Steve Jobs and Apple: Think Different

SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 06:  An Apple Ipad 2 showi...
SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 06: An Apple Ipad 2 showing the Apple website displays a tribute to Steve Jobs, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Apple, at a store in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. Jobs, 56, passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976 and is credited, along with Steve Wozniak, with marketing the world's first personal computer in addition to the popular iPod, iPhone and iPad. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Steve Jobs' untimely death has inspired a lot of reflection world wide about what made him, and the company he built, so important and unique. A year later, on the anniversary of his death, we've had some time to understand his legacy more fully.

Apple has, more than any other company, delivered on the promise of digital technology as a way to give power to the people. By hiding the details of the implementation -- in other words, creating a closed system -- Apple makes digital technologies more accessible for more people. Some would argue that Linux and open source make technology more accessible to everyone by removing the constraints that limit people's access to the underlying infrastructure. That is true -- if you are a geek.

If you are just an average citizen, who doesn't understand the details of a modern digital device, the freedom to compile a new kernel is in fact just another technological limitation. It's a barrier, not a way to empower you. Most people don't want to compile their own software, or install their own device drivers. They just want the system to work. That's basically what Apple delivers, and they do it better than any other company, I'd argue. Most people want to use a digital device, whatever it is, for a specific task or tasks -- reading email, listening to music, posting to Facebook, for example -- and the quicker they can get around to actually doing that task, the more "empowered" they are. Any barriers to accomplishing those tasks -- the need to read a huge manual; install obscure driver software; compile code; or any other techno task not related to what they really want to do -- does not empower them, it limits their ability to actually do what they want to do.

That's why Apple's closed system, their walled garden, means more power and more freedom for the average person, not less. For the geek elite, who like to tinker, who want to be able to build their system from the ground up -- and, let's face it, have both the time and inclination to spend on this kind of stuff -- Apple's closed system philosophy is a burdensome limitation. But, let's be honest: this is a very small group of people. Now, I would count myself among that group. I've built computers from the ground up, installed Linux on many a box, and wasted countless hours hunting down drivers for all kinds of hardware. But, when I want to get busy on something else, like running my business, or streaming Netflix videos, or listening to my music collection, I just don't want to waste my time on that kind of stuff. That's why I like Apple: I can use my Mac, or iPod, or iPhone, or iPad, right away. I don't need to screw around with anything. I can get right to work, or start having fun, without worrying about anything else.

So, thanks to Apple for setting the bar higher for everyone, and showing all the other tech companies, from Microsoft to Google, from IBM to Oracle, and all the other companies out there, that it's not the size of your feature list that matters, but it's making the few features that people really want to use easy to use, that's what really matters. I'm particularly grateful for the efforts of everyone who's fought hard to make open source software not only a reality, but a foundation of our techno world (including, of course, Apple, whose Mac OS X and iOS is based, in part, on open source technologies). I'm glad that the ability to operate a digital device is not constrained by onerous licensing or dependent on the benevolence of a dictatorial monopolist. But I'm also glad that there are companies like Apple, and especially Apple, who take the time to create the digital tools that I can use without having to jump through all those hoops, either.

NeXT slab
NeXT was a harsh lesson for Jobs (Photo credit: jlodder)
Now, a year after his death, we've learned how Jobs, and Apple, achieved these amazing results. Read Walter Isaacson's book, Steve Jobs to learn all the details. Jobs was tough, difficult, driven, even cruel, but changed as he aged as he recognized the value of his family life, and understood that there was more to life than just building the next cool thing. His years in exile from Apple taught him some hard lessons, and he came back to Apple wiser and more focused, after learning about failure first hand, from his troubled years at NeXT.

He was a complex and contradictory person, which is why other people can see what they want in Jobs' life, often drawing opposing conclusions from the lessons of Jobs life. You can see what you want in Steve: the driven entrepreneur who created entire industries by sheer force of will, a mean backstabber who would shortchange his most loyal friends and associates, a visionary, an egomaniac. The truth is, he was one of a kind, and no one else can really aspire to be "the next Steve Jobs," because he was a unique blend of intelligence, ambition, ego, and talent that can't ever be duplicated. He also benefited enormously from being in the right place at the right time, in a world where he could both apply his unique talents and be appreciated for his gifts. It's a credit to both Jobs himself and the culture of Silicon Valley in the seventies that he was able to flourish and succeed to the degree that he did. He was not an easy man to like, but there is much about him to admire, and also much about him to avoid.

