to feed these giant Cray-1 supercomputers—are the most trivial of instructions. They’re get some data from here, get a number from here, fetch a number, add two numbers together, test to see if it’s bigger than zero, put it over there or something—it’s the most mundane thing you could ever imagine. But, the key thing about it is let’s say I could move 100 times faster than anyone in here. In the blink of your eye, I could run out there and I could grab a bouquet of fresh spring flowers and I could run back in here and I could snap my fingers and you would all think I was a magician. And yet, I was doing a series of really simple instructions, but I was doing them so fast, that you would think there was something magical going on. And it’s the exact same thing with computers.”
Computers as intelligent biographers
“When I was going to school. I had a few great teachers and a lot of mediocre teachers. The thing that probably kept me out of jail was books. Because I could go read what Aristotle or what Plato wrote and I didn’t have to have an intermediary in the way. And a book was a phenomenal thing. I got right from the source to the destination without anything in the middle. The problem was you can’t ask Aristotle any questions. If we look to the next 50 to 100 years, if we can come up with these machines that can capture an underlying spirit or an underlying set of principles or an underlying way of looking at the world. When the next Aristotle comes around, maybe if he carries around one of these machines for his or her whole life, then maybe someday after this person is dead and gone, we can ask this machine ‘what would Aristotle have said?’ And maybe we wont get the right answer, but maybe we will. And that’s really exciting to me. And that’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Parallels between electric motor and computer development
Jobs makes a comparison between computers and the electric motor. At the motors inception, it could only be made in very large and expensive forms meaning those built had a significant cost justification. The next breakthrough was when someone took a shaft and ran it through the electric motor and connected it to a series of pulleys so it could operate multiple workstations and share the power across users. This allowed for the cost justification of a large motor for medium-scale tasks. The biggest breakthrough was the fractional horse power electric motor which allowed the motor to be brought directly to the application and be cost justified for even smaller tasks.
The electric motor trend parallels the progression of the computer’s development. The first computer ENIAC was supermassive and super expensive and therefore was used for costly military ballistics calculations. During the 1960s, the invention of time-sharing allowed the larger supercomputers to execute multiple peoples tasks. It would cycle through doing operations for different users but it would happen so quickly that everyone thought they had the entire computer for themselves. It was the invention of time-sharing that got computers on college campuses and allowed students to access a supercomputer via a terminal. Apple exists, as Jobs says, because “we stumbled on fractional horsepower computing five years before anyone else.” Jobs continues in his speech “we took these microprocessors and we surrounded them with all the other stuff you need to make a computer and we put it all together and were able to make a computer that was thirteen pounds. And people would look at it and say ‘where’s the computer, this is just the terminal,’ and we’d say ‘no, that is the computer.’”
Jobs describes an iPad-like device
“Apple’s strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes. That’s what we want to do and we want to do it this decade. And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers. We don’t know how to do that now—it’s impossible technically. So we had three options. We could do nothing, but we’re all young and restless so that wasn’t really an option. We could put a garbage computer in a book, but our competitors are doing that so we don’t need to. The third option was to design the computer that we want to put into a book eventually, even through we can’t put it into a book now.”
Jobs envisions the App Store and hints at iTunes
“There are about 20,000 programs for the Apple II right now and for the IBM PC which is the second most popular, there are maybe 2,000—which is a lot. But when you buy one of these programs you don’t know what to buy. So you go out to the computer dealer an ask ‘Which one should I buy?’ and that person doesn’t know. They’re out selling computers not looking at software. So they give you a bullshit answer and you buy it and maybe you’re happy, maybe you’re not.
Now compare that to records. Most people walking into a record store know exactly what they want to buy. They don’t walk in and say, ‘What record should I buy?’ They know exactly what record they want to buy because there is a phenomenon of the radio station. A free sampling so that we make our decisions before we go into the distribution center for the record. We need the equivalent in the software business. We need a software radio station. Software is information and the information is expressed as a bunch of ones and zeroes and what we do now is we takes those ones and zeroes and we encode them magnetically on this piece of mylar with a bunch of goop on the surface that remembers the ones and zeroes. We take it, we put it in a package with a manual, we put it on a truck and ship it to a dealer. They take it off the truck and put it on the shelf. It sits there for a while—costing them money. The customer comes in peruses them, picks one out, takes it home shoves it into their computer and it’s translated back to electrical impulses and ones and zeroes.
Now thats a pretty long path. Where we will be going is transmitting this stuff electronically over the phone lines. So when you want to buy a piece of software we take the ones and zeroes and—have you ever used a touch tone phone it boop boop boop boop boop sounds right—we will send tones over the phones that the computers will understand and go directly from computer to computer. That’s what we will be doing.
Once we do that, it’s possible to say, ‘Maybe we will give you 30 seconds of this program for free, or we’ll give you five screenshots, or we’ll let you play with it for a day and if you want to buy it, just type in your Visa number.’”