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Steve Jobs, Atari Employee Number 40
Steve Jobs, Atari Employee Number 40
October 7, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi

Steve Jobs was called many things during his tragically short life -- innovator, entrepreneur, leader, father -- but back when he showed up at the Los Gatos doorstep of arcade game leader Atari in May of 1974, he was an unwashed, bearded college dropout more interested in scoring some acid than changing the world.

As Atari alumni and Pong engineer Al Alcorn tells it, it was a pretty typical day at the company's then-modest warehouse digs -- walls lined with Pong and Pong-like cabinets, barefoot technicians reeking of pot after some early afternoon hot boxing -- when personnel handler Penny Chapler came into his office.

"We've got this kid in the lobby," Alcorn recalls her saying. "He's either got something or is a crackpot."

By this time Alcorn was used to unkempt guys wandering into the office looking to make some bread. In the greater Los Gatos area, engineers saw Atari as the cool place to work: there was no dress code, your bosses didn't care what you did in your offtime, and working on games was way better than the televisions and industrial equipment you might touch your soldering iron to at other companies.

"He was this real scuzzy kid," Alcorn once told video game historian Steven Kent. "I think I said, 'We should either call the cops or we should talk to him.' So I talked to him."

Jobs had no real engineering experience to bring to the table. He had a small amount of education from Reed College, but it was in a completely unrelated major, and he had dropped out early. But he had a way with words, seemed to have a passion for technology, and probably lied about having worked at Hewlett-Packard.

"I figured, this guy's gotta be cheap, man. He really doesn't have much skills at all," Alcorn remembers. "So I figured I'd hire him."

A Diet Of Air And Water

Jobs was hired as Atari employee #40, as a technician fixing up and tweaking circuit board designs. One of his first roles was finishing the technical design of Touch Me, a simple arcade memory game similar to Ralph Baer's later Simon toy. He more than likely helped out on other games that year, such as racer Gran Trak 20 and the odd experiment Puppy Pong.

But the young, abrasive Jobs didn't fit in. As the various stories go, complaints ranged from poor hygiene to an abrasive attitude to strange dietary habits.

"He says if I pass out, just push me onto the workbench. Don't call 911 or anything. I'm on this new diet of just air and water," Alcorn recently recalled (though the story sometimes involves a jar of cranberry juice).

Though he didn't have much personal interaction with him at the time, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell remembers the young Jobs as a "brilliant, curious and aggressive" young man, though very abrasive as well. Though Jobs would come to be praised as a brash, firm leader, at 18 this quality manifested itself in a negative way, making several enemies at the company by openly mocking them and treating them like they were idiots. Despite this, he was a promising employee, so Atari found a way to keep him on board.

"I always felt to run a good company you had to have room for everybody -- you could always figure out a way to make room for smart people," Bushnell recently recalled. "So, we decided to have a night shift in engineering -- he was the only one in it."

Spiritual Research

After about five or six months of saving money and working the night shift (often inviting friend, collaborator and eventual Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak into the office to help him with engineering challenges), Jobs approached Alcorn to let him know he was quitting the company to go to India, meet his guru, and conduct what he referred to as "spiritual research."

Alcorn turned his trip into an opportunity for the company: Atari's German distributors were having trouble assembling the games due to a problem with the country's incompatible power supplies. It was a relatively simple fix, but Alcorn's attempts to troubleshoot long-distance were proving fruitless. He needed someone out there to show them how to fix the problem.

"I said Steve I'll cut you a deal. I'll give you a one-way ticket to Germany -- it's gotta be cheaper to get to India from Germany than it is from here -- if you'll do a day or two of work over in Germany for me," Alcorn recently recalled.

As it turned out it would have been cheaper to fly out of California, but they didn't know that at the time, so Jobs accepted. He flew out and though he was able to fix the problem, it wasn't a joyous business trip for either party involved: vegetarian Jobs struggled to eat in the "meat and potatoes" country, and Atari's German distributors didn't know what to make of the odd foreigner.

