The other day in Barnes and Noble I noticed the area dedicated to the Nook reading device had new furniture: big chunky Parsons tables just like those in the Apple stores!
Those tables struck me as a symbol of the danger of learning the wrong lessons from Apple and especially these days from Steve Jobs.
It is fair to make anyone’s death the occasion not just to celebrate but to learn from his life and character, which is exactly why we should perhaps wait a while to study Steve Jobs.
Having dealt with Jobs at several stages of his career, from the early Apple days to NeXT and the era of the store launchings, I had a strong impression of his approach.
He was constantly implying of his questioners in the press that they lacked adequate faith, that their belief was too shallow. He could be both impatient and condescendingly indulgent in this view. But with employees and others he dealt with this attitude was given freer play. He could be a bully.
The authorized biography suggests a man who mellowed and learned to be more patient with other human beings. But it shows too that even late in life knew he tended to feel he knew better than just about anyone else about anything. He was given to shoot from the hip advice to CEOs and presidents.
Oddly, the focus on the authorized biography has failed to lead people back to the earlier books about Jobs. These are worth looking at. They document a consistent pattern of behavior. Jobs hated most of them and even tried to ban one. There is a pattern to the perspectives of Steve Levy in Insanely Great, Frank Rose in West of Eden, Michael Moritz in The Little Kingdom, Randall Strauss in The Next Great Thing.
Jeffrey Young’s The Journey is the Reward includes a page or two of the famous memo from Mac developer Jef Raskin about Jobs management faults. (He is late to meetings, he cuts off answers.)
Several years later, in 2005, when Young and his co writer William L.Simon came out with an expanded version of that book called iCon: Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Apple not only banned it from Apple stores but cut out all orders of books from its publisher, John Wiley, for the stores.
The obituary considerations of Jobs suggest the danger of taking away from the his story the belief that his faults are necessary virtues in generating good design.
In any case, the Jobs story is not a simple lesson—“wouldn’t it be great if CEOs cared about design?”
Jobs’s fundamental faults continued even as his virtues increased. Ideas were junk until he bought into them. His toughness was not always about seeking the best—there was a lot of bullying to it.
We shouldn’t—and don’t-- have to depend on beneficent tyrants to foster good design an innovation in business organizations any more than we should have to depend on them to foster civil fairness and economic justice and prosperity in governments.
That is like thinking General Patton was successful in war because he slapped shell shocked soldiers or that chair throwing Bobby Knight is the only kind of basketball coach who can win.
We need more history of Apple. In many ways the early year of Apple were years of lost opportunity. With such a superior product, if Apple had priced and marketed more aggressively it could indeed have become the “computer for the rest of us,” the Volkscomputer, cheaper and better than rivals, like the Model T.
Instead, the IBM PC clone became the dominant computer standard. Apple was better but expensive and quirky. Windows was “the Mac for the rest of us.”
That was because it came from closed thinking.
A few days after Jobs death, Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab discussed Jobs in speaking about the One Laptop Per Child project. He said that Jobs resisted the idea of One Laptop.
The machine struck him as crude, yes, but most of all he resisted the idea of using open source software.
Closed source was key to the best and worst of Apple. The closed source assured quality and control of detail. It nurtured the so-called Apple ecosystem that developed innovative apps and attachments. It is on this ecosystem that not just brilliant creators of are dependent. So are those carts in the malls full of blinged out iPod cases, and Betty Boop and University of Texas longhorn cases. They are Apple design too!
But by contrast with IBM’s open standard for the PC, of course, Apple’s Mac strategy also provided profits.
The paradox of the closed world is one subject of a play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at the Public Theater in New York. The one-man show explores Jobs’s lack of apparent concern with working conditions in the Chinese Foxconn factory. It was a vision of reality that intruded uncomfortably into the neat clean dream vision of Apple culture.