I was always very impressed with Steve’s technical knowledge and ability to understand technical issues.
A good example of this was when my team created the built in iSight camera.
We had to replace the external iSight camera that was a CCD imager, with an internal CMOS imager. We had created a prototype iMac, with the new CMOS imager, and had it sitting next to a system with the old external CCD iSight. It was an A/B comparison, and we had it set up in the Executive board room where Steve could come look at it when he had time.
When it came time for Steve to compare the quality of our prototype to the existing external iSight, Steve started asking me very detailed and specific technical questions. I had the answers, but he kept digging deeper and deeper, till he asked about the difference between the light well gathering characteristics of CCD vs. CMOS.
This was not the type of questions you expect from the CEO of a large company. And Steve had his hand in EVERYTHING at Apple from marketing, to engineering.
I answered his question about the difference between the light well gathering characteristics of the two technologies, and then realized that he had reached the limit of my knowledge. If he pushed further, I would probably not have had an answer for him. (Not a good thing.)
He stood there, in his iconic pose, one hand on his chin, the other hand on his elbow, pondering if what we were presenting was good enough. Then he said, “OK, let’s go with it.”
I started breathing again. I realized I had been holding my breath, waiting for his decision. I consider myself a nerd savant (a title given to me by a friend), but Steve could surprise you with his depth of technical knowledge.
Did he know everything? No. But he was very sharp and could hold his own in technical discussions (at least with me).
Another example of his ability to grasp technology, was when I presented to Steve my algorithm for Real-Time High-Definition Blue-Screen Chroma-Keying (technically, my algorithm works with ANY color, not just blue). I had presented a demo of this to my boss, Mike Culbert, and Mike was pretty sharp, but he was having issues understanding the algorithm. But we set up a demo for Steve, and halfway through the demo, Steve was leaping ahead asking questions of how I had solved certain technical problems to make algorithm real-time. He saw where I was going with my algorithm, and had intuited not only what the existing barriers were, but anticipated what some of the answers might be. It turned out that Steve had many good ideas, but had not anticipated my ‘insight’ on how I was able to make it real-time. Steve asked me if others could make the same leap I did, as he was trying to decide if we should patent it, or make it a trade secret. We decided that it was unlikely that others would happen upon my insight, and that it would be best for Apple to keep the technology a trade secret. The algorithm went into “Motion” and “Final cut”. (I don’t know if they still use the same algorithm used today.)
But this Chroma-Keying example shows that Steve not only grasped the technical implications of a technology, but also the business aspects as well. How best to deploy the technology, and if we should treat different technologies as patents or trade secrets. In this case, since we treated it as a trade secret, there was no patent filed for ‘teaching’ it to others. A patent allows you the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention for a set amount of time, in exchange for you teaching how you did it. A trade secret does not disclose how you created something, and you are betting that others will not figure out the way you did it.
I think he did very well dealing with technology, and I miss his ‘teachable moments’. When my team was creating AppleTV, I asked Steve why we were not supporting NTSC composite signals. Steve looked at me and asked, “Do you LIKE watching composite video?” Composite video was the old analog video format that encoded luminance and chrominance using a 3.58Mhz phase encoded signal to determine the color. There were many artifacts associated with NTSC composite signals, but it was a brilliant retrofit to upgrade the old Black and White video format to support color. (So that old Black and White TV’s would still be compatible with the new color signals being sent out. The image would be Black and White on old sets, but you could still see it.) The reason I asked why we were not supporting NTSC composite, was because that was ‘the’ standard at the time, and just about every TV set supported that input. But Steve’s question made me realize that being ‘compatible’ with as many sets as possible was not our goal. Our goal was to create a device that would display our content on TVs in the highest quality possible. So, officially, NTSC composite was not supported on the first Apple TVs. But unofficially it was… If you plugged an RCA composite connector into the “Green” analog output of an Apple TV, it would output NTSC composite, which could be input to the ‘yellow’ RCA connector on most TV sets. We also had outputs for S-Video if you used the “Blue” and “Red” connectors.
But my point, Steve not only understood technology, more importantly, he understood how to apply it to the consumer market. When it was important for a product to be compatible, and when it was important for a product to push us forward to adopt new technologies.
Ultimately, Steve was wicked smart (most of the time). He kept me on my toes, and he always pushed me to do my best.