It’s taken me a while to write this. Every thought and memory brings more memories. The first time we met quite by chance. So many other times: When you organized a soccer game with all the children overwhelming us adults at the GRiD party up in the hills… lots of joyous calling. Much of it in Vietnamese. I last saw you as you lay dying at the hospice. Karin, Gillian and I were there. It was a nice sunny day and the birds were chirping in the tree outside the window. It was around lunchtime on Tuesday, August 28. You seemed very calm and peaceful. I told you that everyone I could reach at GRiD sent you their best wishes and thanked you for what you had done for GRiD and for the world of design… you smiled and held my hand… and I told you how much you meant to me and you said a few words squeezed my hand and I kissed your brow. You gave me that very special smile of yours. That night I wept for Karin and the boys and for all of us… and I weep now. This is so very hard.
I was back in New Zealand when I received word that you had died. I stepped on deck into an overcast night sky. The rain had gone. I waited a while. The clouds briefly parted and I could see your star shining way to the South.
Paul Hammel VP Manufacturing at GRiD has written a very moving message about you. He writes about the joy he found in working with you and making it all real. There were of course some rough times. You were very keen on an early monolithic design with green white and blue keys. You presented this and we said “yes, it’s quite good” and we asked you to see if you could give us more alternatives. A few days passed without hearing from you. I called you and you and I met and you said you thought the design was good so why was it “simply dismissed” like that. I was surprised by what you said until I realized that you had heard the English use of “quite” meaning “not bad” rather than the American use of “quite” which means “very good”. I told you not to worry about the team as I had explained that your silence was so you could think about alternatives and were not at all put out. You suddenly brightened and said “well John actually I was sulking”… so we had a good laugh.
I wasn’t there for the Eureka Moment when the Clam-Shell concept came to you but I was there when you next went through some design ideas with the team. One concept that you had partially shown us previously but this time it had slightly more coloring and slightly more detail and that was the clam-shell. I think you’d simplified it a bit too. My memory of that moment has you folding your hands that were clearly aching to draw.. (rather like a glider pilot describing soaring). A big smile a few more words and then you stood back. Later I noticed that these were signs of great emotion for you as you let us all see: “that’s the one”. And indeed it was. The rest as they say. “Is history”… some history! The Compass lives on in so many different forms.
The detailed design for the GRiD Compass itself using your clam-shell approach solved many problems. Making the casework in magnesium ensured we could get the heat out by direct conduction and that the unit would be light in weight at just over 9lbs and rugged. The higher back section dealt with the need to cater for taller components and subsystems including some that we could only scope very loosely. The leg enabled a better keyboard angle and encouraged convection. The screen folding meant you could change the viewing angle. And of course the screen would be protected. Moreover it was a unifying event for the Company.
I loved your dedication to learning about everything and your persistence in questioning the value of things and how we approached decisions. I think at that time you became a believer in the design of multi-disciplinary teams.
Our first customers: Bank of America, Chevron and McKinsey all gave us feedback that our stuff worked well and how GRiD Central (essentially the first Cloud Computing) extended their operations. McKinsey gave us their perspective on the huge value of mobility in presentations and analysis. Much later we learned that the leading application for almost all of our early customers was negotiation decision support. This was such a powerful advantage that many of our early customers kept this as their secret for many years. Later our biggest customers were outbound sales teams. Government, engineering, and science were all big markets but field sales was, I believe, the biggest. All of these markets extended our technology and services giving us new capability. For years all in the same Compass form factor…. (although we added a fan for NASA. I had to be taken aside while Paul whispered in my ear “there’s no natural convection where hot air and cold air are the same weight”. You were joyous at the accounts of astronauts letting their GRiD computers motor around in the shuttle).
Later, apart from keeping in touch mainly through your books there was a long gap in talking about what we each actually did. Then suddenly you and I got back in synch when you told me about your evolving work on interactions.. I was stunned. I told you about GeoVector and connecting with stuff in the real world through pointing. “The world as your interface!” you said quietly with your drawing gestures and big smiles.
Sunita and I visited with you at Cooper-Hewitt. You welcomed us with smiles and hugs.. showing us around and then sitting in your lovely sparsely furnished office looking out on the garden. You laughed when I asked if this was the old “Drawing Room”. You opened our eyes to the journey you’d been on, where those new smiles came from and where you were going. You had wisdom and new joy in helping hugely important things happen by spending time looking for the values in things. … you had insight into how people, ideas, technologies, industries and markets intertwined and you could express simply that there were overall values in the way they could interact and that designs would all evolve and most importantly that interaction between people were enabled as part of the process. I hope that the things you set in motion at Cooper-Hewitt will go on to change us all.
It is such a sad thing that you should die so young.