I was at the inaugural gathering of ConvergeUS, an initiative to use technology to improve the world in some small measure, when I heard the news of Steve Jobs‘ passing. Biz Stone delivered a nice message to the group to use the gathering as an effort to celebrate the desire to make a dent in the universe, rather than to mourn the passing of someone who strove to do so.
Being a geek, I made mention of the passing of a technology visionary on Facebook. Given that many of my friends are also geeks, my wall was covered by others also mentioning the passing. This did not surprise me. What did surprise me was the level of vitriol some of the posts exhibited. Apparently, Steve Jobs destroyed the computer industry as part of a larger effort to enslave humanity. I was not aware of this.
The case usually follows the same arc: 1) Jobs began his career as an anarchy-loving techno-fetishist who became the Big Brother overlord he so reviled. 2) He did so by beginning to produce overly-styled, underpowered crystalline machines that somehow reduced people’s basic computing freedom. And, 3) That he did so on the backs of underpaid labor in the developing world. As evidence, some linked to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Mike Daisey. I feel compelled to make a few points.
To think Apple was ever anything but a business is naive
As much as he was a visionary, Jobs was a salesman. Even in the early days Jobs had a product to sell; it wasn’t so much the computer as a mindset. And while he was equals with Woz on the Apple II, I don’t think Jobs really had his product until the Mac. The Mac was the first time he had a unique experience to represent the mindset he was trying to sell. While I think there may have been a democratic component to his vision, I don’t think it was about openness as much as accessibility. It was about moving computers out of the engineering lab and into people’s homes.
In fact, much of the criticism stems from Apple’s “closed” architecture for its computing platforms. I’m not sure this criticism is fair. In fact, the last time I remember Apple capitulating to calls for “openness,” they kicked Jobs out and licensed the OS to other manufacturers, a move which nearly killed the company. The only thing that saved the company from going under was Jobs’ reinstatement and his ending of the clone program.
In fact, anyone who has half a semester of Unix and knows where to find the Terminal application can make all kinds of changes to the system. Anyone with 99 bucks can write and install programs on their iOS devices. For those who don’t want to pay, you just need internet access and a search engine to find resources to jailbreak your device and install any program you wish. It’s not that the devices aren’t open, it’s just that the barriers to make significant modifications are intentionally high. Just because it can be easy to f@$% a system up, doesn’t mean it should be.
Thinking Apple is a computer company is short-sighted
Obviously, thinking of Apple as a hardware manufacturer sells them short, although I believe they make the best hardware in the business. Equally, thinking of them as a software company doesn’t do them justice, although they produce some industry-standard applications. Even thinking of them as a company that packages software and hardware together sells them short. What Apple sold was experiences; and that is where they were second to none. Starting with the first Mac, what Apple sold was a computing experience that could be understood by people outside the CS lab at a university, and that vision continues today.
What Apple demanded was that it didn’t take an engineering degree to interact with what they were selling. It wasn’t enough to demand this of just the core OS, but of all applications that ran on it. This started with unifying the chrome (the interface between OS and the applications). While many developers cried foul and said this infringed on their rights, it ensured that anyone using one application on their Mac knew how to find their way around any other application on their Mac. It continues today in their stringent approval criteria for iOS apps. Sure, the process isn’t perfect, but it greatly reduces the number of crashes and missteps when using an app on Apple hardware. Given the above workarounds for those who want to skirt the system, I think it’s a fair tradeoff.
One man’s job is another’s exploitation
While I won’t argue that the labor conditions are fair by western standards, or even “C’mon… Everyone’s doing it,” I will argue that in an global economy, if you want to sell stuff in China you need use Chinese labor. What seems like an exploitative move from an American point of view seems like common sense to a participant in the global economy.
If your greatest competitive advantage was getting a unified user experience into the hands of as many people as possible, and your greatest hope to deliver on that advantage was taking ownership of your entire value chain, and such a large proportion of your buying power was within China, how many or you would have decided differently? Honestly.
I’m a firm believer in “Do something rather than complain about everything.” While I believe that, eventually, the collective would have achieved some of the same successes as the Apple team, I am not naive enough to think that it would have happened this quickly. There’s a reason why GIMP isn’t as good as Photoshop. I’m not even so sure it’s the profits associated with the products directly; it’s more that Adobe can pay people to spend all of their time focused on the task of moving an already industry-leading application forward while GIMP is like Blanche DuBois in that it depends on the kindness of strangers.
I think Apple was audacious enough to lock itself in a room and say, “We can solve this. We can create the best experience for people who want to be creative, or consume media, or take functionality with them in their pocket.” In an era that places a premium on openness, that truly seems like “Thinking Different,” and maybe that’s at the heart of the controversy.
So, in short, thank you Mr. Jobs. Thanks for pushing our perception as technologists beyond silicon and beyond 1’s and 0’s. Thank you for making us understand that it’s the humans, not the hardware or software, that makes what we do so important. Thank you for teaching us that even the smallest design flaw can translate exponentially into lost opportunities.