Friday, 1 June 2012

A Belated Eulogy


Steve Jobs, pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.
                                  -  Richard Stallman

On October 5, 2011 it seemed the world at large was in grief over the untimely death of a great entrepreneur. Hashtags abounded (#iSad?), cut-copy-paste was channelled effectively in sharing eulogies and there was turmoil of despair in the minds of millions of wannabes.

The dust has largely settled. It’s much safer to wade against that time’s tide and it gives me a chance to say a few things that have been brewing in my mind ever since the departure of a great visionary. I thought of many ways to begin a measured tirade but I have a somewhat easier approach to bring home my case with an appropriate analogy. The Oatmeal, an instrument of satire and slapstick had recently called Thomas Alva Edison as the biggest douchebag in the history of geekdom. The accusations levelled against Edison can be briefly listed as follows:
  1. That he did not invent the light bulb himself but only improved it in a way that made it accessible to everyone. “Edison simply figured out how to sell the light bulb.”
  2. “Edison was not a geek; he was a CEO.”
  3. “Edison was known for rushing to the patent office as soon as one of his employees had something.”
  4. He was utterly ruthless with his employees (even with Tesla when he worked under Edison) and would get down to ridiculous levels of savagery to disparage his rivals' works.
The Oatmeal guy then concludes his robust and highly impartial analysis of the achievements of Edison with the following apt conclusion:

In short, the only thing Edison truly pioneered was douchebaggery.

See anything familiar?

Exactly.

7 comments:

  1. In May 1985 Steve Jobs was removed from Apple. With the same set of employees, Apple become a douchebag of a company - drowning in losses. In 1998, Steve Jobs returned to Apple and became the de-facto CEO. The rest need not be explained.

    I do not know about Edison or Tesla, so I can't comment. But I have seen and read enough about Steve Jobs and the history of Apple to tell you that Jobs has revolutionized the computing industry. If you happen to read his biography, you'll understand how. His obsession with clean, intuitive designs and his interest in Italian architecture gave Apple's products the look and feel they have today. Yes, he enforced those ideas on employees and wouldn't ship a product unless he's absolutely satisfied with them. The entire concept of minimalism in the tech. industry is Apple inspired (and by that I mean the entire design philosophy of Google and several other companies). It is easy to say that Apple employees invented the iPod and that Jobs did nothing about it. That's not true. Jobs was frantically looking for the technology that could allow him to store thousands of songs in a pocket - the flash drive. And he wouldn't develop the iPod unless they found it. And they did. In Japan. You see, without him, there would be no Apple. And even if there was, it would probably be like Microsoft [They had equally talented employees in the early days] . The founders define the company, its culture and its products for years to come. Your argument is invalid, but you have certainly managed to join the cool club of people who think Steve Jobs was a douche and that he hasn't done anything worthwhile for the tech. industry.

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    1. There is the point of Steve Jobs being one of the great entrepreneurs and visionaries of the past few decades. I have no argument against that. Jobs must be remembered for all of this, surely. And I have read Isaacson's biography. I wasn't planning to elaborate on the qualms I have against him but it appears I must now proceed to do that.

      Firstly, the question is, was Jobs a great geek? Compared to his contemporaries and his own partners at work, Jobs must surely come at the bottom of the pecking order. He was a great designer and could gauge the preferences of his customers like no one else could. But was he a genuine inventor or did he package the best of all worlds?

      In a dry yet highly illuminating book, The Future of the Internet, the author Jonathan Zittrain clearly expostulates on the dangers of closed and proprietary technologies. He pointed out how people would largely find solace in a system which requires no personal tampering and is not affected by external intrusions. It’s a comfort for which people will gladly shell money. Add to it the intangible element of coolness and, to be fair, a truly revolutionary design, and you get what Apple has achieved in the last decade or so.

      That Jobs was able to turn around Apple so brilliantly isn’t the cusp of my beef with him. He was and must be remembered as a man who could see ahead (and clearly) of most people and he was more of an artist than a tech-god (I hardly need to point out the place of Steve Wozniack in this respect). My angst is against his habit of witch-hunting against anyone else trying to develop a technology encroaching on his territory. Jobs and Wozniack started off from a garage all right but I don’t think he ever wanted another set of kids to tinker with an iPod. The iPod as it stands has a shocking scarcity of basic functionalities that we have otherwise grown up with. An article recently gave out how Apple was trying to patent “Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor”. That’s right- they want a patent on the idea to reduce power usage by supplying less electricity to a circuit. And their lawsuits against practically the whole world is no small secret.

      It’s a bit like the halo over Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Most people wouldn’t have thought twice of a comparison between Zuckerberg and Jobs, at least not until the movie The Social Network came out. In a massive change of heart, a lot of people began loving the nonchalance of Mark’s attitude and the image of him as some sort of super-genius. To be fair to him, he didn’t ask for the movie. But my area of discussion is in the reception that a common gadget conscious geek gives. (Of course, the whole fiasco of Facebook’s IPO did a lot to burst that bubble. Thanks Mark.)

