Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vague-iography: Steve Jobs

I was halfway through Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs when I suddenly went searching through my bookshelf for the book he wrote about Benjamin Franklin. I had read the latter biography when it came out in 2003, and I remembered it fondly. I was trying to figure out why “Steve Jobs,” despite being full of new information about the most compelling businessman of the modern era, was leaving me cold.
Joe Nocera, perhaps, is too kindly a man to suggest the reason for his disappointment. It's not in the author (still the same dispenser of "dutiful, lumbering American news-mag journalese" (Sam Leith) he ever was). It's not the difficulties of contemporary biography itself. It's the subject.

Steve Jobs is quite simply not a man who merits an immediate biography. Not a man whose accomplishments are "enormous" and whose significance must be digested immediately. Not a genius.

What he is is a very successful creator of consumer products, not one of which would never have happened without him. And he is the object of a personality cult. A personality cult that, quite frankly does not speak very well of us. Not because Jobs was particularly undeserving of a personality cult--I think we can confidently say that even taking his many faults into account, he looks quite good next to people like Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin and Castro. No, the reason the Jobs cult makes us look bad is that the cults for people like Mussolini and Stalin were motivated by Utopian dreams--dreams about peace, social unity, the betterment of society at large--which were perverted by and through these cults. (Or, if you will, the Utopian dreams were carried to their natural dystopian conclusions by these opportunists.) The cult for Jobs is an extension of our obsession with toys.

Now it has so long and so often been repeated that Jobs was a "genius"--that he fomented (at least) three different technological revolutions; that he was an "unparalleled innovator"--that by now this sort of statement is taken for granted and it seems perversely contrarian to deny them. But I would point out that proponents of Jobs's genius seldom go into any detail as to what his actual contribution to the technological revolutions was. They are treated more or less as miracles that took place in his presence, and, presumably, due to his presence.

I am going to try be more specific: I am going to take a closer look at the miracles that have led to Jobs's canonization--the personal computing revolution, the GUI-based operating system, Itunes and the Iphone. We'll leave the tablet computer to the side for the moment, as, as far as I can see, it is a technology still in its infancy and its ultimate impact is still pretty unclear.

Before venturing in, some background: I've been using computers since the third grade--1977. I used and programmed Apple IIs and compatibles since shortly after their first introduction. I've used and owned both Apples and Microsoft-based computers since 1990. My early Apple II experience no doubt makes me more of a Woz guy than a Jobs guy.

The Apple II

The Apple II has become emblematic of the personal computing revolution. Deservedly so. This was the first computer that was truly practical for the non-hobbyist to own and use or for schools, where the Apple II became the computer many children first encountered face-to-face, so to speak.

But the Apple II was not the work of Steve Jobs. It was the work of his partner Steve Wozniak. As has been documented many times, Steve Jobs was not a particualrly good electronics or programming man. Wozniak was. And his hacks, innovations and shortcuts are what made the Apple II such a unique machine in the late 1970s. And it was his respect for other people's ability to further hack and adapt the machine that endeared him to many in the early days of home computing. The Apple II had eight expansion slots for cards to be added to expand its capabilities in various ways; the architecture of the machine was open, and software and hardware were freely developed for it. This made the Apple II the beloved of the hacker and open-source communities, which can trace their lineage straight back to Steve Wozniak.

Jobs's contributions to the Apple II itself were small and in some part unwelcome (e.g. Jobs was hostile to cooling fans, so the Apple II had persistent problems with overheating). While Jobs contributions to Apple the business were considerable--Wozniak and the engineers had very little interest in the business side of personal computers. To a large extent the marketing success of the machine is to Jobs's credit. Jobs, for instance, found the first big financial backer for Apple, Mike Markkula. Successfully marketing a revolutionary new product that someone else made is hard work, but not the stuff of miracles.

And Wozniak's innovations would have had considerable impact even if the Apple II was a failure as a product. In other words, *someone* would have used them to try to push computers into the home and school market.

The Macintosh

In 1979, Steve Jobs and Apple engineer Jef Raskin visited Xerox PARC, a new technology development center. There they encountered the graphical user interface (GUI)--a way of interacting with the computer that did not involve typing code on a command line. Potentially such an interface could be made into an entirely intuitive experience that would open up computing to a whole new audience.

Jobs was wowed. This, he thought, was the future of computing. And thus was born the Macintosh.

Or so the stroy goes. But the fact is that Jobs was not the first person to think that GUI was the way to go. Many people thought that, including Raskin, who wrote his dissertation on the topic and had been clamoring at Apple meetings for a gui-based "everyman's computer" months before the PARC visit. Steve Jobs did not invent the GUI, nor was he the first to advocate for it even within Apple.

Everyone who thought computers had a future as a consumer product, and with the success of the Apple II, that was most intelligent observers, knew that the GUI was the key to that future. Where Jobs differed from many others (but not Raskin) was in his determination to make that future happen soon.