"He wasn't dressed appropriately, he didn't behave appropriately," Alcorn remembers. "The Germans were horrified at this."

From there, Jobs went on to India as planned (there do not appear to be any historical accounts of what exactly he did during his trip, though "backpacking" and "acid" are common words used by those who have recounted it). He returned to Atari several months later with a shaved head, saffron robes, and a copy of Be Here Now for Alcorn, asking for his old job back.

"Apparently, he had hepatitis or something and had to get out of India before he died," Alcorn told historian Steven Kent. "I put him to work again. That's when the famous story about Breakout took place."

Jobs and Woz Break Out

As the story goes, Atari suddenly found itself facing competition in the arcade video game industry it created, most of it from former Atari engineers who struck out on their own, stolen parts and plans in tow. No longer able to survive on various iterations of Pong, the company designed a single-player game called Breakout, which saw players bouncing a ball vertically to destroy a series of bricks at the top of the screen.

The game was prototyped, though the number of TTL chips used would have made manufacturing expensive. The company offered a bounty to whoever was up to the task of reducing its chip count: the exact numbers seem to have become muddled throughout history, but the general consensus among those who are there said that the company offered $100 for each chip successfully removed from the design, with a bonus if the total chip count went below a certain number. The young Jobs, who in retrospect comes across as an excellent liar, somehow won the bid for the project.

"Jobs never did a lick of engineering in his life. He had me snowed," Alcorn later recalled. "It took years before I figured out that he was getting Woz to 'come in the back door' and do all the work while he got the credit."

Jobs convinced Wozniak to work on the game during his day job at Hewlett-Packard, when he was meant to be designing calculators. At night the two would collaborate on building it at Atari: Wozniak as engineer, Jobs as breadboarder and tester.

Allegedly, Jobs told Wozniak that he could have half of a $700 bounty if they were able to get the chip count under 50 (typical games of the day tended to require around 100 chips). After four sleepless days that gave both of them a case of mono (an artificial time limit, it turns out: Jobs had a plane to catch, Atari wasn't in that much of a rush), the brilliantly gifted Wozniak delivered a working board with just 46 chips.

Jobs made good on his promise and gave Wozniak his promised $350. What he didn't tell him -- and what Wozniak didn't find out until several years later -- was that Jobs also pocketed a bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. Though it's often reported that this caused a rift in their friendship, Wozniak seems to have no hard feelings.

"The money's irrelevant -- and it was then. I would have done it for free," he said in a recent interview. "I was happy to be able to design a video game that people would actually play. I think Steve needed money and just didn't tell me the truth. If he'd told me the truth, he'd have gotten it."

The Forbidden Fruit

As this was going on, Jobs and Wozniak were designing a personal home computer during their offtime, which would eventually become the Apple I. Even Alcorn himself got involved, unofficially.

"I helped them with parts, I helped them design it. It was a cool engineering project, but it seemed [like it would] make no money," he recalled.

"He offered the Apple II to Atari ... we said no. No thank you. But I liked him. He was a nice guy. So I introduced him to venture capitalists."

Jobs and Atari soon parted ways, and Apple Computer was formed on April 1, 1976. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Isaiah Taylor
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Wow. Great read Frank. Didn't know Apple was founded on April 1st. Which is, oddly enough, my birthday.

Wonder what Steve Perlman's experience was working with Jobs prior to him creating OnLive.

stan kinaz
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Jane are you kidding me? Rog is just expressing what Tupac has been saying for years . . . . Enjoy:

jin choung
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i know that the world is awash in hero worship and outright idolatry in the passing of jobs. and i don't mean to take away from him any of his accomplishments.

but in reading a story like this, it DOES occur to me that no man is an island and none a captain of their own fate.

if things worked out just a little bit differently in even the stories mentioned above, jobs could have ended up with a very different destiny.

he sounds like a typical snake oil salesman (with the attendant lack of integrity) but he happened to live near silicon valley and he got genuinely lucky.

with different rolls of the dice, with a different childhood neighborhood, he could have just as well turned out to be a used car salesman.

