October 10, 2011

The Steve Jobs Memorial iPhone App

I was a bit taken aback by the outpouring of grief for Steve Jobs … I had no idea that so many people would take the loss so personally.  And I had no idea that he would be cheered as such a “great American”.  I wonder if Bill Gates will engender such a deeply personal reaction when he passes?
Now, don’t get me wrong: if you are a great believer in American capitalism, then Steve Jobs should be a hero to you.  He is, unquestionably, one of the great capitalists of his generation.
And I understand that many people have a deep fondness for the gadgets he developed.  I know many people who swear by Macs, and won’t even touch a PC unless it is absolutely necessary.  I hear the testimonials about how the iPod changed the whole musical landscape, though I don’t buy that for one minute.*  I see the people who fetishize their iPhones and iPads, and though I can appreciate them as cool little toys, they are far from “game changers” as far as I can see.
I do not own a single device that was created directly by Apple (though, not being a techie, I may have some devices with Jobs-developed tech in them and not know it).  I never got a Mac because they were/are expensive and don’t play well with other computers.  I never got an iPod because they have obnoxiously proprietary software, and they don’t play well with the online music sites I subscribe to (though, that aside, I do think they are the finest portable music devices currently made).  I haven’t got an iPad because, frankly, given the amount of typing I do on a computer, it would be of much less use to me than a laptop, and you can get a pretty decent laptop for the price of an iPad.  I do lust after an iPhone to a small degree, but the stupid phone that I currently have serves my needs well enough (plus I don’t have to pony up for a ridiculous plan just so I can check scores on my phone when I’m stuck at work).
Indeed, the proprietary nature of all of Jobs’s hardware seems anti-democratic (“If you want the cool stuff, you have to pay for the cool stuff, and you have to buy it from me.  And you not only have to buy the hardware from me, but the software as well.  And you’re going to have to pay extra, because this is, after all, the cool stuff.”).  The proprietary nature of his tech was designed to create a self-sustaining market for his products.  More than creating cool stuff, Jobs was interested in cornering a market by creating cool stuff.  The cool stuff was not the end, it was the means, with market domination as its end.  To me, he’s nowhere near being in the same league as whoever it was who introduced consumer-grade recordable media to the general public … now there was a guy/gal/team of folk who really changed things.
There is the air of hipness around Apple, an air of exclusivity.  I don’t think it is a stretch at all to think of Apple products as fetish objects.  And while I do appreciate that there is a level of high design to everything that Jobs touched, I don’t think that Apple products are held in the regard they are simply because of their quality: it’s all about fashion, and it’s fashion dictated by marketing.  At the end of the day, Jobs’s real triumph was not in technology, it was in marketing.
Please do not take this as a criticism of Steve Jobs: I live with a designer, I have designers in the immediate family, I understand the value of design.  Design was the cornerstone of his marketing, and even if marketing was his real triumph, design was essential to his marketing campaign. He was very, very good at what he did.  The only problem I have is that I’m not sure all the eulogizing takes into account what he really did.
Again, Jobs was the consummate capitalist.  I can admire him in the same way that I admire a consummate basketball coach … Bobby Knight, say.  Furthermore, as far as I know, Jobs conducted his business in a relatively moral and forthright way, given the morality and rules of capitalism.  I have no problem whatsoever with Steve Jobs as capitalist.
But I do have a problem with Steve Jobs as cultural icon.  The kind of culture that worships Steve Jobs is a culture reduced to a glossy magazine ad.  Or, perhaps more accurately, a culture reduced to a trendy lifestyle-enhancing iPhone app.
*  That argument could be made for the faceless Japanese engineer/design team at Sony who invented the Walkman, thereby changing dramatically the role of music in our lives.  The iPod, to me, is an updated Walkman with a big promotional campaign. 


Matt said...

hear hear on this post. it's not like Jobs was caring for the homeless in Calcutta (though they may have built his phones), but you'd think he did based on all the carrying on. I find it offensive to see photos of people crying and gathering outside Apple stores, iPhones lit up with a photo/movie of a candle.

I think this piece sums it up perfectly: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/opinion/jobs-looked-to-the-future.html?_r=1

comfortstarr said...

I'm semi-with ya on this. However, I think you underestimate the degree to which Apple products are (were) better than the competition. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that 95% of all art that is digitally manipulated, was done so via a Mac. And I don't think this is just because artists tend to find apple products cool, it's because apple products (and the software they run) just works better most of the time. I think he and his organization were more like Edison Labs than some other capitalist enterprises.

I think Gates will be memorialized equally, but for different reasons (business acumen and philanthropy). It's interesting to note that Jobs expressly demurred from joining the Gates/Buffet pledge about giving away the bulk of one's estate.

The other thing: most people in the position of publishing tributes (written, video, audio) use macs... so there ya go!

Bill Zink said...

I will grant you that Macs are significantly better than PCs, but a lot of people I know who are very discerning computer users/builders won't touch Macs because of the proprietary nature of the machines. This whole proprietary thing is an anti-populist move, plain and simple. And beyond the Mac, the rest are just toys, really.

But yeah, there's no denying the superiority of the Mac. I believe if he had tried to be even a little more democratic with the marketing of this machine, PCs would have gone the way of Beta (another superior format done in by proprietary marketing, by the way).

josh said...

Bill, I'd love to read your explanation of what, specifically, makes Macs "significantly better than PCs." In my experience, it was the case (perhaps 15 years ago) that Macs were technologically superior (something to do with RISC vs. CISC processing and the fact that a lot of design and editing software was Mac-only) for certain applications (graphic design, video editing, etc), but that PCs closed that gap a decade or more ago.

As far as Apple products working better goes, I'm actually willing to go along with that to a certain extent. Jobs' insistence on monopolizing Apple tech, i.e., making Apple tech proprietary and only selling medium to high-end products does allow Apple a greater degree of quality control (QC). This means you are probably less likely to get a dodgy Mac than a dodgy PC.

But, "PC" isn't a company, it's a technology. It's simply the term we now use to describe what used to be called "IBM clones." Hundreds (if not thousands) of companies manufacture PCs and PC components. Comparing the QC of a single company (Apple) with the aggregate QC of hundreds of companies as though it's a 1 to 1 comparison is invalid. There are some PC manufacturers with excellent QC practices and others with not-so-excellent QC practices.

In general, you get what you pay for. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that your $2k Mac runs like a dream compared to grandma's $400 Dell. Apple doesn't have to worry about someone getting a crappy $400 Mac because they don't sell them. Likewise, Sager doesn't have to worry about someone getting a crappy $400 Sager PC because they don't sell those, either.

CS, saying X% of people use P doesn't necessarily tell us anything about the quality of P. McDonald's claims to have "America's favorite fries" (based on sales, of course). I know throwing around bullshit statistics is fun, but it doesn't add to an honest discussion of anything.

Also, Edison Labs was an assembly line operation set up to produce anything which could be patented. Nothing warms the capitalist's heart like state-sanctioned monopoly protection for their products. So, how is that different from "other capitalist enterprises?"

Bill Zink said...

Better OS, from what I've heard. I've also heard that Linux is better than both Windows and the Apple OS. But I honestly don't know. Either way, my point about Steve Jobs stands.

josh said...

Everyone's in prison or in the Army.

Unknown said...

rich pointed out that steve job's main contribution was not his later work, but rather his contribution to the invention of the personal computer in general. the idea of putting a computer in every home was pretty revolutionary at the time, and has completely transformed our world.

i'm no fan, and i don't even own any apple products, but i have to agree that there is some true kickassness there.