Steve Jobs: Legal snags masking a greater legacy

October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs 2010With the recent passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, there has been a great outpouring of grief at his death and respect for his life.

Particularly mentioned are his accomplishments after his return to Apple in 1996, such as the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Still more mention his major impact on personal computers, but most leaving the praise in vague terms.

The fact is, though, that if not for Jobs, it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the personal computer – as we know it today –may not have ever come into being.

Indeed, if not for some significant legal decisions, the world’s PCs would probably be running a Macintosh operating system instead of a Windows one.

The most well-known of these legal decisions, and the only one actually made in a courtroom, can be found in the complex procedural history of Apple v. Microsoft.

That suit involved Apple suing Microsoft for copyright infringement with the release of Windows 2.0, claiming that Microsoft had stolen key design elements (189, to be exact) from Apple’s operating systems, Macintosh and its precursor Lisa.

Did Microsoft deny that they were stolen?

Nope.

Instead, Microsoft’s defense was that it had a license to steal them, and the courts agreed.

This, obviously, takes some explanation, and brings us back to earlier legal decisions.

We all take for granted the graphical user interface (GUI) of today’s computers (GUI refers to using graphics and a mouse for user interaction with the computer, instead of purely text inputs à la MSDOS).

However, without Steve Jobs, the GUI may never have become the standard on PCs, or its development may have been significantly delayed.

As repeatedly pointed out by Windows supporters, though, Jobs himself was inspired by visits to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

There, he witnessed the first GUI-based computer.

Xerox had no plans to sell that or any other computer in the consumer market because company management wasn’t interested in something that had little or nothing to do with photocopiers.

This greatly upset Jobs, who saw the potential of the technology, and he was able to recruit PARC scientist Larry Tesler with this attitude.

Although Apple and Jobs had already begun development on their own GUI computer – the Lisa, named after Jobs’ daughter – the trip to PARC essentially gave the development team the encouragement they needed to complete it (Apple’s use of Xerox copyrights was fully licensed).

The Lisa – the first publicly-released GUI personal computer – went on sale January 1983, and the more popular Macintosh was released the next year.

Before then, though, Bill Gates’s Microsoft was the first outside developer to get a Macintosh prototype, charged with creating productivity software (word processing, spreadsheets, etc) for the Mac.

Gates instantly fell in love with the Mac OS, and after the public unveiling of the Macintosh, Gates essentially begged Apple to license the software to outside manufacturers so that the Macintosh would become the standard in personal computing.

Steve Jobs 1984Although there has been much speculation to Gates’s motivations in doing this, Gates himself later stated that Microsoft’s software profit margins were much higher on MacOS than for those on IBM’s licensed MSDOS platform.

For a variety of reasons, Gates’s proposal was rejected by Jean-Louis Gassée, who had been given control of the Macintosh and Lisa projects after Steve Jobs was ousted from them.

Arguably, this was Apple’s first significant legal decision which led to the supremacy of the Windows platform on the PC.

The next decision came five months later: Windows 1.0 was released in November 1985.

Although Windows 1.0 was widely considered unimpressive, Apple was very upset that Microsoft had stolen several elements of the MacOS (many design components of Windows were identical to Mac’s OS) and threatened to sue.

Of course, Apple still needed Microsoft’s software to help bolster Mac sales, so Apple wanted to, and did come to a settlement with Microsoft.

The agreement, signed a week after Windows’s release, licensed Macintosh design elements to Microsoft to be used in Windows. 

This legal decision probably turned out to be the most significant.

Unfortunately for Apple, their legal team didn’t do a very thorough job.

Microsoft wrote the licensing agreement to include the use of Apple features in Windows 1.0 and all future Microsoft software programs (much to the surprise of Apple).

Without this agreement as a defense, Microsoft would have almost surely lost the lawsuit that Apple filed against it after the release of Windows 2.0, which had integrated many more elements from Mac’s OS.

Even with these adverse legal decisions, though, Jobs can still be credited with a major role in making the PC what it is today.

After all, even though Windows is the dominant PC platform, it was effectively copied from the Mac OS, which was derived primarily from Jobs’s ideas.

In fact, it was Jobs’s vision of the GUI as the future of personal computing which led to its introduction to consumers to begin with.

So although most people today associate Steve Jobs with the iPhone or iTunes (and those surely are major innovations), Jobs’ lesser known, but nonetheless greatest legacy is the point-and-click computer interface that we all take for granted.