I was first made aware of Steve Jobs’ death in the evening of the day that he died, a few hours after Apple released the news to the public. I probably saw it before most Europeans, as I was watching it as breaking news on various American news channels while most of my blog readers (well, both of them!) were tucked up in bed. What struck me immediately was the level of coverage given to the story – every single American news station was running pieces on it, and they continued to run them throughout the rest of the evening until I finally went to bed (after my nightly dose of Family Guy and Robot Chicken). In what (sadly) has become a typical newsroom technique, to make up for not having anything new to say on the story, they were endlessly stating and re-stating the news, going live to various commentators for their opinions, taking calls (or, in the more zeitgeist-capturing moments, reading Tweets!), then going back to repeating themselves.
Now I know he was American (so perhaps the local channels were waxing more lachrymose than their European counterparts), and I know he was famous (as chief executives of companies go), but does the death of the head of a technology company necessitate the kind of media coverage that his had (and at the expense of every other story)? I don’t think so. As I watched CNN, with a background picture of an iPhone behind the newsreader, whilst the news ticker rolled by silently at the bottom of the screen, informing me that thousands of children were dying of starvation in Somalia, I became surer of this.
And as I watched the flickering candles and delicately-placed flowers (and half-eaten apples!) outside what looked like every Apple store in the world, I knew we were going to have another Princess Diana/Jade Goody/Amy Winehouse moment of emotional outpouring on our hands (fortunately it wasn’t such a big moment, Steve clearly spent too much of his personal life off-camera for us to go completely crazy about him – he should’ve done an OK! Magazine cover story about his liver transplant, or invited ‘Hello’ inside his house to view his collection of black turtleneck sweaters and blue jeans).
But we did have some outpourings – not so emotional, more measured, but still containing some bizarre opinions, some strange assertions, and some statements that flew in the face of the facts.
Let me say right away I’m not going to character assassinate a guy who’s just died of cancer, even I’m not that heartless or tactless. And I’ve always had a grudging respect for the man – he was talented, passionate, driven and incredibly good at what he did. But people seem to be quite ignorant as to what he actually did and didn’t do (and about what his products can and can’t do). Much of what’s been said about Jobs and his company recently (and about his products for a long time) is, at best, over-the-top and, at worst, wrong. And cutting through the hyperbole, as well as giving my opinion on Apple products and their users, is the subject of today’s lecture.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the terms ‘creative genius’, ‘inspiring leader’, ‘incredible man’ over the last week. Jobs’ company created beautiful-looking, elegant, easy-to-use products (and much of that is thanks to expat Brit Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer). But the way people have been frothing about him you’d think they were talking about Charles Babbage or Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison (sadly, some of you will probably have to Google those names to find out who they are). When Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby (the inventors of the microchip, the integrated circuit without which no electronic devices would exist) died, their deaths received short news items and they got simple obituaries. Their invention led to the consumer electronics era that has affected all our lives, yet their passings were quiet and today virtually no one has even heard of them. But not so with Steve and his shiny electronics – to be fair, many people had heard of him already, and now we live in a world where racist reality TV stars and drug-addicted pop singers are eulogised on their deaths, so perhaps it’s not that surprising.
So many people (and news organisations) have been describing Apple as a company that invented so many things – the personal computer, the mouse-driven GUI (Graphical User Interface), the MP3 player, the smartphone, the tablet computer; it seems they invented every major device. Not to play down their contribution, but neither Jobs nor his company invented anything (barring small extras here and there) – every major product Apple produces already existed in some shape or form (and in the early days of Apple it wasn’t even Jobs who did the design and engineering, it was his little-known colleague Steve Wozniak). The personal computer appeared in the early 1970s, when Jobs was still at school. The GUI and mouse were influenced by (or stolen from, depending on your point of view) a design invented by the Xerox Corporation at their R&D centre. And the MP3 player, the smartphone and the tablet all existed before Apple entered the market. What Jobs’ ‘genius’ was, and what Apple is great at doing, is not so much invention as re-invention, in entering an existing market and taking it over, to the point where the Apple device becomes synonymous with the general product.
