Let me confess this right upfront: I have never been an avid user of Apple’s products. I briefly owned an iPod in the mid 2000s but when it fell into my toilet (true!) one day I didn't really miss it. So writing about Steve Jobs this week feels a little like an atheist writing an obituary for the pope.
This said though, the remarkable expressions of sympathy for Steve Jobs’ untimely death wasn’t lost on me. They are extraordinary in number (2.5m tweets in the first 13 hours), source (e.g. Obama) and nature. It all reminds me a little of what happened when Princess Diana or JFK died, I guess. The question here of course is: what is it that causes millions of people to respond so emotionally and affectionately to the death of this business tycoon?
It is obvious that most of the usual features of these icons of popular culture do not really apply to Jobs. He was hardly a charismatic business leader with big PR value such as Richard Branson (Virgin) or Jack Welch (GE). In fact, many of his co-workers actually describe him as rather awkward and geeky in personal interactions. It also can’t be his generosity to society which has given business leaders such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet some more charisma these days: up to now Steve Jobs has only engaged rather reluctantly in charity and so far has refused to join Gates’ initiative to pledge large parts of his personal wealth (at least $6.5bn) to social causes.
Talking of responsible business practices, in fact there might be a group of people who are actually a tad gleeful about seeing Jobs go: Chinese factory workers in Suzhou poisoned two years ago by toxic chemicals at Apple’s touchscreen factory wrote to Jobs directly, asking for his help in getting medical care and compensation for their illnesses and lost work time. Jobs never even cared to reply.
Much of the hype focuses on his ‘vision’, his ‘innovation’, his ‘genius’ etc. But is that really true? One of the first ‘inventions’ credited to Steve Jobs – the computer mouse and the clickable workspace (later adopted by Microsoft Windows) were initially invented at the Xerox PARC laboratories in the late 1970s. Jobs saw these ideas there first, and then just went on to commercialize them. All in all, Apple in this sense lives with ‘creation myth’, as Malcolm Gladwell recently put it.
Was it his business acumen? Maybe, but even here, until he was fired from Apple in 1985 the Macintosh PC was a niche product. It was rather Bill Gates who played that phase of the game to perfection. And as Robert Reich points out in Supercapitalism (Chapter 2) Steve Jobs and the entire Silicon Valley phenomenon was by no means initiated by all that ‘American entrepreneurship’ or ‘True spirit of modern capitalism’ which is now touted on all the American TV networks reminiscing about Jobs’ life. The American IT boom was initiated mostly by whopping defence contracts from the Pentagon and NASA – i.e. good old ‘socialist’ government money – in a quest to keep up in the cold war arms race in the 1970s and 80s.
So – what is it really? At a time when IT has become a key instrument not just for work but for most areas of our life many of us ‘consumers’ are pretty gutted by the quality of products we are ‘forced’ to use. Who of us has not despaired over the dismal quality of his Office software or the unreliability of his Windows browser? Who among us has not gone ballistic at the slow speed of their hardware at times or been incensed that the next ‘generation’ of software now forces us to by yet another, faster computer? Or utterly despaired when ploughing through an incomprehensible user manual or trying to install the new TV or some software on the PC for the umpteenth time?
One thing Steve Jobs obviously had understood is this: that consumers are actually happy when they use products that are suited to them: easy to operate, fun to use, opening new experiences or simply making life easier. Apple’s recent products - and the real beacons of Jobs’ fame and commercial success - are different in this one aspect: they put the user and his preferences first. And even as a heathen in the church of Apple followers I am ready to admit that the iPhone or the iPad provide an ergonomics and a scope of service which is really phenomenal. Especially compared to what is otherwise on offer.
So, in somewhat cynical terms, what is the real regret about Jobs’ untimely death? We will miss a CEO who put consumer interests first. It is that simple. While this should be a normal thing in a free market economy the reaction to Jobs’ death in my reading just goes to show how modest we have become as consumers. This is particularly true in the world of IT, where we rely in many areas on just one monopolist (Microsoft). Who has treated us over the years not exactly well. To a degree that the one entrepreneur, who really gave us our money’s worth, who offered us products and services which really add value to our life - we no longer see this as the normal result of free consumer choice in a competitive market, but as a gift bequeathed to us by a god-like figure of divine foresight, clairvoyance and care. St. Steve, as it were.
Artwork by Cea, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.