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Friday, 26 August 2011 12:28

Steve Jobs: a reality check


If one were to go by the reaction to the news that Steve Jobs would no longer be the chief executive of Apple Computer, the man is Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Henry Ford all rolled into one.

Hard-core journalists appear to have put all their scepticism aside and wallowed in trying to outdo each other in superlatives.

The emotional tributes give Jobs the credit for anything and everything that Apple has ever done, especially its achievements in the noughties.

The reality is a bit different. And if one strikes a sour note, there are no apologies – this is not a reality TV show where selective reality is played out. No, this is life and the warts and sores are as real as the plastic and the botox.

First, one needs to get rid of the idea that Jobs is really going to be a silent part of Apple from now on. The man will continue as executive chairman of the board and impose his ideas on the new CEO, Tim Cook.

The one fear that Apple's directors had was that shareholders would react sooner or later to the fact that a succession plan was not in place – the overwhelming fear has been that once Jobs goes, the company would flounder. There has never been any clarity about what Jobs is suffering from – one only hears from time to time that he has had this or that replaced.

Hence, the board has put a succession plan into operation; the market speculators who make share prices fluctuate can have no complaint now. Jobs has gone out on his own terms and will continue to run the company by proxy. One nice, happy ending.

While people continue to paint him as some kind of technical genius, the truth is that Jobs is nothing of the sort. What he is, is a supreme salesman. Apple was built on the back of technical geniuses like Steve Wozniak, the late Jef Raskin, Andy Hertzfeld, Burrell Smith, Randy Wigginton, Bill Atkinson, Rich Page, and Bud Tribble.

Page and Tribble left Apple with Jobs when he quit in 1985 and went off to found NeXT, the company that would come up with an operating system based on a BSD core which has morphed into Mac OS X. Page was in charge of hardware development and Tribble took the equivalent role in software at NeXT. Again, Jobs did not create anything.

The iMac was the result of the imagination of Apple design engineer Jonathan Ive.

Take the iPod. It was created by Apple's hardware engineering chief, Jon Rubinstein with his entourage who were given a year to build the device. Michael Dhuey, Tony Fadell and Ive were part of the team.

The iPad? A team led by Ive was responsible for it. Jobs created nothing.

The company has never given credit to anyone for anything, retaining Jobs as sole marketing point, creating legend after legend about him. This was done in the early days too, to the point where a much younger Jobs began to actually believe the hype.

In Accidental Empires, his history of the PC industry, veteran technology journalist Robert X. Cringely quotes an Apple marketer standing up and telling Jobs: "Steve, we wrote this stuff about you. We made it up."

Sadly, there is no scribe of Cringely's calibre around these days in US tech journalism to function as the equivalent of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Emperor's New Clothes. For the most part, all we have are wimps and toadies, who toe the line and draw their pay-cheques.

Both the Apple I and II were the brainchild of Wozniak. After his plane crash in 1981, Wozniak left the company and has never risen to those heights again in his other endeavours. Jobs put forward a plan for a machine named Lisa but when it began to be developed he was not put in charge. Instead, Mike Markkula put an engineer named Andy Couch in charge.

Jobs then attached himself to Raskin's project, called the Macintosh, and pushed the older man aside. The machine was built by Hertzfeld and Smith, both brilliant engineers, the former writing the software and the latter building a beautiful little box.

Once again, Jobs did not create anything.

And even if one does give him credit for selling, there has to be something to sell. If it is a good product, then selling it is much easier.

Apple's products are marked by excellent design. They have visual appeal. They are sexy. But if one is unlucky and gets defective hardware, then God help you. At times like this, Apple looks like any grey-box vendor, trying its level best to avoid responsibility and rendering abominable service. And given the inherent elitism in its ranks, Apple does tend to treat people differently.

Apart from a very brief period when it outsourced production, Apple has controlled both the software and hardware manufacturing of its computers. Hence, the commoditisation that has benefitted the customer in the case of the PC has not taken place, and prices have remained at any level the company cares to set.

When the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, went to the US to work, Jobs called him over at the time when Apple was starting work on OS X. Jobs and his chief technical person, Avie Tevanian, met Torvalds; Jobs' pitch to Torvalds was that there were two markets, Microsoft and Apple, and that the best thing he (Torvalds) could do for Linux was to join Apple and pull the open source troops behind OS X.

In Torvalds' own words, "Jobs made a big point of the fact that the Mach's low-level kernel (the microkernel developed at Carnegie Mellon University and on which OS X is based) is open source. He sort of played down the flaw in the setup: who cares if the basic operating system, the real low-core stuff, is open source if you then have the Mac layer on top, which is not open source?"

He says of Jobs, "He was interested in his own goals, and especially the marketing side... He didn't use many arguments. He just basically took it for granted that I would be interested. He was clueless, unable to imagine that there could be entire segments of the human race who weren't the least bit concerned about increasing the Mac's market share."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, that.

The word proprietary is often used to describe Microsoft; it applies a thousand-fold more to Apple. When you use an Apple, you wouldn't know it if there were security problems; you only know about it when a ton of updates arrive. Circling its wagons has served Apple well in marketing. Secrecy is the watchword.

We live in a world where the meretricious is often confused with the magnificent. As such, it is not surprising that people have canonised Jobs.

There is a little subterfuge involved in Apple products these days – you find the words "Designed by Apple in California" in large type on the cover of the little box that contains your documentation and optical discs; the legend "Printed in China" is found on the back of the manuals, in much smaller type.

Maybe Jobs invented that.

(Quotes attributed to Linus Torvalds are taken from the book Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary)

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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