To his immense credit, he managed to create a culture at Apple that's outlived him, and build a team that continues to produce spectacular product (the iPhone 5, the Retina Display MacBook Pro). But during this time, Apple has also been bedeviled by production problems, quality issues with those very same products and their software, too. The new Apple Maps app, which replaced the quite solid and most excellent Google Maps app, is simply not ready for prime time. The Podcast app, released as part of the iOS 6 update, is another example of an Apple app that is still in beta, but is shipping and causing all kinds of trouble for users.

On one hand, it's easy to think that these kind of issues would never have happened if Jobs were still running things. You can imagine how he would have gotten on the phone and cursed out some suppliers, or showed up at the app development team's desks and chewed them out until someone started to cry, and fixed everything with some heroic efforts on the part of the suppliers/developers/management team. But in truth, these problems are part of Steve's legacy. For example, the supply and quality problems with the Retina display are directly a result of Apple's patent spat with Samsung, regarding their blatant rip-off of the iPhone when it first came out. Apple is no longer using Samsung as a supplier, and this decision coincides with the court decision for the patent case. This is what happens when you sue your biggest supplier.

Foxconn iPhone Workers Line Up
Foxconn iPhone Workers Line Up (Photo credit: Photo Giddy)
We learn now that the outsourcing model that has turned Foxconn and other Chinese manufacturers into a virtual arm of Apple is also a source of incredible misery for the workers, who labor in conditions that seem straight out of a Dickens novel or a 19th century company town. Jobs deliberately turned away from domestic manufacturing, and told Obama as much, because the Chinese were able to produce huge volumes of goods in such a short time, and because their manufacturing is basically integrated, as many of these Chinese subcontractors are clustered in the same geographic areas, and the engineer from the company that's making the glass cover for the iPhone can walk over to the factory that's making the screws to hold it in place and they can work together to make a change dictated by Apple in Cupertino in days instead of weeks, and then they can all rouse the shift workers in their dorms and put them to work on grueling 12-plus hour shifts to crank out hundreds of thousands of the updated gadgets just in time for the holiday rush.

Yet these are the same workers who suffer from repetitive stress injuries, and beatings from the factory "management teams," and end up committing suicide by jumping from their dorm buildings, at least until Foxconn installed nets to catch them before they hit ground. This too is a legacy of Jobs' relentless drive to make these wonderful products that we all covet, as is the loss of American jobs and manufacturing expertise as the work to actually build the iPhone or the latest Mac is shipped over to these dreary company towns in southern China. Apple is not the only company to do this, nor are they the first, but Jobs was very clear that this relentless outsourcing was an essential part of his business model for the new Apple. I suspect that this strategy grew in part out of his bitter experience with NeXT, where he tried to build his machines in a state-of-the-art automated factory in the States, only to find that he made a computer that was too expensive to sell in the kind of volume required to make it profitable.

But maybe it wasn't the manufacturing that was the problem with NeXT computer. Maybe Apple is learning that there is a price to be paid for using low cost labor and subcontractors that meet stringent manufacturing requirements by treating their workers like so many spare parts in a machine that runs too hard and too fast, to be discarded when they are worn out or become hard to manage.

Apple has always been out in front, on the cutting edge, and the quality and manufacturing issues they are stumbling into now are a direct result of that drive to get out in front and lead the way. I can only hope that Apple learns how to make great products in a post Steve era in a way that doesn't require the workers who make the products to be treated so cruelly. Then again, maybe we need to learn that we can't expect to buy all these amazing products at cutthroat prices without cutthroat manufacturing processes being used as part of the business model that delivers these shiny baubles to our eager hands. We need to understand that these technology marvels are literally hand made by hundreds of thousands of underpaid, overworked factory workers, and that we've sold our country's manufacturing prowess in exchange to save a few dollars in return.

Can we blame Apple, and Steve, for giving us what we want? Or should we demand that Apple, and other high tech manufacturers, sell us products that don't destroy the workers who make them for us? I think we have a responsibility in this equation, and we need to think about how we are going to spend our money, and maybe stop whining about how the latest iPhone screen isn't big enough. We can't ignore the dark underside of Apple's global economic model and expect to reap only benefits. We've already paid a steep price as we've watched passively while manufacturing migrated from the west to Asia and left a legacy of empty factories and anemic industries.

It's hard not to wonder if Steve Jobs could succeed, or even get started, on making something in today's Silicon Valley. Many of the manufacturing firms are gone, replaced by venture capital or little app developers that employ one or two people. Did Jobs lead us into a world where a younger version of himself, starting out today, can't find the same opportunities that Jobs enjoyed back in the early days of running Apple out of his parent's garage?

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Gus Millan said…
If you think Jobs was one of the kind read Henry Ford's life!

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