6 October 2011

Steve Jobs

At the risk of sounding like a Mac hipster, I was a Mac user before it became fashionable. For 20+ years I’ve used Macs, even staying with the company during the 1990s when it looked like Apple was about to collapse. In the house at the moment are four iPods, two Macs, an AppleTV, and an iPad. You might think that I would be joining in with the collective outpourings of grief.

The problem is, I don’t do religion, and I don’t support teams. I tend to be, as Ambrose Bierce put it, “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” So I have mixed feelings about Steve Jobs.

He’s credited with inventing the personal computer, in the form of the Apple II. But it was always crazily overpriced in the UK, as a matter of Apple policy, and I only ever knew one person who had one. I had a TRS-80; lots of people had Commodore machines. Later, everyone had a Sinclair ZX-81 or Spectrum, or a BBC Micro. The Commodore PET pre-dated the Apple II, and it was Chuck Peddle of Commodore who gave us the beautiful 6502 processor that so many early personal computers — including Apple’s — relied on. And a great many Apple II machines were sold not for use as personal computers, but to act as dedicated boxes for running Visicalc, the first spreadsheet.

Yes, the Macintosh is why we aren’t all running DOS. But again, it was crazily overpriced in the UK until the 90s, and only businesses had them. Everyone else had an Amiga, an Atari ST, or a DOS PC. Inventing the personal computer was good, but I’m much more grateful to Jack Tramiel for selling me better hardware at less than a quarter of the price. The Mac also wasn’t Jobs’ project — Jobs gave us the Lisa, which failed, then grabbed the Mac project later on.

The NeXT machine was an amazing piece of design. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell it was never sold outside the US; I’m not sure how Tim Berners-Lee got his. One of the exciting things about visiting the US in 1990 was actually getting to see a NeXT. I’ve always had a suspicion that its failure was in large part due to practically nobody in Europe being able to buy them or develop software for them.

Yes, Steve Jobs saved Apple. But largely, I think, via the force of his reality distortion field. The iMac, often viewed as his first stroke of brilliance, was in progress before his return. The “investment” by Microsoft was of no importance to Apple’s finances, and was actually an out-of-court settlement to end a legal case Microsoft was about to lose.

Yes, the iPhone was his baby. But he made the same disastrous go-it-alone decision that had been made with the Mac, dooming it to inevitable niche status. And then he compounded the error by locking it down, driving away many of the hackers who loved the Mac, myself included. I’m also bitter about his decision to absorb Newton, Inc and kill the company and its products, rather than let them stand or fall on their own merits.

It was no real surprise that Jobs wanted the iPhone and iPad to be closed consumer appliances. He wanted the Mac to be the same way. The ability to buy more RAM for your Mac is not the way Steve wanted it. He didn’t want the iPhone to have an SDK or third-party applications either.

Sure, Steve Jobs he had a singular vision for good product design. But he often took minimalism too far, removing buttons from the iPod, making the iPad speaker point the wrong way, making batteries non-replaceable for the sake of a millimeter less thickness, and giving us that godawful circular mouse.

Jobs was a self-made billionaire, not a silver-spoon trust fund baby like Gates. That counts for something. But, and here we get to the big ‘but’… Steve Jobs was kind of a dick. He famously cheated Woz out of his share of a bonus while developing Breakout. He had an illegitimate child, denied paternity by lying to the court that he was infertile, and then married someone else and had three kids. He cut all Apple’s philanthropy programs, and kept them cut even after the company started making record profits again. He flouted the law by refusing to put a license plate on his car, and routinely parked it in handicapped spaces.

His management style was infamously abrasive. His standard response to any great new idea was to tell you it was stupid, wait a few days, then propose it as if he had thought of it. He would scream obscenities during meetings.

Some would no doubt say that you need to be an asshole to be brilliant or to be successful in business. I don’t buy it. I’ve met high level executives who are ruthlessly business-focused without being dicks; I’ve met geniuses who are humble. For a while, Steve Jobs was the single thing keeping me from wanting to work at Apple.

But Jobs’ force of personality, his so-called Reality Distortion Field, somehow made other people overlook his mistakes and terrible behavior. I never bought into it, which is why when he decided he wanted the right to tell me what software I was allowed to run on Apple hardware, I refused to cross that line. And it’s why I sit here with mixed feelings about the man. I actually hope that with the cult leader gone, people might start to apply a little more objectivity when examining Apple’s products and business practices.

© mathew 2017