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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gone in a Flash- “The day the music died”

            The Wolfpack Design firm out of Pennsylvania was scheduled to meet at our office to help us brand our new product. It was a Tuesday around 4 o’clock. That’s when Patty reached me on my cell phone with the news. She was our business “brains” and money manager. My heart hit the floor when she conveyed what had happened. I immediately called Wolfpack to cancel our scheduled appointment. I can’t remember the lady’s name at the design firm, but she was nice. She informed me the plane had already left and was scheduled to land in Nashville around 6pm that evening. I got the names of the two representatives and sent Alex to the airport.  I told him to, “Reimburse them, give them the bad news and send them back to PA.” 
            I couldn’t face them after they had flown down here with great expectations, from my understanding, about our new technology and ideas. Jack had been dealing with Wolfpack. I was only privy to the information he had verbally passed on to me. The rest of his ideas were locked away in the depository of his mind. But now, Jack was dead. And with his death went a stockpile of creative ideas.
            Our product was simple. We hadn’t named it yet, but we were both sure it was going to be the next big thing in computers. 
            It was January of 1999. I had a full time job in radio at the time. And I was just hoping to ride the coat-tails of this newly formed company.  Jack had an amazing mind. I stopped by and saw him that Tuesday. It was some time after lunch around 1 o’clock.
            He had the top of a computer tower beside his feet on the floor. Wires were crossed everywhere on his poor mother-board.  There were parts strewn about on his desk. He was hunched over fusing wires together in the back of a device and stinking up his little shop. I walked in and just shook my head as I looked around.
            My cell phone rang. I answered it and I noticed Jack out of the corner of my eye. He stopped what he was doing and started staring at me. As he walked toward me I noticed he had something in his hand.
            Thinking I was disturbing him, I turned away and started speaking softly into my phone. I was only on it for about a minute.  I hit the stop button and flipped the cover down and back up again to check for any missed calls. I pressed a few buttons and “flip,” a short time later I snapped the phone back onto a black clip attached to my belt. 
            In the meantime, Jack had grabbed a notepad and was drawing a sketch. I walked over to see what he was doing. He threw his hand up in the air as if he were a crossing guard using the “stop signal.”
            I said, “What’s ya got there?”
            He glanced up smiling and said, “Look! Here’s what you’ll have in a couple of years.”
            With my interest peeked, I thought he was going to show me a figure of how much money we were about to make from our new company. But that was not what he had sketched.
            It was a crude outline of the side of my head and a short little earpiece of some sort.  He had also drawn a square with a bunch of little symbols on it. I had no idea what I was looking at so I kind of mumbled under my breath.
            “What’s this?”
            Jack laughed.    He had a good hearty laugh. He was a little overweight, but had no lack of energy.
            Jack said, “What’s this? This is the future my friend!”
            I jokingly said, “Wow, we’re getting rid of our computers and going back to cave drawings in the form black ink on a yellow notepad!  I love it!”
            Jack laughed again. But he asked, “You ever heard of  an Alti-Vec?”
            I half heartedly lied saying, “Yeah, I may have seen a commercial.”
            “You did not,” he sounded off. “But that’s OK. You will. This technology is the future. If they play their cards right, it will become everything in one & you’ll carry it around like that little cell phone you have clipped on your belt.”
            “OK Jack, I’m still confused what are you talking about?”
            “Steve Jobs is head of Apple. They’re working on some new products that will revolutionize the computer industry… products that will allow you to carry around books, your music… everything you need will eventually be on a chip the size of a battery for your watch.”
            “And what kind of audio,” I joked, “will this chip have so I can listen to my favorite music?”
            “You won’t listen to the chip but the product will be the size of your cell phone. Think about the real reason you wanted a big ‘ol boom box when you were a kid?”
            “Well, ‘big ol boom boxes,’ as you refer to them, were stereos and cool and loud… AND that’s when we were kids. Who wants to listen to music on a crappy little cell phone-sized box?”
            “Who wants to be mobile? Who wants to be cool?” Jack says.