David Rodriguez
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"...with different rolls of the dice, with a different childhood neighborhood, he could have just as well turned out to be a used car salesman. "

Jin, that's the story of 100% of the human population. No one ever knows what's going to happen to them at any given time. He understood execution well and had absolute confidence in everything he did; that's the core of any success story. So I'm sorry but to say he got "genuinely lucky" is a half-ass way to right off someones work. One way or another, luck plays a role in all our lives but it's not ever something to be relied on. If you want something, go out and get it.

Nick Harris
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I predict with some confidence that you will go to your grave bitter at your abject lack of achievement. Kindly muster some tact and stop pissing in the growing pool of tears.

Cheng Ling
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A 'lake of tears'? Get over yourself, Nick. I suggest you read a non-sepia-tone biography of Steve Jobs, maybe learn what everyone said about him before the eulogies.

Byron Wright
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you make your own luck, period.

Daniel Martinez
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After reading this, Woz has tremendous respect from me.

Ian Bogost
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If I'm not mistaken (I might be), Alcorn had to completely redesign Breakout anyway, because Woz's design was too complex to manufacture at scale (or perhaps he was using custom HP ICs, or something like that).

Ron Alpert
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redesign it from....what? (interesting)

Wilson Almeida
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Thanks for the article Frank always a nice read.

Carlos Sousa
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Great article, it's so nice to have an idea, based on these types of texts how things were (and worked) back then, such interesting curiosities!

Jeremy Reaban
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This is getting to be a like the nerd's version of Princess Diana dying...

Caulder Bradford
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Jobs looked a lot like Ashton Kutcher back in the day.

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Perhaps Ashton could play Jobs in the upcoming movie.

Steve Neumeyer
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The accuracy of details in this story are questionable. 911 didn't come around until the 80's.

Teri Pettit
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There may be questionable details, but that isn't one of them. 911 became the official national emergency number in early 1968.

Cheng Ling
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Umm ...

Look, I realize after someone dies, there's a desire to whitewash his errors and play up his successes. But Steve Jobs was no hero, no visionary, no genius.

He rode his buddy Steve Wozniak to create Apple.

His first tenure at Apple was all about watching Woz and others invent while he yelled at people, taking a small break to father a child and refuse to admit she was his.

Then he took Xerox's GUI-and-mouse idea (admittedly with Xerox's complicity) and preached about it while others made it work. Bizarrely, when Bill Gates did the same thing, the story became that "Microsoft stole Apple's idea".

Then he was fired for being the bell-end everyone knew he was.

Then he went off and rode some more creative people for a while, came back, rode some creative people for a few more years, and somehow cemented a 'vsiionary' status for other peoples' work.

Anybody know the name of the guy who headed up the iPod development team? Or the guys who actually wrote the software for it?


Throughout the life of Apple it has never ceased to amaze me how thoroughly they hoodwinked their clientele. Look at the 'Occupy Wall Street' kids, all screaming about corporations ... on their iPhones. This defines the contradiction that was Steve Jobs. He wasn't a creative visionary, just a business guy. Yet he made a life pretending to be a 'revolutionary', an 'anti-business guy', a 'good CEO', and his company became one of the most successful 'anti-capitalist' capitalist businesses. Even manufacturing the iPhone in sweat shops around the world can't tarnish the golden idol.

He is, really, the poster child for the 'hippie' age: a bunch of people who believed in nonsense growing up, and when the real world showed them it was nonsense, they just kept talking the talk while walking a completely different walk.

Enough with the glorification. This isn't even game-related. He was CEO of a company that made a device that can play games. He's on every page everywhere, glowing in a halo light. Let it rest. Good businessman, but let it go.

