Longstanding computer journalist and writer of the popular Guardian column Ask Jack
If Jack Schofield put his pipe into his pocket at a press conference ‘it was the equivalent of a gunslinger unclipping the strap on his holster’. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
Jack Schofield, who has died aged 72 after suffering a heart attack, was one of the outstanding computer journalists of his era, a reputation he established as editor of Computer Guardian from 1985 to 1994, and maintained until the end of his life. He never stopped working, recently filing the latest of his popular Ask Jack columns for the Guardian as well as a regular Just the Basics column for Which? Computing magazine, providing a masterly full guide to the arcane intricacies of file-wrangling.
Jack’s lasting legacy is invisible – improving the computer literacy of thousands of readers over decades through his painstaking advice and his inability to refuse help to anyone who sought his guidance.
He started writing for the Guardian in October 1983. For the previous 18 months there had been a lively debate within the paper about the viability of a computer section. When finally approved, Tim Radford and I were launch editors for Futures Micro Guardian, as it was called. As publication date neared we realised that we needed a columnist. At the time, I used to read Practical Computing, so I rang its editor and asked if he would like to write the first column. When he said yes, I added that maybe he had better write the following two while he was at it. Jack kept writing for the Guardian from then on. His first column, with a cartoon by Larry, was a guide for first-time buyers of computers, and after considering all the runners, including the BBC “B”, he thought the best value machine was the Sinclair Spectrum, costing between £100 and £130.
Two years later he joined the staff of the paper to edit the section rebranded as Computer Guardian to embrace wider commercial realities as well as personal computing. In an article about the history of the organisation’s computer coverage, Jack wrote: “The paper’s commercial strategy was to try to dominate the graduate recruitment market, and in the 1980s, IT was a growing business with plenty of job ads to chase.”
Jack carried with him an unrivalled wealth of knowledge about the history and technicalities of the computing industry. “Computer Guardian covered everything from talking teddy bears to supercomputers,” he wrote. “We covered microcomputers from Acorn, Amstrad, Atari, Commodore and Sinclair. These were extremely popular at the time, mainly for playing games, so I added a column of games reviews.”
His backlog of knowledge was so extensive that hardly any innovations came up that he could not trace the roots of. Few things were really new in Jack’s encyclopaedic mind. He was writing about the currently fashionable Internet of Things well over 20 years ago and had been writing about Google for just as long.
Bill Thompson, a former head of the Guardian’s New Media Lab, remembered him as one of the most supportive editors he ever had, who gave him his first break in the national press. He recalled one occasion when a source told him that Acorn – manufacturers of the BBC microcomputer – was about to spin its subsidiary ARM (Advanced RISC Machine, originally Acorn RISC Machine) off into a separate company. Jack called their press office, which denied it completely. A few weeks later it happened, and from then on Jack referred to Acorn as “Italian-owned Acorn Computers”.
At a press conference in 1999, Intel spent 40 minutes explaining how it was going to bake serial numbers into its Pentium III chips (which would have meant that every computer user could be identified). Jack and another journalist, Guy Kewney, left the spokesman speechless with some pertinent questions. The policy was dropped in the next version.
One of the few areas Jack was slow to move into was mobile phones. He persevered with his trusty Nokia for a surprisingly long time. Perhaps it went with the pipe he loved to smoke. Iain Thomson, US news editor of the Register, recalled how Jack’s use of his beloved pipe was legendary. “If Jack was cleaning it in a presentation he was either bored or irritated. If he put his pipe into his pocket and drew a deep breath it was the equivalent of a Western gunslinger draining his whisky and unclipping the strap on his holster.”
Another seeming anomaly, known among his peers as “the Schofield enigma”, was Jack’s hostility to Apple and its products. He rarely mentioned them in his writings and hardly used the work Mac computer that was issued to him. It was partly because he was wedded to his deep knowledge of Microsoft and its ecosystem and partly because he thought Apple was too controlling.
Charles Arthur, a fellow Guardian computer editor, said: “Jack had a utilitarian view of IT, perhaps because he’d seen it from the wires-and-transistors era; he didn’t understand why people would pay extra for something that he didn’t perceive as having value, ie, the user experience.”
However, Jack was always ready to help anyone who had a problem with their computer, a practice that became institutionalised with the Ask Jack column from 2000. The last two questions he answered were: “What do I need to work from home due to coronavirus?” and, last week, “What’s the best tablet for video-calling grandma?”
Born in Barnsley, West Yorkshire, Jack was the son of Joseph and Cynthia Schofield. He was educated at Belle Vue boys grammar school in Bradford. While in later life Jack was inescapably associated with computers, he was actually an English scholar, gaining a BA at Birmingham University in English literature in 1969 before doing a master’s in English at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
His first passion was photography, and on return to the UK he moved to London, editing various photography magazines including Zoom and Photo Technique, and writing books such as The Darkroom Book (1981), and Photographing People (1982).
In 1985 The Guardian Guide to Microcomputing, a selection of his columns, rewritten and revised, was published, and in 1996 he co-authored, with Wendy Grossman and David Goul, The Hutchinson Dictionary of Computing, Multimedia and the Internet. He also wrote for numerous websites including ZDNet and Reuters as well as being a frequent broadcaster with the BBC. He took special delight in talking about computers to schools.
He kept politics out of his columns but his views came out on social media, not least in a post on the day of the last general election when he referred to a “Tory party that slashed the police force (by 20,000) and the NHS, reduced the number of nurses (now 40,000 short) and GP surgeries, destroyed legal aid, crippled the probation service (which will now have to be renationalised), ran a racist Home Office that screwed up immigration (Windrush), closed hundreds of public libraries, piled on student debt, used a bedroom tax to harm the disabled, cut benefits and drove a record number of people to food banks, failed at negotiating Brexit, sold out to the DUP, and is highly likely to break up the UK.”
Jack married Rosalind Goh in 1977, and they settled in Cheam, Surrey. She, their son, James Alexander, and his sister, Patricia, survive him.
- Jack Schofield, journalist and writer, born 30 October 1947; died 31 March 2020