Steve Jobs’ real legacy — Papa Knows Best

I was going to wait a respectful period before opining on the late Steve Jobs’ legacy but barely had the dust settled before a cackling Richard Stallman sucked up every last particle, flicked the switch on his Dyson to blow and turned the nozzle on a world still mourning the Apple co-founder’s life and legacy.
It’s been said that Bill Gates put a computer on everyone’s desk while Jobs put one in everyone’s pocket, dorm, bedroom and car and long time free software campaigner Richard Stallman’s comments about how Jobs’ view of software was a “jail made cool”, although untimely and borderline poor taste, go to the heart of why Apple were so successful in their chosen sphere.
PCs are still too hard to use. When you install Windows you are implicitly signing up to the the secret pact: flexibility in exchange for usability. And do I really need to state the caveat that I’m talking about normal non-technical people here? My Mum mails me several times year with PC-related problems but she’s never uttered a word about her iPod. Of course in Stallman’s world even the venerable Win32 API is a “malign influence” restricting the developer’s each and every move, but for most folks still building on Windows the possibilities in terms of hardware, network and OS access are just about endless enough to make your product viable. Sometimes it’s too viable. For example I recently received an email containing some text, it was written in English but described an address in Paris and had the odd accented character drizzled throughout. I pasted this into a Microsoft Word document and immediately got a message informing me that I now had a choice, I could install additional language modules or not. You might think me unduly churlish, why not just hit cancel instead of stressing out like this? Dear reader, how I wish I had, instead — and I’m sure we’ve all done this — I hit OK by mistake and that’s where the trouble started. Hard disk activity started increasing in a way I’d never heard it do before. The Windows XP PCs at my office aren’t highly-specced and over the years I’ve almost gotten to know the exact whirring style that indicates a normal flurry of cylinder access but this was something new, I could hear the heads scratching back and forth in a demented search for the right files. Network drives available when the product was installed but long since vanished were being sought. When this happens experience tells me you are faced with a choice — try CTRL-ALT-DEL and terminate your way back to sanity or go with the flow, eventually you’ll get control. Or there’s option 3: both of the above. After leaving to make a hot beverage I returned to find a meaningful dialogue box offering an escape.
The secret pact is there in many other forms: are you Gnome or KDE? One lets you customise the other looks cute and is a system locker-downer’s dream. Where do you stand on social networking? Facebook is the kind of organisation that really gets up the Stallmanites noses. Recently open source guru and custodian of the GPL (Gnu Public License) Eben Moglen talked about a rival system that would see us becoming “custodians of our own technological fate” by running our own social-media servers: instead of logging in to one big database held by a private company people would smash down the walls with a distributed system called Diaspora. Kids would do this said Eben because “running a server will become as simple as turning on a box and it will stop their Moms reading their mail”.
Jobs saw it differently. Not only did he not want users to tell him what they were going to do he didn’t want his software architects getting in on that particular act neither. In Jobs’ world focus groups and market research were for wussies. I suspect to Jobs this revelation was an insignificant a milestone along the way to reaching what we in the media like to call his vision. Unlike the free software adherents I don’t think Jobs was coming at this from an ideological point of view — if Jobs thought Diaspora was a viable proposition I’m sure Apple would’ve jumped on it, Facebook would be history and we’d all have pulsating translucent orbs floating in our bedrooms holding our data (btw watch this space). I think Jobs simply decided at some point that he was going to decide all the big things and pretty much most of the small ones too. Whether Jobs had a word or expression for this I leave to future biographers. Of course, the beauty of Apple was that for the most part and especially in the past decade, his ideas pretty much jived with the public’s — even when they didn’t realise that what he was giving them was what they wanted it didn’t take long after another polo-necked product presentation for the Jobs v world mind meld to kick in.
Most IT geeks will encounter a boss like Jobs at some point in their career. Many will not have fond memories because it can take years before you realise those nasty naysayers were actually doing you a favour. These bosses were the ones who listened as you, itching to show off your coding abilities and programming prowess, burst into their office with plans for a big bumper crop of features that the product’s next release just had to have. Once you’d calmed down the bad man managers probably said thanks but no thanks, the good ones though, made sure a tiny fraction of your creativity made it through while the brilliant ones didn’t just throw you a bone (it was probably something they’d thought of anyway), they also noted down all the rest of the stuff and used it as personal brain fodder.
From what I hear second hand, Jobs’ ability to reign in his techies’ gut instincts was second to none. Legend has it early incarnations of the iPod took five inputs to load up a song, Jobs’ response was great, come back when you’ve got it down to three. I’d like to hear differently from iWork gurus but I suspect inside Apple suggesting auto-detection and subsequent installation of missing language modules would probably get you a gig cleaning the Apple store in Baghdad. Only a techie would’ve thought that putting French text into English software means you want the French software and Jobs seemed to instinctively know that taking the techies out of his technology would achieve his goals.
So maybe amongst all the brushed aluminium and beautiful design Mr Jobs’ real legacy is one of Papa knows best. You’ve every right to disagree with him on this but consider that Apple stock debuted at around $22 back in the early eighties and just a few weeks before Jobs’ death it peaked at over $400. That’s what the consumer thinks of the whole argument. And the money men know this too: if you’re a venture capitalist looking to invest in a fledgling startup do you give your dough to the kid planning the next iPod or the idealist who says that federated social media servers are the future? As much as I love Eben’s idea and I sincerely wish him all the best, I know where I’d drop my $500m. I suspect over the years ahead the debate will rage on about just how much vendors should dictate to customers what they can and cannot do. There will always be software anarchists at one extreme with those who like their computing walled, turreted and moated at the other: for the rest of us who lie somewhere in between, increasingly the question will be do you really care?

I was going to wait a respectful period before opining on the late Steve Jobs’ legacy but barely had the dust settled before a cackling Richard Stallman sucked up every last particle, flicked the switch on his Dyson to blow and turned the nozzle on a world still mourning the Apple co-founder’s life and legacy. Read more

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