Ian Uniacke
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Yes not talked about here is that the Apple execs tried to squash the mac project in favour of Lisa, which was to be more of a standard business machine. Only Steve Jobs championing of it got the project off the ground and in fact he continued to work on it despite the lack of support from the upper echelons of management. If it weren't for that, the gui driven interface might have taken a lot longer to come to a reality.

Cheng Ling
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"The myopic tunnel vision of tech people"

Really? Is that anything like elevating a bog-standard businessman to god status after he dies, because you want to believe he was more than he was?

I have nothing against Jobs as a businessman. I have everything against the seemingly moronic people who believe he was some saint or savior. He embodied every negative stereotype of the CEO that we always hear: he took the lion's share of the profit and credit for every venture, regardless of his actual involvement; he was abusive to his employees and worked them like slaves; he openly stole from more innovative people; he cut all his company's charitable contributions to save a few pennies; and so on. Plus, in his personal life, he was just as despicable.

Frankly I don't care about most of that stuff because I saw him for what he was: a charlatan. He was a successful businessman who managed to hoodwink a bunch of people into thinking the computers they bought, the capitalism in which they engaged, was 'art', a 'movement', a 'philosophy'. I'm sure he was laughing right to his grave about that one.

But I do care about this Jobs myth becoming even more gilded as days go by. The facts do not support this glorified shine-job eulogy.

"Jobs had that vision"

... so did Bill Gates.

"You're just bitter."

Oh, not at all. Bitterness requires that one be antagonistic or hostile; I'm apathetic towards Jobs. He was one of thousands of interchangeable CEOs. I'm not bitter. I'm apalled at the cognitive dissonance that exists amongst his cult-like followers.

"the Apple execs tried to squash the mac project in favour of Lisa"

Jobs was heavily involved in Lisa, hence the urban myth that he named it after the daughter whom he denied and abandoned to poverty. He was forced out of that project, so he joined the Macintosh project ... which was already in development.

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It funny how people who have little knowledge of the Xerox GUI get upset at the suggestion of Microsoft copying Apple by saying simply Apple copied Xerox so as to suggest that the Microsoft GUI was effectively a Xerox copy too ...

...Um no. Yes the concept of a GUI is attributable to Xerox and yes they deserve the credit for it (Which JObs has readily given them over the years) but the fact of the matter is that the Xerox GUI was very poorly implemented and looked little like the Apple version. Apple came up with the drop menus, resizable Windows, movable windows, the trash can etc...

Apple took the idea of the GUI from Xerox and hugely improved on it. That's innovation.

Microsoft simply copied Apple's version of the GUI (and then NeXT's) and didn't really improve on it - they just copied it. The difference between Apple and Xerox was huge. The difference between MSFT and Apple was negligible in terms of differences.

The modern GUI was Apple, and yes, Microsoft simply copied them.

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No it doesn't look like the Apple version, and more importantly it didn't work like it - grab-able resizable windows, drop-down menus, the menu bar and layout, trashcan et al...there were many things that distinguished the Mac GUI from the Xerox version.

The Windows version, on the other hand, was a direct knock off of the Mac version, copying nearly each and every convention (poorly in those days)

Don't get me wrong, Xerox gets the props for coming up with the GUI and before that Douglas Engelbart for the mouse, but the way we interact with computers today on PC's is because of Apple and spread worldwide by Microsoft.

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What I am saying is that Apple clearly took the concept of a GUI from Xerox - freely admitted by Steve Jobs and paid for in Apple stock - and then improved significantly on the idea.

I would have no problem if Microsoft took Apple's GUI and significantly improved on it. Instead, they simply copied it wholecloth from Apple and then NeXT. If they had made real improvements, I could commend them for innovating, but they generally made a worse but similar version.

In fact, I would give Microsoft kudos for Windows 8, clearly an attempt at improving the PC GUI - a real attempt at innovation. Good for them and I hope that they keep it up. They made no such effort in those days and were simply mimicking Apple.

Teri Pettit
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I was a member of the Star dev team (worked at Xerox from Jan 79 through Sep 87), and I'm a lot closer to Rog's opinion than to Cheng's.

