This week cannot pass by without observing the passing of a giant of the computer world. It is a rare thing for one person to touch the lives of billions of people, for one's work to have a global influence. This week I'm also in Hong Kong and spent some time at the Hong Kong Electronics Show. I can tell you that his influence is on show. So let me say a few things that you perhaps didn't know about him.
He was a giant in the programming world. He is most famous for two major contributions. The first is developing the software that runs every Apple device on the market today, as well as most of the computers that run the internet. You may not know that the same software is also the foundation for every Android device. So you could say that his work forms the foundation for every mobile device that exists today - phone or tablet - not to mentioned many other computers.
His second contribution was almost a literal work, a "language" that has influenced the style of almost everything that runs a computer program today, far beyond anything you even know has a computer chip inside it. He did this by creating what is now the "mother" of virtually every programming language in use today. Such languages, including the one he created, can be found inside every device on the internet, every vehicle ABS braking system, every appliance, every computer, every cell phone, every tablet, every e-reader, every device with even a scintilla of intelligence.
You didn't know all that, did you?
His two contributions go by names you probably haven't heard of, unless you're an engineer or programmer - the "Unix Operating System" and the "C Programming Language".
You probably didn't know his name either - Dennis Ritchie.
And you probably thought I was talking about Steve Jobs, who also passed away last week.
Dennis Ritchie worked at Bell Labs, an institution that I credit for almost inventing the world of electronics. He wrote "C" and "Unix" back in the 1970s and both have since propagated into every programmed device on the planet and had an indelible influence on computer science and programming. He wrote a textbook that is on the shelf of almost every programmer in the world today, which is probably the only reason he is known even within the programming world. Outside that world, he is anonymous. In terms of wealth, I have no idea if he ever made any money beyond a salary at Bell Labs.
So it was an interesting contrast of fame and fortune when I noted the passing of both Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie occurred in the space of one week. The world mourned for Jobs and didn't even know Ritchie had ever existed. Yet Jobs' work was built on the foundation laid by Ritchie, with Mac OS and iOS both being built on Unix.
The two men, while both profoundly influencing the computer world, are a study in contrasts. They both prized minimalism and simplicity, but that's where the similarities end. Jobs was never a "programmer" or an "engineer". Jobs famously dropped out and Ritchie had a Mathematics degree from Harvard. Jobs was a style master, a marketing genius, and perhaps the greatest business leader since World War II. Ritchie was a style master too, but in a different way. While Ritchie practiced technical skills, Jobs practiced artistic skills. While Jobs influenced the world with highly engineered public relations and marketing, Ritchie did so in complete obscurity. While Jobs was a "control freak", Ritchie wanted his work to be shared with the world and has become "open source".
And as they lived, so have they died. Ritchie got one article in the New York Times. Jobs got tens of thousands of articles, made the cover of countless magazines, and is the subject of one of the most prolific biographers today, Walter Isaacson. I was also struck by the coverage Jobs received in the same week that the Nobel Prizes were quietly awarded, some of which lay the groundwork for potentially curing cancer.
Jobs deserves all the credit he has received for his artistic sense of style, product design, marketing skill, and business leadership. Less so the misguided lay person's thinking of him as a technical genius or a Thomas Edison, which he was not. I just wish that the world gave a little more recognition to the scientists, whether Ritchie or the Nobel Laureates, who toil in obscurity to change the world.
PS. I've been at the Hong Kong Electronics Show this week. Steve Job's influence is everywhere - product styling has come a long way due to Apple's contribution to electronic product design. The products today are beautiful, credit due mostly to Steve Jobs who made the world care about what these devices look like and how easily they can be used. Ritchie's influence is also pervasive. Android devices are everywhere. It will be interesting to watch the Apple-Android battle play itself out in the market in the next decade. I'm in the camp that believes that Apple is doomed on this one and that we're about to see a rerun of the Mac-PC battle which was overwhelmingly won by Windows, even though it was an inferior product.