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Dennis Ritchie: The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On

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Dennis Ritchie (standing) and Ken Thompson at a PDP-11 in 1972. (Photo: Courtesy of Bell Labs)

The tributes to Dennis Ritchie won’t match the river of praise that spilled out over the web after the death of Steve Jobs. But they should.

And then some.

“When Steve Jobs died last week, there was a huge outcry, and that was very moving and justified. But Dennis had a bigger effect, and the public doesn’t even know who he is,” says Rob Pike, the programming legend and current Googler who spent 20 years working across the hall from Ritchie at the famed Bell Labs.

On Wednesday evening, with a post to Google+, Pike announced that Ritchie had died at his home in New Jersey over the weekend after a long illness, and though the response from hardcore techies was immense, the collective eulogy from the web at large doesn’t quite do justice to Ritchie’s sweeping influence on the modern world. Dennis Ritchie is the father of the C programming language, and with fellow Bell Labs researcher Ken Thompson, he used C to build UNIX, the operating system that so much of the world is built on — including the Apple empire overseen by Steve Jobs.

“Pretty much everything on the web uses those two things: C and UNIX,” Pike tells Wired. “The browsers are written in C. The UNIX kernel — that pretty much the entire Internet runs on — is written in C. Web servers are written in C, and if they’re not, they’re written in Java or C++, which are C derivatives, or Python or Ruby, which are implemented in C. And all of the network hardware running these programs I can almost guarantee were written in C.

“It’s really hard to overstate how much of the modern information economy is built on the work Dennis did.”

Even Windows was once written in C, he adds, and UNIX underpins both Mac OS X, Apple’s desktop operating system, and iOS, which runs the iPhone and the iPad. “Jobs was the king of the visible, and Ritchie is the king of what is largely invisible,” says Martin Rinard, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

“Jobs’ genius is that he builds these products that people really like to use because he has taste and can build things that people really find compelling. Ritchie built things that technologists were able to use to build core infrastructure that people don’t necessarily see much anymore, but they use everyday.”

From B to C

Dennis Ritchie built C because he and Ken Thompson needed a better way to build UNIX. The original UNIX kernel was written in assembly language, but they soon decided they needed a “higher level” language, something that would give them more control over all the data that spanned the OS. Around 1970, they tried building a second version with Fortran, but this didn’t quite cut it, and Ritchie proposed a new language based on a Thompson creation known as B.

Depending on which legend you believe, B was named either for Thompson’s wife Bonnie or BCPL, a language developed at Cambridge in the mid-60s. Whatever the case, B begat C.

B was an interpreted language — meaning it was executed by an intermediate piece of software running atop a CPU — but C was a compiled language. It was translated into machine code, and then directly executed on the CPU. But in those days, C was considered a high-level language. It would give Ritchie and Thompson the flexibility they needed, but at the same time, it would be fast.

That first version of the language wasn’t all that different from C as we know it today — though it was a tad simpler. It offered full data structures and “types” for defining variables, and this is what Richie and Thompson used to build their new UNIX kernel. “They built C to write a program,” says Pike, who would join Bell Labs 10 years later. “And the program they wanted to write was the UNIX kernel.”

Ritchie’s running joke was that C had “the power of assembly language and the convenience of … assembly language.” In other words, he acknowledged that C was a less-than-gorgeous creation that still ran very close to the hardware. Today, it’s considered a low-level language, not high. But Ritchie’s joke didn’t quite do justice to the new language. In offering true data structures, it operated at a level that was just high enough.

“When you’re writing a large program — and that’s what UNIX was — you have to manage the interactions between all sorts of different components: all the users, the file system, the disks, the program execution, and in order to manage that effectively, you need to have a good representation of the information you’re working with. That’s what we call data structures,” Pike says.

“To write a kernel without a data structure and have it be as consist and graceful as UNIX would have been a much, much harder challenge. They needed a way to group all that data together, and they didn’t have that with Fortran.”

At the time, it was an unusual way to write an operating system, and this is what allowed Ritchie and Thompson to eventually imagine porting the OS to other platforms, which they did in the late 70s. “That opened the floodgates for UNIX running everywhere,” Pike says. “It was all made possible by C.”