Jobs WAS a visionary even though he didn't invent anything, because (a) he had a great ability to recognize just what aspects of something were perfect and which needed improvement, (b) he had a passion for design, coming from the core and expressing itself in all details, and (c) he was great at convincing and marketing.

Practically every Xerox vet I know recognizes Job's genius, including Adobe's founders:

There's no resentment from the Xerox vets, rather a feeling of gratitude that he took the ideas that we knew were going to revolutionize the world of computing, and brought them to the masses where they belonged, rather than cordoned off in the little niche of monstrously deep pockets where Xerox was able to sell them. (Mainly the US gov and its contractors.)

The Star's problem wasn't that the GUI was "poorly implemented", as V N claims, though. While it's true that it didn't have a "trash can" icon, how many people today actually drag their documents onto the trash can? In the Star, you hit the Delete key when the document was selected, and even today most users use keyboard shortcuts to delete files.

Apple's biggest UI innovation was drag-and-drop, in contrast to the Xerox UI which followed a click-key-click modal sequence. (You didn't drag a document onto a printer icon, you clicked on it, hit the Copy key, and then clicked on the printer icon of your choice. Its windows WERE resizable and movable, but you didn't mouse down on a corner and drag, you clicked on a corner, hit the Move key, and then clicked on where you wanted it to move to.)

Dual click UI's are often faster and always incur less muscle stress in the hand than drag-and-drop, but mentally they are less intuitive because they have less carry-over from the way we convey things physically. So drag-and-drop is a useful addition to the repertoire of gestures, but it is an incremental improvement. It deserves very little credit for why Mac made it and Xerox Star is a historical footnote for geeks.

The Star's UI was absolutely revolutionary. But it couldn't get off the ground in the market because Xerox management came from the mindset of leasing expensive copiers to businesses, and they insisted on seeing the Star as a bigger and better word processor workstation. The Star's overriding flaw was that it was a single machine, and a very expensive one at that ($16K in 1981), that could only run one monolithic program written in a proprietary language (Mesa). In a Lisa, Mac or Windows, the Finder/Explorer handles OS functions like file management, printing, and the desktop GUI, but more elaborate functions like word processing and email are separate programs, and like any OS, it can run any app written to its SDK. Star was a single program that did everything. It didn't have the ability to load and execute any other programs. Xerox, coming from a big hardware box background, couldn't see selling software without a box, and was afraid of the loss of control that would be entailed in selling a box that you could run anyone's software on. That is a recipe for a dead end. No matter how insanely great the GUI was, it was doomed to a stay in a tiny market niche until some company had the vision and courage to sell it as an OS veneer with a toolkit for independent software devs to write to.

Apple didn't introduce "huge improvements" to the desktop GUI over Xerox's. What they did do was make a huge improvement to the BUSINESS MODEL, and for that Jobs justly deserves credit.

Alan Rimkeit
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Steve rocked, but we should all also be thanking the Xerox PARC team who innovated the Mouse and GUI system. With out them Jobs endeavors with Apple might have been very very different. Thanks Steve for all the great memories with my Apple IIE as a kid! ;D

From the wiki page:

"The GUI

Xerox has been heavily criticized (particularly by business historians) for failing to properly commercialize and profitably exploit PARC's innovations. A favorite example is the GUI, initially developed at PARC for the Alto and then commercialized as the Xerox Star by the Xerox Systems Development Department. Although very significant in terms of its influence on future system design, it is deemed a failure because it only sold approximately 25,000 units. A small group from PARC led by David Liddle and Charles Irby formed Metaphor Computer Systems. They extended the Star desktop concept into an animated graphic and communicating office-automation model and sold the company to IBM.

