Wednesday, October 12, 2011

On Steve Jobs

I'm writing this more as a meta-post than a post, in and of itself.

I could wax lyrical about the way Jobs and Apple has impacted my life, but it would be the same as thousands of other stories, and therein lies some of what I'm interested in talking about.

A number of criticisms have been leveled at Jobs, and Apple. Some of the favorites are the walled-garden haters, the overpriced gadget shouters, the Jobs-is-an-evil-capitalist hecklers and the what did Steve Jobs ever do for me crowd, who need to go watch some Monty Python and think about things a little more carefully.

Apple's walled garden, or so it's labelled is a remarkable feat of FUD. The garden that is wide open, that you can enter, or leave at any time you please. Buy an iPhone, if you hate it, then buy something else. This walled garden that includes Netflix, and vimeo, most major TV networks, internet radio, and even free software. Your walled garden is run on an open source operating system, and an open source browser. Your walled garden can export files to Excel or Word and that can browse any website. Look at your own garden, be it Microsoft or Linux. You are more walled in than those in the Apple garden! IE, constantly lagging in standards, Linux applications that can't or won't important foreign file formats properly, Windows that has no app store, no way for you to share your idea with the world easily, Linux, that requires amazingly arcane knowledge to operate on any long-term basis successfully.

Apple's overpriced gadget shouters are apparently missing a fundamental principle of the free market: things are only worth what people will pay for them. If Apple's gadgets were truly overpriced, then very few would buy them. As it happens, Apple's phones still make up a very significant portion of the market, despite making no more than two models at any given time with one Operating System variant. Two models vs the hundreds of devices practically given away by every network provider out there. Two vs 100s. I can't imagine how anyone can label this is anything short of amazing. This is Thermopylae all over again, except that as of today, the Spartans are winning, and aren't looking like being shaken any time soon. Despite giving consumers less choice and a more expensive device with fewer carriers, Apple's product is wildly successful. This doesn't seem like the mark of an overpriced gadget. We could run the same comparisons on the rest of the Apple product line. Walk through an airport sometime and observe the number of folks carrying a MacBook of some kind. How many other 11" devices are there that come close to the MacBook air for flexibility, power and usability for a business traveler?

Steve Jobs has been both applauded and demonized by the Wall Street capitalists, and mostly for the same things. He doesn't not create product to drive profit. Every model we have today for building stuff say you should increase profits by providing the widest appeal at the lowest cost. That you don't bring out new products that undermine your own markets. That your R&D funding should shrink relative to your overall cost structure. Steve Jobs broke every single one of these rules. If Steve Jobs is a rampant capitalist, then we have to seriously reconsider our notion of capitalism as it stands today.

As for the "what did Steve Jobs ever do for us" crowd, I refer you to the Monty Python sketch from the life of Brian which had a similar theme about the Romans, and more ironically perhaps, the inane arguing amongst the factions of freedom fighters over such petty things as their names. Apple has driven personal technology innovation for a decade. I don't know precisely which things they invented themselves per se, but they did as least identify products that had the potential to be game-changers, and bring them to market more quickly and with more elegance than anyone else. The early iPods with their touch-dial interface and remarkably tiny hard drives. The iMac that has shown again and again the power of a computer you can purchase, set on your desk, plug in a power cable, and increasingly fewer others, turn on and start doing cool stuff out of the box. The bundled software, the usability, these things have still not been achieved by any other vendors. If they were easy to do, then why aren't both Windows and Ubuntu doing better? They've had almost a decade to consider the situation, and are still failing miserably. The Apple TV, which has a level of integration and simplicity that made this kind of device possible, and usable. The courage to put IPS displays in all its devices, something that is still lacking on other manufacturers, and one reason that Apple devices have been considered overpriced gadgets. Steve Jobs gave you a screen that was capable of displaying your photos and videos as they were captured, without awfully over saturating them and driving up contrast, but just as they are. I'm constantly astounded at how much I have to exaggerate features in my photographs for those will 'normal' screens.

Walk into a modern office building. Listen for awhile. Sooner or later you'll here what happens when a major meeting approaches. The synchronous chime of the iPhones all indicating to their owners that a meeting is approaching is almost eery. Many of them never having had their defaults changed provides an audible witness to the impact that Steve Jobs and Apple have on our lives today. The very point of Apple's walled garden is to get the minutiae out of your way. Let you do what you love to do, assuming it's not theming your window manager... again.

I've heard the 'Macs are for creative people, not for office or development'. In 2011 this angle is ridiculous. Out of the box, the Mac comes with development tools for several major languages, including Java, Python and Ruby. With an Xcode download, you get the full suite of compilers and tools if you really really want to build C, C++ or Objective-C applications for a fraction of the cost of Visual Studio. Apple's numbers and Pages are much easier to use than Microsoft Office, and their tablet counterparts are a demonstration of what is possible on a tablet once you rethink and realize that there is no longer a viable pointing device. The amount of time I've had to sit and troubleshoot a fellow developer's Windows environment because something just stopped working is horrible. It feels like many of them have opted to get a Mac out of embarrassment as much as anything, and didn't live to regret it.

You can't walk down the street, ride the tube or sit in an office without seeing their devices, to deny the impact that Steve Jobs and Apple have had on technology just seems like it can only be the vantage of a blind man.

I don't love Apple, I don't worship Steve Jobs, but I'm not blind either. I have four Apple devices within reach as I write this, my high-end PC laptop gathering dust in a corner somewhere, largely forgotten.

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