Apple, Microsoft, and Beyond

At the same time, C forged its own way in the world, moving from Bell Labs to the world’s universities and to Microsoft, the breakout software company of the 1980s. “The development of the C programming language was a huge step forward and was the right middle ground … C struck exactly the right balance, to let you write at a high level and be much more productive, but when you needed to, you could control exactly what happened,” says Bill Dally, chief scientist of NVIDIA and Bell Professor of Engineering at Stanford. “[It] set the tone for the way that programming was done for several decades.”

As Pike points out, the data structures that Richie built into C eventually gave rise to the object-oriented paradigm used by modern languages such as C++ and Java.

The revolution began in 1973, when Ritchie published his research paper on the language, and five years later, he and colleague Brian Kernighan released the definitive C book: The C Programming Language. Kernighan had written the early tutorials for the language, and at some point, he “twisted Dennis’ arm” into writing a book with him.

Pike read the book while still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, picking it up one afternoon while heading home for a sick day. “That reference manual is a model of clarity and readability compared to latter manuals. It is justifiably a classic,” he says. “I read it while sick in bed, and it made me forget that I was sick.”

Like many university students, Pike had already started using the language. It had spread across college campuses because Bell Labs started giving away the UNIX source code. Among so many other things, the operating system gave rise to the modern open source movement. Pike isn’t overstating it when says the influence of Ritchie’s work can’t be overstated, and though Ritchie received the Turing Award in 1983 and the National Medal of Technology in 1998, he still hasn’t gotten his due.

As Kernighan and Pike describe him, Ritchie was an unusually private person. “I worked across the hall from him for more than 20 years, and yet I feel like a don’t knew him all that well,” Pike says. But this doesn’t quite explain his low profile. Steve Jobs was a private person, but his insistence on privacy only fueled the cult of personality that surrounded him.

Ritchie lived in a very different time and worked in a very different environment than someone like Jobs. It only makes sense that he wouldn’t get his due. But those who matter understand the mark he left. “There’s that line from Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Kernighan. “We’re all standing on Dennis’ shoulders.”

~Cade Metz, WIRED

Written by MattAndJojang

October 17, 2011 at 10:21 am

The Spiritual Side of Steve Jobs

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It’s well known that the secret to Apple’s meteoric success in the world of consumer technology was the vision, leadership and creativity of Steve Jobs, the company’s celebrity founder.

“Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that — it is in our DNA,” Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor, wrote in a staff memo after Jobs resigned from his post as Apple’s CEO in August.

What’s less talked about is what drove Jobs, who died Wednesday at 56.

As with anyone, Jobs’ values were shaped by his upbringing and life experiences. He was born in 1955 in San Francisco and grew up amid the rise of hippie counterculture. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were his two favorite musical acts, and he shared their political leanings, antiestablishment views and, reportedly, youthful experimentation with psychedelic drug usage.

The name of Jobs’ company is said to be inspired by the Beatles’ Apple Corps, which repeatedly sued the electronics maker for trademark infringement until signing an exclusive digital distribution deal with iTunes. Like the Beatles, Jobs took a spiritual retreat to India and regularly walked around his neighborhood and the office barefoot.

Traversing India sparked Jobs’ conversion to Buddhism. Kobun Chino, a monk, presided over his wedding to Laurene Powell, a Stanford University MBA.

‘Life is an intelligent thing’

Rebirth is a precept of Buddhism, and Apple experienced rebirth of sorts when Jobs returned, after he was fired, to remake a company that had fallen the verge of bankruptcy.

“I believe life is an intelligent thing, that things aren’t random,” Jobs said in a 1997 interview with Time, providing a glimpse into his complicated belief system that extends well beyond the Buddhist teachings.

Karma is another principle of the religion, but it didn’t appear to be a system Jobs lived by. If he feared karma coming back to bite him, the sentiment wasn’t evident in his public statements about competitors and former colleagues, calling them “bozos” lacking taste. Those who worked for Jobs described him as a tyrant they feared meeting in an elevator.

“You’d be surprised how hard people work around here,” Jobs said in a 2004 interview with Businessweek. “They work nights and weekends, sometimes not seeing their families for a while. Sometimes people work through Christmas to make sure the tooling is just right at some factory in some corner of the world so our product comes out the best it can be.”

Some engineers who worked tirelessly on the original Mac emerged from the project estranged from their spouses and children. Jobs’ relentless work ethic may have been shaped by some of his dysfunctional family affairs as well.

‘I’ve done things I’m not proud of’

Jobs was adopted by Clara and Paul Jobs, who promised his birth mother, Joanne Simpson (whom Jobs later tracked down with the help of a private investigator), that they would send him to a university. He dropped out of Reed College after one semester, and he reportedly never was willing to talk to his birth father.