And they have become very good at it recently. Is there anyone who owns an MP3 player that’s NOT an iPod? Now this is where I have to take my hat off to Apple (and do the first of many head-scratches over its customers) – Apple now seem to be able to sell anything, so long as it’s made by Apple. Five years ago the only people who had a smartphone were corporate workers with their Palms and BlackBerries. Now it seems everyone and his dog have one. Except they haven’t got a smartphone – they’ve got an iPhone. Now I realise the success of the iPod and iTunes means that, if you already have these and you want a new phone, an iPhone makes a certain amount of sense, but I’m still amazed at the number of people who are spending a small fortune for a smartphone with no memory card slot, terrible battery life, a badly-designed antenna that drops calls so often that you have to hold it a certain way to keep connected, and the inability to show most of the videos on the Web. But hey, it’s an Apple, and it’s cool and sexy, so buy one. And buy them we did. And now every year Apple releases a new model (to much fanfare) with one tiny change from the previous version, and everyone laps it up again (this seems to be Apple’s business model – start off with a basic product with many obvious features lacking, then increase the features incrementally [using Jobs’ famous reality distortion field to make it look like customers are getting more than they actually are], whilst simultaneously making it as difficult as possible to upgrade, all in order to force people to buy the next model). When Apple first designed products they were (albeit expensive) triumphs of form and function. Then, as they had to sell their overpriced kit in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they sacrificed function for design. When Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company increased both the design and marketing angles. And now their products seem to be a triumph of marketing over everything else. But clearly it works – the iPhone has a 30% share of the smartphone market and a 5% share of the overall phone market, despite its superior (and cheaper) competition. That’s the power of design, marketing, brand loyalty and good old-fashioned salesmanship for you.
Then there’s the iPad. Nobody had a tablet computer a few years ago (despite there being several on the market), for the simple reasons that no one really needed one (most people already had a laptop), and no one really knew what they were for. The same reasons are equally true now, except now the tablet market is worth $1 billion, and it’s down to the iPad (or down to Apple’s uncanny ability to make beautiful products and then sell them to people who didn’t know they needed them!). So, for the time being, the iPad IS the tablet market and, judging from HP’s decision to stop selling their TouchPad and Samsung’s poor sales of its Galaxy Tab, that’s not going to change anytime soon. And that’s despite having a product that’s inferior to a laptop and, right now anyway, not much more than a status symbol.
Admittedly, part of what makes Apple so successful is its uniqueness, not just in how its products look and work, but in the whole concept of them – while other manufacturers sold their devices purely on their specifications, Apple sold theirs on the users’ experience of those specifications. While other vendors tried to make their machines bigger and faster, Apple focused on making the user experience more enjoyable. This is perhaps why some obvious low-end features aren’t included in their products, or why some cost-cutting measures that could’ve brought the prices down aren’t made – because they would detract from the experience of using them. This approach has caught on with a generation of people increasingly viewing these devices as lifestyle furnishings as well as work tools. Apple’s products look good in the study, in the bedroom or in the living room. And Jobs realised this before anyone else, his ‘genius’ was to see technology in a different way from his counterparts.
Despite this admission of quality regarding Apple products, I still won’t be buying one anytime soon. I’m more of a specification and price kinda guy (although I still want to own stuff that looks good). And the fact is, however good their stuff may be, it’s shockingly expensive for what it is.
I think that Apple’s closed system is actually hurting technological progress – the ‘walled garden’ (where one company has complete control over applications and content on its platform) is an approach that reduces competition and stifles innovation, and leaves a few big players in control of vast swathes of the technology landscape. Ironically, we’ve already been here before with Windows – Apple seems to be guilty of a similar thing that Microsoft was doing a decade ago, yet it doesn’t seem to be attracting anywhere near the attention. It’s a shame that a company famous for creativity seems intent on stifling the creativity of others; it didn’t seem so sad when ugly corporate Microsoft did it. As a software developer, I find Apple’s secretive application process for developing applications particularly grating – you have to design, build and test your app before Apple will even tell you if they might allow it on its devices. But these are the hoops software developers have to jump through in order to access Apple’s considerable customer base.
Neither am I a fan of Apple’s constant suing of its competitors, and over technologies that it cannot possibly think it actually owns. I realise that big IT companies have stacks of patents, often similar to those of their competitors (which is why, when one sues another, the defendant often counter-sues the plaintiff for the same reason. It’s also what keeps the number of these lawsuits down in the first place), but Apple’s litigious nature is getting ridiculous – every tablet looks like the iPad by definition, it doesn’t mean they’re all copied from it. Many phones now have touchscreens, it doesn’t mean you have to take them to court because yours does too. Apple seems to want to sue its competitors out of existence (and in the case of Samsung it’s doing a fine job of it), until it’s the only vendor to have devices with the features people want. Even Microsoft never did that.
And, last but not least, I don’t want to join Apple’s ever-growing legion of adoring fans – those smug people who seem to believe that their choice of computer makes them a different person from the rest of us. Who think that PC users wear suits and are boring and unimaginative, while Mac users are creative, independent types who wear cargo shorts to work and travel around on scooters (although I’m sure not every Mac user is writing a novel or editing a movie on their computers!). Some brands inspire loyalty, but Apple seems to have a quasi-religious hold on some of their customers, who’ve fetishised their products to the point where they’d probably feel inadequate if they didn’t own them. There will always be hardcore fans of anything technological (and I’m sure there are plenty of Apple owners who buy them simply because they like them), but Apple seems to have the most salivating acolytes of all (with the gold medal of fawning adulation going to the otherwise-brilliant Stephen Fry).
