October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: The Seymour Cray of Personal Computing

Michael Feldman

There are only a handful of people in the computer business that rate the title ‘industry icon,’ and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was surely one of them. Jobs died Wednesday at the age of 56, just two months after leaving his CEO role at the company due to his deteriorating health. Although a controversial figure at times, Jobs managed to shape the multi-billion dollar personal computing industry, which he helped create.

In a very real sense, Jobs invented personal computing in 1976 when he, along with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne launched Apple Computer. Or at least he defined what personal computing was all about: the user experience, rather than the computing experience.

For the next three and a half decades, Jobs refined and expanded what that experience could be, leading consumer computing from desktop PCs to media players, then smartphones and now tablets. Other companies followed his lead — sometimes successfully, sometime not — but it was Jobs who set the pace.

And he managed to do all of this from a company that often struggled with profitability and market share. Today, Apple is a multinational giant, and is, in fact, the biggest and most profitable consumer electronics empire on the planet. As of last month, Apple was also world’s largest publicly traded company by market capitalization; at a value of $222 billion, it surpassed even Microsoft.

There is, in that sense, no equivalent to Jobs and the Apple empire in high performance computing. At least not today. But Seymour Cray and the company he built by the same name, was, and is, in many ways, the Apple of supercomputing. Cray, the company, has a single-minded focus on all things HPC, and innovates accordingly. Cray, the man, is recognized as the father of that domain, and like Jobs, shaped its business.

And he did it roughly during the same time period as Jobs’ early days at Apple. Cray founded Cray Research in 1972, introducing the Cray-1 vector supercomputer in 1976. That cutting-edge beauty of its day, with its iconic bench seating, had the look of a Star Trek computer, and delivered a 170 megaflops. That was at a time when HPC users coveted anything that could deliver more than a handful of megaflops. The current iPad 2, by the way, is about 10 times as powerful as that original system.

Unlike Jobs though, Cray’s devotion to supercomputing never made him or his company rich. In 1989 he exited Cray Research and launched Cray Computer Corporation, which subsequently went belly up in 1995. Cray then launched his final company, SRC Computers, to build his next-generation super. The design work had just begun when, in 1996, Cray died as a result of a car accident, also coincidentally on October 5. He was 71.

Jobs was more the entrepreneur than Cray, who was a bona fide computer engineer. That matched their respective pursuits appropriately. Jobs strength was envisioning electronic products that the average consumer, not the computer geek, could use and love. Cray, on the other hand, was catering to the elitist of the elite of computer users. Not only did he have to understand that rather rarified community, he also needed its respect as an engineer.

To hope for another Seymour Cray or Steve Jobs is probably asking too much. For high performance computing , especially the commodity HPC business, we could certainly use someone who embodies both Cray’s supercomputing smarts and Jobs’ intuitive understanding of how human beings interact with computers. Even though a lot of companies tout ease-of-use and simplified management, HPC systems still require a hefty understanding of Linux (or Windows), as well as cluster and fabric management. Despite the preoccupation with the so-called “missing middle,” turnkey HPC remains elusive.

But the right type of out-the-box thinker could change all that and reshape the future of this industry. The era of Everyman Supercomputing is perhaps just waiting for the next industry icon. We have a couple of great models to show us the way.