06 October 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Sad news coming out of Cupertino late last night that Steve Jobs had passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Tributes have been pouring in from world leaders, business colleagues and rivals and ordinary Apple consumers, even Enda Kenny managed to take time off from crying into his corn flakes over Gay Mitchell's poll numbers to remark on the "creative genius" of Jobs and morn his passing.

When I started this blog back in 2006 it was primarily a work tool, I was running an online advertising business and wanted to understand what the products I was selling were like to use for a complete novice, and not just for a blue-chip corporation with a dedicated web team. With this in mind the initial posts were very vanilla, you would not find the same level of political discussions or general bile, wrath and ire that you all have come to love so much here at Booming Back. You would have found, however, a lot of posts about Apple.

I first encountered Apple back in (I think) 1991 in college, where our department (Theology, not CompSci or Engineering) had its own computer lab with three Mac Classics. My thesis was written on a Classic, and I remember many happy hours spent playing Spaceward Ho! on a college Quadra, which at the time seemed like something from the future because it had a colour monitor! For my sins I convinced my mum to buy a Performa for her first computer (I'm going straight to hell for that), but it wasn't until many years later that I had my own Mac at home, a Powerbook, a 12.1" G4, as a work laptop, something that took a lot of wrangling to secure through the company's IT dept because I wasn't an engineer, so why would I need something other than the standard-issued company Thinkpad? From there things got a bit out of control, to the point where now between the Very Understanding Girlfriend (who has used Macs far longer than me and brought a blueberry clamshell iBook with us to the States that just called out to be chewed on) and I there are eight Macs scattered around the house in various states of use (my G4 Cube is used mainly as a doorstop), and accusations were occasionally leveled at me with the term "fanboy" being bandied about, normally at or around the exact moment I was following a liveblog of the latest "Boom!" keynote from Jobs.

Good times, good times.

But (and you could hear this but coming from the opening paragraph) all of this overlooked serious flaws with Apple, flaws that originated by and large with Steve Jobs, flaws that are the very things usually singled out for praise. Jobs may have been a technical wizard, there is no doubt that the Apple II was a revolutionary computer, but it was primarily designed by Steve Wozniak. Apple's current success stems from the design of its products as much as their technical excellence, and for that Jonathan Ive can take the lion's share of the credit. What Jobs was primarily, and what he should be remembered for, was a ruthless businessperson and a damned good marketeer.

He was a man of two sides, a public face and a private face. While the public reveled in his laid-back persona with his trademark black turtleneck and jeans (unheard of for a major CEO), his staff were exposed to volcanic outbursts of temper and more than one have spoken of a culture of fear inside 1 Infinite Loop. This schizoid dichotomy permeates all aspects of Apple, the hyperbole that surrounds each product launched as perfect, and that it "just works", whereas every early adopter knows the pain of that early adoption, 1st generation Apple products are almost always rushed to market with sometimes fatal technical or design flaws (The iPhone 4 antenna problem is just the most widely known issue - my MBP 17" battery exploded, twice, while Apple were still issuing denials), the adoption of its products by cultural creatives while at the same time the negative ecological impact and the inhumane work conditions involved in the manufacture of these products are ignored, and the rosy hue that surrounds Apple's famed Innovation when it is involved in just as many patent infringements as its competitors, it just has deeper pockets to pay its lawyers.

I sometimes feel sorry for Bill Gates (but not that much), a man who has (for better or worse) had a much greater impact on global technology and has spent a substantial amount of his fortune (and pledged to give away the rest) to combat global poverty and health inequalities, and yet he remains a cartoonish villain in comparison to the much loved Jobs, whose own record of public philanthropy was strangely silent (though perhaps a more positive story will now emerge). I often imagined Gates sitting at home à la Monty Burns encountering rival Arthur Fortune, wondering just what he had to do for people to like him. "Poor Bill Gates", I would say, and then the moment passes.

But despite all this I still kept coming back to Apple. I'm writing this on an iMac, I read of Jobs' passing this morning on my iPad, I only recently retired my 1st gen iPhone when it just became too painfully slow (and I miss it despite its poor camera and inability to be used as an actual phone), and when I meet my business partner for coffee later today we will have the same conversation we always do about my iPod HiFi that he borrowed three years ago for a party and has never given back.

Such was the power of Jobs. A ruthless and exploitative capitalist that sold overhyped plastic that nobody needed yet everybody wanted, including me.

And perhaps there can be no more fitting tribute than that.



At 4:39 pm, Anonymous Felix said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and learnt much about Apple in the course of doing so!

Your mix of unreservedly embracing the shiny, unnecessary plastic in a "fanboy" fashion but also being able to balance that shiny Apple-love with some realism is my fav. tribute to the late and brilliant and ruthless Steve Jobs.

An excellent tribute.


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