Jobs had a daughter, Lisa, out of wedlock with Chrisann Brennan. He denied paternity for many years, swearing in a court document that he was sterile. Later, he had three more kids with Laurene Powell.

“I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was 23 and the way I handled that,” Jobs said in a statement in 2011 to promote his authorized biography.

That youthful indiscretion came before Jobs turned to Buddhism and karma.

‘The core values are the same’

The Buddhist scriptures, according to tradition, were transmitted in secret, as were many of Apple’s business dealings and Jobs’ personal struggles. Like the paranoid secrecy that surrounded product development at Apple, Jobs spurned most reporters’ interview requests, misled them in statements he did give, refused to disclose details of his cancer to investors until undergoing an operation and became shrouded in a scandal involving backdating stock options.

By all accounts, he played by his own rules.

Those who disclosed his secrets or whispered about his company were punished or threatened. Apple sued, and eventually settled with, the anonymous young blogger behind Think Secret, which accurately reported on Apple rumors in the early 2000s.

And then there’s the story of a lost iPhone 4 prototype, which was purchased and publicized by the blog Gizmodo.

“When this whole thing with Gizmodo happened, I got a lot of advice from people that said, ‘You’ve got to just let it slide,’ ” Jobs said onstage at a technology convention in 2010. “I thought deeply about this, and I ended up concluding that the worst thing that could possibly happen as we get big and we get a little more influence in the world is if we change our core values and start letting it slide. I can’t do that. I’d rather quit.”

That stance was repeated this year, with Jobs still as CEO though on medical leave, when another employee left a prototype iPhone 5 in a bar. Apple enlisted the help of San Francisco police to investigate.

“We have the same values now as we had then,” Jobs said at the AllThingsD conference. “We’re a little more experienced, certainly beat-up, but the core values are the same.”

‘We’re here to put a dent in the universe’

Perhaps the most salient of those values is, simply, to make an outsize impact on society. Or, as Jobs put it, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” However, Apple and Jobs didn’t make much of a dent with philanthropy.

“We do things where we feel we can make a significant contribution,” Jobs told Businessweek in 2004. “And our primary goal here is … not to be the biggest or the richest.”

To achieve that goal, Jobs was an obsessive micromanager. Part of the reason Jobs’ DNA is so ingrained in Apple is because he forced his hand onto so many parts of it. He personally fielded some customer-service requests sent to him via e-mail; he was active in product design, co-authoring more than 300 patents; and he had a hand in the marketing efforts, including the famous Think Different and Mac vs. PC campaigns.

“What is Apple, after all?” Jobs mused to Time. “Apple is about people who think ‘outside the box,’ people who want to use computers to help them change the world, to help them create things that make a difference, and not just to get a job done.”

‘Focus and simplicity’

Jobs famously lured John Sculley, the PepsiCo president, to run Apple by saying: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” (They had a permanent falling out when Jobs was booted from Apple.)

“What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do,” Sculley said in a 2010 interview with Businessweek. “He’s a minimalist. I remember going into Steve’s house, and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around, but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.”

Restraint, at least in gadget design and interior decorating, was a primary principle for Jobs. Shortly after his return to Apple, he shuttered several divisions and turned his attention to a few key initiatives. Even today, Apple’s product lines and revenue are zeroed in on just a few industries in which the company can dominate.

“That’s been one of my mantras: focus and simplicity,” Jobs told Businessweek in 1998. “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

He elaborated in the interview with the publication six years later: “It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish.’

Apple’s management team members have each adopted parts of this code.

Jonathan Ive, the industrial-design executive, echoes Jobs’ simplicity ethic.

Scott Forstall, the mobile software lead, has apparently inherited some of Jobs’ enthusiasm and showmanship.

And Cook, the former operations chief and, by some accounts, current workaholic micromanager, runs the company like he manages his private life: shrouded in secrecy.

However, Cook comes out of his shell in order to impart the ethical standards onto new recruits. He, along with other execs, teaches at Apple University.

Apple University ensures that employees are thoroughly educated on the company’s principles and that Jobs’ ideals live on. Jobs believed people never stop learning and should voraciously open their minds to new ideas.

Put another way, like in his closing statement to Stanford’s graduating class in 2005, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

~ Mark Milan, CNN