The resulting products, though, the $10,000 upmarket Lisa and the $2500 mid-market Mac, were failures. The Lisa primarily because businesses wouldn't make the jump to this wholly new kind of computer with very few programs written for it. The Mac becuase the only thing it did well was demonstrate the concept of the GUI.  It's measley 128K of memory made it little more than an intriguing toy. And it had not provided for expansion--a motherboard replacement was the only way to expand. The next version of the Mac had 512K, quadrupling the memory and making it all the more obvious that the initial release was an unconscienable compromise. And again, Jobs's hostility to fans had its effect: once agian there were persistent problems with overheating.

Far from being a revolution, the Macintosh was a small player in the PC market and Apple continued to derive most of its sales and revenue from the Apple II series. One wonders how the computer would have turned out if Raskin's initial concept would have carried the day, rather than Jobs's Lisa/Macintosh composite.

The Mac was a big step forward for the GUI. But it was not a revolution. If it were, I'd be typing this on a Mac, and Mac would more than a few percent of the PCs being used worldwide.

The iPod & iTunes

Just for reference: mp3s were already being traded online before the iPod. Mp3 players existed before the iPod. Some fairly good ones (Diamond Rio, for instance). The basic idea goes back to 1996, with the introduction of the Audio Highway Listen Up, which was never produced en masse, but has all the basic design and functionality elements we associate with mp3 players. When introduced, the iPod raised the bar in terms of design, mainly through a partnership with Toshiba, who were pioneering ultra-small hard drives. Competitors quickly caught up. This hardly seems the stuff of secular sainthood.

iTunes has been touted as "the turnkey solution" in the field. But the solution for whom, we might ask? It certainly has not been a turnkey solution for the music industry, which makes too little money off iTunes to staunch the bleeding from illegal downloading. It certainly isn't the solution for knowledgable users, for whom iTunes and Apple's obsessive attempts to control every aspect of consumer experience (and to get a cut of every expenditure) are an encumbrance, not a liberation. Though it IS a trunkey solution for Apple, which has made a great deal of money from it. Here again, from a business perspective, this is perhaps to be admired--like Bill Gates is to be admired for the empire he built with crappy software like Windows. But you don't get sainthood in my book for making a big pile of money.


Aside from making loads of money, the other thing anyone must acknowledge is Jobs's prioritization of design in computers and electronic products.

The first Mac was thoughtfully designed to be "welcoming." Even the Apple II looked distinct from an IBM Selctric typewriter, say. But at the risk of sounding like a philistine, so what? Even if we acknowledge they were somehow more welcoming with their softer corners, of which I'm doubtful, these machines are still ugly. And that welcoming face is completely subjective. A welcoming Apple II did nothing to help someone who didn't know BASIC or basic DOS commands. A welcoming Mac did nothing for a person who couldn't figure out a damned thing to do with it. And "welcoming" wasn't much comfort when the damned thing overheated.

The iMac was Jobs's first foray into truly extravagant design, and it was a pretty big success for Apple--note the "for Apple," meaning for a company that had not had a successful product in years. But mac still represents less than 10% of PC market share even today, after years of success. HP's is more than 18.

I had a couple of these machines around the office until recently, and let me tell you, the jellybean inspired designs do not age well. They are hideous, bulky and awkward. As is the lamp iMac of a few years later, though later flatscreen iMacs at least do not offend.

The basic concept that Jobs is pushing is the computer as "appliance". But the problem is that the computer is not essentially an appliance--the level of its functionality is microscopic (electrons getting shuttled here and there), so it's human scale form can never match its function, and every gesture toward form meets function is very much recognizable as annoyingly dated whimsy after a few weeks.

The all-in-one flatscreen iMacs finally overcome this problem though by eliminating the box rather than pointlessly trying to aestheticize it. This minimalism, in the hands of Jobs and the eyes of his beholders, becomes an aesthetic in itself. But the resulting computers are pretty consistently mediocre in terms of performance. Good enough for casual users. Not so good for anything requiring heavy lifting.

The flair for design may be better applied to electronic devices such as phones and mp3 players. But if these designs are so sublime, one wonders, why do they have to change every 18 months of so? Are these vaunted designs any more important than the curvaceous fenders on a 1977 Matador? and is a "passion" for one any less silly than a passion for the other.

And it is here that we find the real heart of Jobs's insight: how to play into our fetishism for shiny new objects, sleek, minimalistic, but with significant changes in motif . . . a change from say a look suggesting obsidian to a look more suggestive of a brushed metal, futuristic, industrial-aesthetic contrivance, then perhaps back to the computer meets comestible look. the constant changes fuel sales from novelty addicted clients, for whom these toys provide some semblance of greater meaning--some promise of a future where technology will somehow intervene to solve all our personal problems. And these toys have to look magical, even if only temporarily, in order to support the heavy, if unacknowledged, symbolism.

Reading too much in? How else to explain the irrational vehemence of the Apple acolyte? The I-shrines dedicated to a man an admitted asshole who, truly, did very little to become a saint and very little if anything of a truly revolutionary nature? Why else does anyone care so much? Why else do writers grasp after the grandiose but insistently non-specific when they lionize him?

Our Utopia has changed from being a place to being a kind of social order to, finally, being a magical item. Perhaps this is a utopianism without the dangers of Hitler or Stalin, but it also without the promise of the Enlightenment or, closer to home, the civil rights movement. Sad to see, really.