[edit]Adoption by Apple

The first successful commercial GUI product was the Apple Macintosh, which was heavily inspired by PARC's work; Xerox was allowed to buy pre-IPO stock from Apple, in exchange for engineer visits and an understanding that Apple would create a GUI product.[6] Much later, in the midst of the Apple v. Microsoft lawsuit in which Apple accused Microsoft of violating its copyright by appropriating the use of the "look and feel" of the Macintosh GUI, Xerox also sued Apple on the same grounds. The lawsuit was dismissed because the presiding judge ruled "that Xerox's complaints were inappropriate for a variety of legal reasons," [7]"

Jane Castle
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Right because Microsoft ripping off the work of Xerox PARC would have been lost to history. Only Steve Jobs had the "vision" to steal this tech.....

Cheng Ling
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So Apple 'steals' the idea from Xerox, and they're 'visionary heroes'. Microsoft 'steals' the idea from Apple and they're just 'copying'?

That's a hilarious line, considering the Macintosh was initially a failure.

And everybody who saw the UI/mouse combo saw its potential ... everybody, that is, except Xerox. Just because Jobs got the first chance to rip it off doesn't make him a visionary or a genius, it just made him first. Funny how you don't want to compare relative success - Microsoft took the same idea to world domination from the 80's to mid 90's, while Apple almost went out of business ... until they bought another company and got into the music player business.


Harris Javed
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"And everybody who saw the UI/mouse combo saw its potential ... everybody, that is, except Xerox. Just because Jobs got the first chance to rip it off doesn't make him a visionary or a genius, it just made him first. Funny how you don't want to compare relative success - Microsoft took the same idea to world domination from the 80's to mid 90's, while Apple almost went out of business ... until they bought another company and got into the music player business."

Apple may have been the first to take it, but I think they may have been the only ones who figured out how to effectively use the tech and present it to people. Once everyone saw what they did with it, then everyone started jumping on the tech.

stan kinaz
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UMMMM bill gates visited xerox parc too. I do not understand why jobs is getting all the credit. It is obvious woz was the genius behind apples sweet beginnings. It is also obvious that all the supposed success that jobs has been given recent credits goes to the newer generation like woz. I hope one day those people will received their just credit, but as history has shown with woz as an example . . . it will be unlikey. Cheers to the unsung heroes who steve jobs had used over the years to make apple a success. In my opinion Steves Jobs' triumph was bitter sweet.

Teri Pettit
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Re: " bill gates visited xerox parc too."

Yes, but for whatever reasons, Gates initially dismissed the concept of a GUI desktop OS until after the Mac reached market and he observed the public response to it. What he picked up from Xerox in the late 70's was the concept of a GUI word processor. Microsoft Word owes not only its concept, but its architect to Xerox's Bravo, which ran on the Alto. My first manager at Xerox was Charles Simonyi, who was recruited away from Xerox by Microsoft to start the Word team. But Word was introduced under DOS, not Windows.

(While people often credit Xerox with inventing the GUI, it's more accurate to say Xerox invented the GUI OS. GUI's were used in individual apps before then, predominantly games, but you always ran them from a command line OS. Xerox's innovative leap was envisioning the user's interaction with the OS as if it were "the desktop game.")

Re: "It is also obvious that all the supposed success that jobs has been given recent credits goes to the newer generation like woz."

Newer generation? Wozniak is four years older than Jobs.

They had a division of expertise, Woz in engineering, particularly chip design, and Jobs in marketing. Neither one of them stole credit for, nor dismissed the importance of, the other's contribution. And Jobs did not fail to give credit to the engineers and designers at Apple, either. He yelled at and belittled employees when they didn't meet his extremely high standards (which is not a great character trait), but he both empowered them and gave them credit when they did.

So, saint no, visionary yes.

Carlos Sousa
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One thing is for sure, whether you like Steve Jobs or not, you are all talking about him.


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Its' obvious from reading these post that Jobs is a polarizing figure among the tech engineers and the developers of the world today. Perhaps his legacy has more of a foot hold on believes in technology than most care to admit. Seems that we can all come to one agreement. The man disrupted the world of technology and sent it on a path of credibility within the minds of the developed civilizations, albeit by the hard works of others who may have understood the inner workings of it more than he did.