Steve Jobs

23:47 Sun 09 Oct 2011
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I wasn’t a big Steve Jobs fan; despite my working almost exclusively on Mac hardware for the last several years, I disagreed strongly with the direction I thought he was moving computing in. I was surprised to find myself feeling very sad at the news of his passing.

I’m not entirely sure what drove the extent of that sadness.

The first laptop I bought was a Powerbook; the last laptop I bought was a MacBook Pro; the laptop I requested for work is a MacBook Pro; the next computer I buy is very likely going to be a MacBook Pro. The first computer I did any programming work on was an Apple IIe—also the first computer I ever wrote any kind of user interface on.

In between and around what sounds suspiciously like the history of a typical Apple fanboy, however, was a lot of anti-Apple feeling. I disliked Macs for a long time, and I really hated the way they seemed determined to keep the user out of the details of the OS (which of course was precisely the point). The first computer I owned was a PC, and on that machine I got quite used to the command line—yes, the rather terrible MS-DOS command line. I wasn’t a wizard with it or anything, but it let me get quite a few things done quickly. It was a messier and more primitive interface than the Mac’s, but it also felt less condescending. Over time I gravitated towards a real command line, i.e. UNIX, and even further away from the philosophy of the Mac OS.

This made me vociferously anti-Mac in the late 90s, and predictable arguments with designer friends were one result.

What brought me back[1] to Apple hardware was Steve Jobs’ doing, although I strongly suspect it was an unintended side effect. He bet the company on remaking OS X into a “modern” operating system, based on what he’d done at NeXT, and that system included a real UNIX command line, and, buried in /Applications/Utilities, a genuine terminal. That was the reason I gave the Mac line a second chance, and while it was technology that wouldn’t have been there without Jobs, I strongly doubt that he had users like me in mind when he launched OS X.

In fact, while I give him a lot of credit, I think he was only considering the traditional Mac buyers—designers, musicians, consumers willing to pay a significant premium for both style and ease-of-use. But the explosion of UNIX-based open source projects created another market for the new Macs, the “alpha geeks” who were influenced by style too but needed machines that could run UNIX programs without enduring the pain of Cygwin—and didn’t want to deal with the hassles of having to configure everything to make it work well, which was the price of entry to all the other UNIX-based systems. I think this group had and has a significant effect on mind-share and market-share for OS X.

Again, they weren’t who Jobs was after, and his vision for computing is in many ways inimical to the views common among them: he wanted to provide a controlled, comfortable, aesthetically-pleasing, intuitive, and compelling user experience. The key word there is “controlled”: Jobs firmly believed that Apple should control as much of the user experience as possible, because he essentially didn’t trust other parties in that realm[2]. And he didn’t much care if various types of freedom were lost due to that control, as demonstrated by the iPhone and the iPad. Richard Stallman, in many ways the anti-Jobs[3], wasn’t wrong when he described him as “the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool”. I very strongly dislike the vision of computing’s future presented by the iPad, and I see that device as the purest expression of the future Jobs wanted for computers.

Consumerism, also, was at the heart of what Jobs created, especially during the second coming at Apple. IOZ wasn’t wrong either:

The molded plastic cases and backlighting may look like a spaceship, but their swift and planned descent into obsolescence is straight outta Detroit … He changed forever the amount of money you are willing to spend on shit you do not really need and, even worse, already probably own.

Jobs was very, very good at capitalism. In addition to the consumerist focus and the planned obsolescence, he also pioneered moving production to China and playing the game of cost-minimization without regard for the very real consequences that this has. You can certainly argue that this was necessary for his products to be successful, but the fact that he made that choice must be at least considered.

Then there’s his personal style, by which I do not mean the “reality distortion field” but rather his terrorizing and manipulating employees, and in many cases just treating people badly. My impression was that he wasn’t a person who I would like, in other words, and I was very suspicious of the notion that he should be admired.

All that said, why then did I react as I did to news of his death, accurately captured by this status update?

I’m much sadder than I would’ve thought to hear that Steve Jobs has died. RIP, you had an undeniable effect on the world we live in.

—Tadhg O’Higgins. Twitter, 05 Oct 2010.

It wasn’t due to the influence of media coverage; I first simply heard that he had died, without reading anything else about it, and immediately felt very sad about it.

As I noted above, I did my first programming of any kind on an Apple IIe. I was already interested in computers before then, and I’m pretty sure I was aware of who Steve Jobs was. In other words, I was aware of who Steve Jobs was from early on, and in a way intimately related to what is now my career—my interest in computers has persisted since that time, and over that period I’ve never stopped being aware of who Steve Jobs was, and he never really stopped being important during that time.

For better or for worse—and arguments can be made in both directions—he was a major influence on the field, and by extension the world[4], for more or less my entire life. For that influence to be gone struck me—probably because my feelings on its nature are more complex than Stallman’s—as a very sad thing.

While IOZ (and Stallman) might argue that CEOs just shouldn’t be admired, successful ones even less so, my experience in software, plus almost everything I hear and read about executives, strongly suggests that the vast majority of them are unimaginative, herd-like, over-entitled bean-counters with no passion for or even interest in the products their companies make beyond how it can lead to increasing their own wealth—and Steve Jobs was different. Yes, he was vastly successful, and ruthless, but he was also competent, extraordinarily passionate about his companies’ products, and dedicated to his vision of how technology should work. It’s quite difficult to compare that to the vast majority of executives and not see Jobs as admirable[5].

Would we have had MP3 players, smartphones, UNIX-capable laptops, and tablet computers with Steve Jobs? Undoubtedly, yes—but would we have them now? And would they be as good? I suspect not, especially in the case of smartphones, where the business environment seemed to simply require someone very like Steve Jobs to move the technology forward without being entirely stymied by the carriers[6]. This is true about a lot of things, and among them are user interfaces—they wouldn’t be as good as they are now without Apple’s influence, and that means without Jobs’ influence. And yes, this is coming from someone whose approach to and feelings about interfaces run counter to those presented by Jobs.

There’s another reason I was sad, too: because I’ve been aware of him for so long, because he’s so influential, because all my friends and colleagues and peers know and have known who he is and almost definitely have an opinion about him, and because of my being both in the software industry and in the Bay Area, he seemed like an immortal. Yes, that’s a stupid thing to say, because there are no immortals, and I know this. And I knew it specifically about Jobs, given his condition. Nevertheless, that was somehow my feeling. And ultimately the impact of his passing conveys a message I think he would have approved of: if even Steve Jobs is mortal, then your end too approaches, and rapidly. Whatever you’d like to do, best get to it.

[1] To the shock of designer-friend-in-chief Kev, whose reaction to the presence of my new laptop I still recall fondly.

[2] He probably had a point, and e.g. Apple’s interface guidelines probably did prevent many a user interface abomination.

[3] Just as much of a zealot, probably as much of a control freak, just as passionate, stubborn, and dedicated, potentially as influential (yes, really, and in some ways that question might not be settled for quite some time), but not at all dedicated to personal success and with opposed interests and causes.

[4] Particularly my world, so dominated by technology and computing, but it should be clear that the whole world and its future have been profoundly affected by his influence also.

[5] And, perhaps to darkly wonder if the degree to which The Onion was wrong amounts to a rounding error.

[6] Whether or not the existence of smartphones is a net benefit for the world is another matter.

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