Of course, Apple encourages all this blandishment with its marketing – at the launch of the iPad, Jobs described “engaging with it” as “a magical experience”. I know “engaging with it” is a fancy way of saying “using it”, but I thought “magical” was a word you were only supposed to use after witnessing the birth of your child or going swimming with dolphins. To quote a commentator on CNN, who said (without a hint of irony), “Apple don’t sell products, they sell dreams.”! You’d have thought the cynical Brits would be immune to such twaddle, but apparently not – over the last week several of my Facebook friends have been publishing their thoughts. One posted a status describing how Apple had “changed his world” and another posed the question “Where would my life be without my MacBook?”! If Apple changed your world, how big is your world exactly? And how much has Apple revolutionised your life really? Or any tech company, for that matter? The internet has made shopping much easier, but it’s still shopping. You can still find much of the information you need in an encyclopedia or at a library. Downloading music isn’t drastically simpler than popping into a music store in your lunch hour (and if you have my internet speed, it’s not faster either!). Online banking is certainly more convenient than queuing up to do your transactions, but you still have to do it yourself. Modern technology has made our lives easier, but it hasn’t revolutionised them or fundamentally altered them. When we have robot butlers who go to work and do our shopping for us, that’ll be a revolution. I’m still waiting scientists. Plus, most of us live in a materialistic society, and many of us measure our happiness by the amount of possessions we own – the last thing we need is to start defining our lives and worlds with our gadgets (and if you think I’m being dramatic, read up on the England riots of the summer, and ask yourself why every looter stole nothing but electronics and trainers, whilst leaving bookshops untouched!).
And as for Jobs the inspiring leader? Well, it’s said he was someone who could make you feel immensely proud one moment and utterly humiliated the next. His abrasive management style caused him to be booted out of the company he started, and he wasn’t shy in telling people they were useless and should seek alternative employment. He was famous for approaching people at Apple and asking them if they thought a particular person was an asshole (note the American spelling!). If they replied ‘yes’ he’d approach the person in question and tell them that the first person thought they were an asshole! And he was nearly fired from his first job at Atari for calling his colleagues ‘dumb shits’. Eat your heart out Gordon Ramsay. Although, like Ramsay, he did have the brains to back it up, and he inspired equal amounts of fierce loyalty as he did quivering fear in his staff.
And finally, what about Jobs the man? After convincing his school chum and HP employee Steve Wozniak to build the hardware for the game Breakout while Jobs was at Atari, by offering him half of the $750 wage (the work necessitated Wozniak working for four days without sleep), Jobs took the $5,000 bonus they were awarded after the work was accepted and buggered off without mentioning it to Wozniak, who’d done all the work (he did receive his promised $375 though!). Clearly, he wasn’t the sentimental type. (Although Wozniak later started Apple with Jobs, became a very rich man in the process, contributed significantly to the home computer revolution, and was one of the commentators on TV lamenting Jobs’ passing). Jobs fathered a child with his on-off girlfriend when he was 23, just as Apple was becoming successful. For two years, his ex-girlfriend raised the child on welfare while he denied paternity, swearing in court that he was sterile. He eventually acknowledged paternity (and he later married and had three more kids). Charming. And in 2005, he banned all books published by John Wiley & Sons from Apple Stores, in response to them publishing an unauthorised biography, iCon, in which the authors described him as “one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs” and said that he “would have made an excellent king of France”. Sounds like he saved the subtlety for his inventions. Unlike his contemporary Bill Gates (a man many Apple fans regard as the Antichrist), Jobs didn’t seem interested in using his enormous personal wealth for philanthropic purposes, which is strange considering he was a self-professed Buddhist. Nor did he embrace environmental concerns, with Apple repeatedly coming under fire from Greenpeace for its reluctance to recycle its products.
All in all, he was a one-off and, for better or worse, he left his mark on the technology industry. I hope Apple changes its business practices and doesn’t become a bloated monopoly like Microsoft did, and I hope it still keeps producing cutting-edge devices. I hope that someone will follow Apple’s mantra of ‘think different’ by showing the same level of creativity and innovation to make the next generation of technology, and not just ape Apple’s success by producing shiny gizmos called iSomething. And I hope we have the perspective to realise that, no matter how cool all this technology is, there are more important things in life.
Footnote – As always, I’m interested in reader’s comments, so feel free to add yours. Have I been too hard on Jobs and Apple? Was he the greatest visionary of the last 30 years, or just another gadget-maker? Do you own an Apple? And do you think it makes you different – is it just a device, or an expression of your individuality? And is our obsession with technology merely a consequence of its importance in our lives, or the ultimate expression of the self-absorption of the internet generation?