Farewell Dennis Ritchie

With the passing of Dennis Ritchie, the technology industry loses another great mind and another great innovator. While not a household name like Steve Jobs, his impact is no less widespread. In fact, at some level his contributions are even more far reaching than those of Jobs and perhaps even by quite a bit. Consider his life’s work:

He was the principal designer of the C programming language and along with Brian Kernighan, co-authored the first authoritative text on the subject simply titled “The C Programming Language” more commonly known by its nickname “the K&R.” His work didn’t stop there as he was also the co-inventor, along with Ken Thompson, of the Unix operating system. If we stop and think for a moment about the impact of C and Unix on IT, or for that matter, the world in which we live, Ritchie’s influence looks nothing short of astounding. If you take a close enough look, you’ll find that these two technologies are simply everywhere.

The software which powers the Internet; you know the stuff like TCP/IP, web servers, e-mail, etc. Nearly all of it started out written in C or one of its variants (e.g. C++), running on some version of Unix or its variants (yes Linux, I’m looking at you). That desktop operating system that you love to hate? You know, the one created by those people in Redmond. Yes, that’s written in C and C++. That desktop operating system that you love to love – Mac OS? Yeah that’s Unix under the covers, written in C and C++. The iPhone? Android phones? Little Unixes (Unices?) all of them. Perhaps no other two technologies on the planet can claim such ubiquity. Not bad as far as contributions to the world go.

And speaking of the world, let’s not forget “Hello World.”

For anyone who has ever written their first “test program” in some new programming language, the phrase is a well known meme. To this accidental success, we can also give Dennis Ritchie some credit, at least in part.

So on this day, it’s perhaps only fitting for the world to respond in kind with both a heartfelt “Thank You” and a fond Farewell.

I’ll do my part here:

main( )
{
printf(“thank you, dennis and farewell. your work lives on”);
}

Steve Jobs – The Human Touch

Nothing like an earth-moving tech event to inspire one to be expressive again. Seems like all writers, bloggers, tweeters – great and small – are moved to words today. So in honor of the passing of a tech giant, here’s a long overdue foray back into tech blogging.

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing I can’t help but go back to a conversion from just yesterday with a colleague of mine. It was about the pros and cons of the new iPhone 4S. While he and I are very much kindred spirits with respect to our passion for all things technical, our mobile lives reside on squarely opposite sides of the fence. I am an iPhone owner and he an owner of an Android device (it should also be noted that in a small bit of irony, he is an Apple stock shareholder and I am not). Amongst our topics of conversation were the specifications of the iPhone device. This invariably led my colleague to point out how many of the Android devices are either already exceeding, or will soon exceed the newest iPhone on raw hardware specs alone. As as result, my friend wondered allowed if the market was now Google’s (or Samsung’s) for the taking. His musings were based on only the iPhone launch, as our conversation occurred several hours before the sad announcement from Apple of Steve Jobs’ passing. And while he may end up being right about where the mobile market may go (though prognostication in that brutal space is dicey), I didn’t exactly buy the “specs argument” and offered some very strong opinions about specs as a technology barometer.

Though I never knew or met Steve Jobs, I feel confident enough to say that he didn’t fret too much over how gaudy a product’s specifications list was. It just didn’t seem his style to tout laundry lists of processor speed, memory, megapixels and the like. Sure, features were extremely important to him and sometimes these very features were directly attributable to specific hardware implementations. But at the same time, I firmly believe that hardware specs were not things which got him going. That is unless a hardware spec somehow translated into a game-changing human-to-computer interaction, in a direct and profound way. Along these lines, I am confident that very few would doubt that it was the human side of the technology equation that most motivated Steve Jobs. And it is this hyper-obsessive focus on the human-to-computer interaction that may well be Jobs’ greatest legacy.

Around the time that the iPad was released, I recall reading (in a post that I can sadly not remember enough to reference) that somewhere around 60 to 70% of the hardware (or hardware costs perhaps?) was dedicated to the HID (human interface device) features of the iPad. For me that number was an eye-opener. Fast-forward now to the recent iPhone launch hosted by now-CEO Tim Cook and think about the things which were put front and center. Sure, they discussed things like the revamped camera and the 8 megapixels but what they were most impressed about (and wanted you and I to be impressed about) were perhaps two key points about the camera feature:

  1. That the iPhone is the most used camera device for Flickr uploads
  2. That the new iPhone camera will allow you to take and re-take pictures faster than on any competing phone’s camera, by a large margin.

In a nutshell it is not only extremely important to Apple that a certain feature is being widely used by many people, but it is also extremely important to make sure that the continued experience of using the feature far out-pace that of its rivals, megapixels bedamned. So, if it happens to mean that a revamped sensor is part of the equation (and that it happens to be 8 megapixels), then so be it. But that megapixels stuff, to Jobs, was only the means to an end.

And then there’s Siri.

Apple made a huge investment to acquire this company and its software. To Apple, Siri is a game-changer. They may very well be right. No doubt, the need to not only acquire and focus on Siri as the centerpiece of the launch is classic Jobs. I can imagine a fictitious (or not) strategy session where discussions of what to include and what to cut took place. If ever there was a “should we revamp the case and screen or include Siri to deliver on time…?” discussion, the answer would be a no-brainer for Jobs. Incrementally keeping up with the competitive Joneses was not his thing. He was the Joneses and then some. To him, technology was a people-first business and nobody – NOBODY – had their finger on the pulse of the human-to-computer interaction better than Steve Jobs. He paved the way for everyone else, time and again, and we may never see another like him.