      The fact is, Jobs died at the right time. He died at a moment when he was on top of the world, when people were in awe of his business prowess and any product starting with an i. People were mad about Bill Gates in the same way in the 90's. The biography and general widespread adulation do a great job of glossing over the many despicable traits in Jobs' personality.

      Finally, my question was whether Jobs was a huge douche bag or not. Edison was just as great or actually much more important than Jobs can ever be but that didn't hide his malevolent intentions and monopolistic ambitions. It didn't hide the many people whose lives he ruined. That Jobs was one of the last of the power-hungry, autocratic and ruthless company bosses is undeniable. But the way he lowered himself to ridiculous levels of savagery against his rivals and questioners does take away a lot of the respect element.

      So, is Jobs one of the great douche bags we've ever known? I think the answer, with all due respect to him, must be yes.

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    2. Someone is posting a reply.. beware.

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    3. I don't think your argument makes him a douche bag at all. You agree that he was a great visionary and an artist. Of course he never invented much - Apple-I was largely designed by Wozniack and all the later Apple products were also designed and developed by the employees. But his influence certainly affected the entire company and their products. The patent argument is much more serious and demands certain debate. I am definitely against the abuse of proprietary technologies to kill small and upcoming companies, but what do you do when people rip-off your ideas in their products. I am talking about Android. Android is a plain rip-off of iOS. And I am not saying the idea of making a mobile OS (that can't be deemed a rip-off). Android has the exact same look and feel and I stood by Jobs when he said that he's ready to spend every cent of his to defeat Google for stealing the concepts used in iOS. I have much more respect for Blackberry (and Windows Phone); they used original ideas in building their product. I listened to one of Jobs' speeches where he said that Apple spends millions of dollars of research in UI/UX and product development before building a product. Imagine your competitor building the exact same thing and distributing it to phone manufacturers for free (almost)! Is that fair? It would be fair if you built something original and did whatever you want with it. But stealing someone's million dollar research and original ideas and giving it away for free! That makes you a bandit (or Chinese).

      Also, I have been using an iPod Touch for the last 3 years and I haven't felt any critical scarcity. Definitely there are some features missing (Honestly, I haven't found many), but the glorious finish and ease of use more than compensates for that. Would you rather use this - http://bit.ly/N3enhW [Classic Sony Walkman]. Get the point?

      Exactly.

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    4. I get your point. But you completely miss mine. I won't prefer an iPod to a Walkman. But let's say I did. So, is that it? Just because I'll buy an iPod justifies your argument and justifies your defence of Steve Jobs? Something is wrong here. What Android is doing is clearly in front of us, and I don't support them either. But the patent wars are much more nuanced and scattered than what can just be explained by an Android-iPhone debate. (A post on patent wars would be nice though!)

      What we also forget is that Apple products are taking us in a dangerous direction with total control on the side of the company. The Kindle is included in this list. Proprietary closed systems are threatening to take us to the same era when there were a couple of companies supplying telephone services to an entire country, with phone sets being available in only a couple of colours. Apple is against the freedom and independence of the user, it wants to force its choices onto us and it wants to bully entire corporations into yielding to their edicts, in advertising, in the music sector and essentially against any competitor. I could have made this post much longer but I thought I'd just be putting redundant material again. Clearly, I was wrong. (And the Oatmeal comic is on a different trajectory- I don't think you can give any conflicts there)You have read his official, sanctioned biography; I ask you to read the Future of the Internet. The author's no slouch either.

      The bottom line is that people are out of their minds right now. There's too much of euphoria around what is essentially a music player. If you'd remember, the Walkman had the same stature around a decade and a half as the iPod has today. Do you remember?

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    5. Haaris I completely get your point about Jobs attitude to his employees and his monopolistic ambitions does make him a douche bag, but put yourself in his shoes (which mind you are too big to fill you can see what has happened to apple's profit ratio after jobs), if you found that your particular behavior is getting the best out of your employees or you hire the best talents in the world and expect them to build a product which you envision and know they can develop with you being a douche bag would you not do it? I believe jobs did what he had to run a highly successful business. Also I expect future leaders to do it. He may have been a douche bag but he gave the world the most elegent gadgets it has seen till date.

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    6. I had to take a moment to get into these shoes - it's been ages since I last discussed Jobs! - but I understand your point.

      First of all, I am glad you accept Jobs as a douche bag. I am also happy that you do not take his douchebaggery in conflict with his greatness.

      I hold Jobs as a great entrepreneur, visionary and artist. I also believe that you need shades of autocracy to run a company well, as you pointed out. In the same breath, however, I also believe Jobs' achievements are somewhat insignificant in the larger scheme of things, i.e. in the long run.

      I think we need to take Jobs with a pinch of salt. If Bill Gates had died when Microsoft was at its peak, I can imagine us remembering him as an invincible genius, an entrepreneur whose absence led to the company's (present) demise.

      Great entrepreneurs have a shelf life. Jobs was surely one of the great visionaries in business. However, I would expect to see another half dozen during my lifetime. I hope I live that long. Amen.

      P.S. - Since you referred to me as Haaris, you are tantalizingly Anonymous. May I display some audacity and request you to reveal yourself?

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