steve's last theorem

“I finally cracked it.” is what Steve Jobs told to Walter Isaacson when talking about a way to revolutionize TV. Given the usual insanity, wild extrapolation and rumor-mongering that goes on regarding upcoming Apple products, it’s no surprise that this got a lot of people excited. Aside from the typical unfounded speculation, see for example Gruber’s excellent Apps are the new channels. I think everyone that works in tech and read that sentence is still wondering, exactly, what he meant.

This reminded me of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Pierre de Fermat, in his copy of Arithmetica wrote the following in one of the margins:

it is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain._

The proof took over 350 years to arrive, and obsessed many world-class mathematicians since it was first proposed. While it is certainly possible that Fermat had the proof in his head, he never published it or even wrote it down anywhere, and Occam’s Razor would dictate that he had the intuition, but not the proof, and he left that down there, to put it simply, as a prank – or, if you find that somehow offensive, think of it as a challenge.

Now, these two problems are as similar as oranges and toasters, but the result is not. Whether he had “cracked it” or not, Jobs knew that throwing down the gauntlet like this was something that would be analyzed, parsed, processed, and argued over for a long time.

He knew that, if Apple had a product in development in that area, he was setting the bar for its release high enough, in public, for all to see (and this is not a minor thing).

That, whether Apple actually had a product in play or not, he was planting the seed of something larger.

That someone, somewhere, would use it as a beacon to say “Steve cracked it, so can I,” and eventually, finally, really crack the problem.

Just a thought. :-)