Sunday, October 9, 2011

A bit of nuance on Steve Jobs

I think the canonization of Steve Jobs is getting a little tiresome.

I actually thought that within a day of his death, but restrained myself out of respect. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

The statute of limitations having now run out, I'd like to add a few words.

First on the plus side. Jobs was a design genius. His resolute insistence on simplicity and cleanliness wasn't a new thing in technology, but it was a new thing in computer technology. The over-complication of Microsoft software created a huge target to shoot at, but Jobs did not stop at being better. He really did have a genius for reducing things to their intuitive essentials and not accepting anything less.

So of all the tributes, I like Ross Douthat's in today's NYT the best. Nobody would have said that a computer was beautiful before Apple products. The all-white IBM Charlie Chaplin ads tried to make you think that PCs were beautiful, but they weren't.

And one of Jobs's greatest successes has not gotten a lot of press: The iTunes business model. He jerked the music industry into the Internet age and found a way for everyone to make money by selling singles for $.99. That was a stunning development given the rigid conservatism of the music industry's selling-plastic business model. (But see Dan Gillmor for appropriate reservations where this success is taking us.)

Having said all that, I would add three reservations.

First, Jobs was not a technological innovator in any significant sense. As has been told many times (though not often in the past week), the snappy, intuitive Mac interface was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Jobs oversaw the process of squeezing it down to fit in a box with 128K of memory and no hard drive. Those first Macs barely ran, but they got the ball rolling. There are many other examples. I toured the Mac assembly line in early 1984 -- the manufacturing technology was Japanese and had never been used in the US the way Apple was using it.

So part of Jobs's genius was recognizing the potential in other people's inventions, and executing the consolidation and integration of those developments. Of course, this is not really a negative. The world is full of examples of inventions that changed the world due to the genius of the executor, not the inventor. (Think Facebook.)

Second, Jobs's uncompromising insistence on simplicity sometimes got the better of him. When the Mac was designed, it was a courageous decision to insist on a one-button mouse. That was the source of some ridicule at the time (as well as some admiration). PCs already had two-button mice and there were experiments with 3-button mice. In this case the insistence on simplicity was right. But Jobs also insisted on a keyboard with no function keys. That pretty much cost Apple the business market, because Excel users needed function keys. I felt sorry for the true-believing Apple salespeople trying to sell Macintoshes into the workplace. Except for graphic design, it was a non-starter. So in this instance at least, the refusal to compromise was short-sighted. The course of computer history would have been different if Jobs had put function keys on the early Mac keyboards.

And finally, I am glad to learn that Jobs was a good family man, but he wasn't always a nice person to the people who worked for him and who challenged his absolute authority. Perhaps some of those people have already written about their experiences or will do so shortly. And even with family members, it wasn't always all love all the time--for years he refused even to acknowledge his first child.

Perhaps I am being churlish to note any of these things, but as Tom Lehrer said, if you don't like my song, you should never have let me begin!


  1. Even after reading this nuance view of him I still think highly of him. The Halo affect after someone dies is a bad thing- then there is backlash. Better to have an honest appraisal in the first place.


  2. I think it is unfair to say that he was "not a technical innovator in any significant sense".

    He definitely was not a researcher or an inventor, but innovation is a much broader term than that. It includes not just inventing new ideas, but also bringing other people's ideas to market in a way that brings new value and changes the market. Apple has certainly done that, and Steve played a big role in directing that innovation.