Business Maverick, Media

Steve Jobs, design god of the future, or Steve Jobs, Big Brother? You choose.

Steve Jobs, design god of the future, or Steve Jobs, Big Brother? You choose.

For all the years Apple Inc has been around, it has not exactly portrayed itself as the giant of the computer world. Rather, it’s been seen as the antithesis of Microsoft, a smarter, cooler alternative to Bill Gates’s heaving, evil behemoth. That might all be changing soon. Is it possible Apple may become the next generation’s dominator? Rather possible, actually. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Apple’s computers have typically been identified with designers, university students and hipsters loafing in coffee shops. Of all the words that have been used to describe Steve Jobs, we have yet to come across the phrase “pretty nice guy”. He just isn’t the sort of bloke you’d invite around to your place for a braai. One incident which reflects this occurred in mid-September when 22-year-old journalism student Chelsea Kate Isaacs from Long Island University tried to contact Apple’s media relations department to ask a few questions for her assignment on iPad use in academic settings. She was met with silence. After several failed attempts to elicit an answer from Apple’s media people, she emailed Steve Jobs’s personal address.
It must have been an act of desperation, as Jobs in all probability gets thousands of emails a day arriving in that particular inbox. But he did reply to her, half an hour after she sent her email.

Isaacs enquired of Jobs, “I humbly ask why Apple is so wonderfully attentive to the needs of students, whether it be with the latest, greatest invention or the company’s helpful customer service line, and yet, ironically, the media relations department fails to answer any of my questions which are, as I have repeatedly told them, essential to my academic performance.”

And this was Jobs’s hilariously apathetic answer: “Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.”

The email exchange grew increasingly frigid, in what Gawker accurately described as a “pissing match” between the 136th richest man in the world and a university student.

It’s a pity Isaacs passed up the opportunity to remind the CEO of Apple how he, as an impressionable eighth-grader, met the co-founder of Hewlett Packard. An anecdote on HP’s website recalls the incident. “When he was in eighth grade, Steve Jobs decided to build a frequency counter for a school project and needed parts. Someone suggested that he call Bill Hewlett. Finding a William Hewlett in the telephone book, the 12-year-old Jobs called and asked, ‘Is this the Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard?’

“ ‘Yes,’ said Bill. Jobs made his request. Bill spent some time talking to him about his project. Several days later, Jobs went to HP and picked up a bag full of parts that Bill had put together for him.

“Subsequently, Jobs landed a summer job at HP. He later went on to co-found Apple Computer.”

The company that Jobs went on to found with Steve Wozniak was remarkably different from other tech companies. Apple’s leader has a strong counter-culture attitude, signified by his habit of wearing a mock turtleneck, shapeless Levi jeans and New Balance sneakers, as opposed to the obligatory corporate monkey suit. By all accounts, Jobs was an extremely intelligent and mischievous child in school, often reprimanded for his pranks. He often attended after-school lectures at Hewlett Packard and developed his love for computers at a very early age. In the mid-1970s, he took on a job at video games manufacturer Atari so he could save up for a spiritual quest to India. He eventually went to India and came back a Buddhist. He claims that his experiments with psychedelic drugs was one of the two or three most important things he’d done with his life.

In 1976, he founded Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak whom he had met while working at Atari. One of Apple’s early successes was in 1984 when Jobs unveiled the Macintosh, the first commercially successful small computer with a graphic user interface. However, the working relationship between Jobs and John Sculley, the CEO he had hired from Pepsi, deteriorated sharply due to a slump in the industry, and Jobs left the company he had founded. (Jobs’ invitation to Sculley, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” is one of the most famous in the business world, ever. Sculley thanked him by kicking him out.)

Soon after leaving Apple, Jobs started a relatively successful Unix-based computer company called NeXT, which marketed itself to the academic and scientific fields. More importantly, although it was not immediately obvious, Jobs bought the computer graphic division of Lucasfilm Ltd in 1986, and renamed it Pixar. The company, in partnership with Disney, made several wildly successful computer-animated feature-length films, such as “Toy Story”, “Finding Nemo” and “Wall E”.

Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 when the company bought NeXT for $429 million and was soon installed as company CEO again. Then he more or less fired the whole board, the members of which were too ashamed of the mess they had made of Apple anyway. He immediately began applying the principles of aesthetic perfection and technological superiority that he had developed while at NeXT to Apple’s products. He also vowed that he would never again lose control of his company, which may explain why he insists these days on being involved in almost all aspects of his company – from product development to the actual unveilings.

Apple was very successful in capturing the hearts of the counter-culture population. The brilliant blog Stuff White People Like puts it like this: “Apple products tell the world you are creative and unique. They are an exclusive product line only used by every white college student, designer, writer, English teacher and hipster on the planet.

“You see, a long time ago Apples were super-popular among layout artists and graphic designers. Then Apple released Final Cut Pro and became the standard for film editors. As a result, lots of creative industries used Apple computers instead of PCs. Eventually, people started making the connection, and all of a sudden all white people needed to have a Mac.”

Essentially, Jobs sold his computers to the kind of people who would have been wearing hemp and holding forth on world peace with him in the 70s.

The company branched into the music industry when it launched the iPod, a portable music player (not to forget the iTunes digital music player and the iTunes store) and into the cellular phone industry with the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

But at this point the hemp-wearing hippies and Steve Jobs’s hegemony lose any relationship. The introduction of the iPad browsing device and the software infrastructure that supports it, such as the App Store and the iBook Store, may be viewed in future as the moment when Apple finally became an industry behemoth. Apple is now in a position to dictate terms to everyone from developers to media companies. Recently, Jobs announced that the forthcoming “Lion” Mac operating system would adopt several significant functionalities from the iPhone and iPad. Top-end applications would be locked down in the same way that they are locked in the iPhone and iPad, and to get these apps, you’ll need to download them from the Mac App Store. Jobs will leverage consumers and developers into the new ecosystem by making it easy to download and upgrade all apps that are within the system. Applications that are downloaded from somewhere else on the Internet will be excluded from the single-click upgrade feature. Like iPhone and iPad applications, Apple will curate its own app stores and take a 30% cut from sales. The logical end to all this is a company that dictates the menu for consumers – if Apple doesn’t like something, you’ll have to find it somewhere else on the net, and they’ll make it damned difficult for you to use it on their computers.

This heavy-handed control may make it easier to use the Mac and other devices (if you buy into the Apple ecosystem), but it will eventually grind against the Internet’s strong libertarian culture. It will take all of Jobs’s legendary salesmanship skills to convince consumers that his iron-fisted control of the Apple ecosystem is in fact a good thing. But as long as Apple keeps making superior products (although the Snow Leopard OS debacle of 2009 may have deflated that notion), more and more consumers will be folded into the bossy bosom of Steve Jobs. Sounds rather Bill Gatesy and Microsoftesque to us. Utopia or dystopia? We are worried. DM

Read more: Gawker on the pissing contest between Isaacs and Jobs, HP web page on how Bill Hewlett and Steve Jobs met, The Smithsonian’s interview with Steve Jobs, The Telegraph’s “iGod” profile.

Photo: Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveils the latest improvements to the company’s Mac software during a news conference at Apple Inc. headquarters in Cupertino, California October 20, 2010. Apple is looking to increase market share gains against Microsoft Windows-based PCs. In the quarter that just ended, Mac revenue was $4.9 billion, less than a quarter of Apple’s overall revenue. REUTERS/Norbert von der Groeben


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