I change the directions of small pieces of metal for a living.

Round Rectangles (or Why Steve Jobs Is a Visionary)

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A story was posted on Folklore.org (a site full of old stories about the creation and initial development of Apple computers) about the addition of rounded rectangles to an old drawing program, and Steve Jobs’s involvement in them. This section in particular struck me:

Bill fired up his demo and it quickly filled the Lisa screen with randomly-sized ovals, faster than you thought was possible. But something was bothering Steve Jobs. “Well, circles and ovals are good, but how about drawing rectangles with rounded corners? Can we do that now, too?”

“No, there’s no way to do that. In fact it would be really hard to do, and I don’t think we really need it”. I think Bill was a little miffed that Steve wasn’t raving over the fast ovals and still wanted more.

Steve suddenly got more intense. “Rectangles with rounded corners are everywhere! Just look around this room!”. And sure enough, there were lots of them, like the whiteboard and some of the desks and tables. Then he pointed out the window. “And look outside, there’s even more, practically everywhere you look!”. He even persuaded Bill to take a quick walk around the block with him, pointing out every rectangle with rounded corners that he could find.

When Steve and Bill passed a no-parking sign with rounded corners, it did the trick. “OK, I give up”, Bill pleaded. “I’ll see if it’s as hard as I thought.” He went back home to work on it.

I think this is a fantastic example of what makes Steve Jobs one of the few true visionaries in the world. In the face of a big advancement like fast ovals (yes, it was definitely a big deal at the time), I would’ve been more than satisfied. I may have asked for rounded rectangles in a second iteration, but it would’ve been a simple feature idea. I believe most people would’ve reacted the same way.

What makes Steve Jobs special is his ability to quickly identify what’s really important. It seems so obvious after the fact. Of course people would like computers with translucent colored cases! Of course minimalist controls would make for a more accessible and desirable MP3 player! Of course rounded rectangles are an extremely common shape, and are really important to have in a drawing program! These ideas (and more) are all obvious now. But a year before Apple did them, other companies were struggling to innovate in these fields, and they were only “obvious” to Steve Jobs.

Of course, anyone can have a great idea that turns out to be the right way of doing things. This is why I distinguish between “true” and regular (false?) visionaries. People called M. Night Shyamalan a visionary after “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. He then went on to make one more pretty good but decidedly un-visionary movie (Signs), an arguably good but decidedly un-visionary movie (The Village, which I loved, but I understand why others didn’t), and two duds (my apologies to the three people who liked them). The visionary label was applied to Shyamalan before he’d reached first base, and he got thrown out at second. This happens all the time, and these people are certainly not true visionaries.

True visionaries come up with visionary ideas so consistently, that it becomes expected of them. And no one (off the top of my head) has a more consistent history of this than Steve Jobs.