            I still didn’t understand him so I said, “I think you might be wrong on this one dude. I don’t like my music loud anymore and I don’t think this will make the kids ‘feel’ any ‘cooler.’”
            “Music makes anything cooler. It has since the first consumer record players.”
            “Jack, my friend, I think you’ve lost it. Are you SURE Apple is still in business?”
            “Trust me on this.” Jack says. Then he predicted the future right there in front of my eyes. He proceeded to say, “I’ll explain it to you. You don’t like your music loud, but if you were at the office or on plane… if you could hear your favorite songs and play them softly at anytime and listen to them through a stereo earpiece… would that not be cool?”
            “I guess.”
            “You guess… you guess? You can’t guess on a sure bet, and I’m betting that Steve Jobs is pretty smart. You know why?”
            I shook my head and softly reminded him that Bill Gates and Microsoft had cornered the computer market and that Apple would never compete with Microsoft.
            Jack said, “Apple doesn’t have to compete. There’s room for both. Apple is not in the computer business. Apple is in the communications business.  And here I thought you were a student of history,” he said sarcastically.
            “Hey now, I have a minor in history my friend!”
            “Well, you should have majored in it.”
            Frustrated, I snarled, “What are you talking about?”
            Again Jack laughed and slapped my back. Then his eyes got big as he said, “If you look at history, the “Big Railroad” companies had the “Railroad Market” cornered… before cars came along. But the Railroads didn’t realize they were not in ‘the railroad business.’ BUT they were in the transportation business. Their sole purpose was to get people, products, goods, and services from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ And who took over the transportation business?”
            “Cars and trucks,”
            “That’s right,” Jack said. “So the question is: who will control this NEW information super highway? Since the internet and cell phones arrived, computers, like boom boxes, will become more compact and their sole purpose will be to carry personal information, entertainment and job materials, goods and services from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ Computers are like the railroads. They hold information and you can send it from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ but who wants to carry a computer or even a laptop around with them everywhere? Computers are just one part of the transportation business and it will be the smaller, faster, more efficient ‘information animal’ that wins that race.”
            “OK Jack… you may be right but why would Apple have the advantage over Microsoft?”
            “Because Apple has been ahead of the curve all along bro...  Why do you think they gave away all those computers to the schools in the late 80’s--- early ‘90’s? They lost all kinds of money, but an entire generation has grown up using Apple computers. We in the workforce are used to our PC’s, but the next generation will insist on Apple.”
            “So what are these sketches you drew for me?”
            “Oh,” Jack says, “That right there (points to the earpiece) is what everyone will be using as a cell phone, and this little box here with the ‘squiggles’ on it will also work as a cell phone and have applications to use for everything from email, to Google, to music, to TV and games and you name it.”
            “Well,” I asked. “Where does this little memory device your working on fit in?”
            Jack took a deep breath and thought for a moment.
            Then he said, “It’s still going to be necessary but I want to make one that’s smaller too.  One that will fit in your phone, camera, computer… anything that stores information… then you can transfer it to whatever device you happen to have. Supply and demand… information- whether you need it or not- whatever is convenient.”
            “I thought that’s what the internet was for.”
            Jack laughed his hearty laugh again and said, “You still don’t get it, do you?”
            Then he nudged me and smiled saying, “Just messin’ with you big guy. I’m not saying I’m this big genius who can see the future. In fact I may be totally wrong!  BUT, there will always be a need for instant information, won’t there? We are the fast food generation!  We’ve got to have everything right now. Instant access… IN a Flash!”
            That is my lasting impressionable conversation with Jack. That January afternoon around 3:30 on a Tuesday, his heart gave out. It was sudden and quick. It was not a good start for 1999.
            The USB Memory Flash drive went to market in September of 2002. It was patented back in 2000. So, Jack’s idea might not have belonged to him anyway. But I have little doubt that some top executive-- at some big company somewhere… would have taken notice of Jack. For instance, turning iTunes into iPhones… WHAT AN IDEA… That would have caught on in a Flash.

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