Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)

“They sat with the iPhone and went feature by feature, copying it to the smallest detail. In those critical three months, Samsung was able to copy and incorporate the core part of Apple’s four-year investment without taking any of the risks, because they were copying the world’s most successful product.”

Thus spake Apple attorney Harold McElhinny to the jury during closing arguments of his company’s lawsuit against Samsung. I don’t think there is any disputing that McElhinny is right. In fact, what reads on the page as lawyer’s hyperbole is really a simple statement of fact: Samsung really did crawl through the iPhone feature by feature, stacking it against its original Galaxy S and concluding that in any instance in which the two devices differed, the latter should adopt the look and functionality of the former. There’s something almost admirable in the very brazenness of it.

What is not so admirable is the spectacle of the world’s most valuable company — not technology company or electronics company, mind, but most valuable, full stop — trying to stamp out one of its imitators not through the competitive marketplace but through the court system. To be blunt, Samsung indisputably copied Apple’s designs, but I don’t see anything in the law that ought to prevent them from doing it.

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Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question

You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs

While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?

Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:

I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.

Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.

Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.

I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the  baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.

So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:

The writing sucks.

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You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello: Steve Jobs Resigns

If you’re an Apple fan, an Apple user or just a technology enthusiast in general, there is only one story today: Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO of Apple.

This is not to say he is leaving Apple. He is continuing on as Chairman of the Board, so it seems reasonable to assume he will still exert considerable direct influence on Apple’s products and overall direction. That face-saving news probably helped insulate Apple’s stock from the bad news. As of this writing, it has taken a five-percent hit, much less than the cataclysm many predicted would befall Apple should Jobs have died, quit or otherwise left the company abruptly.

Apart from sadness and a vague sense of unease or disquiet, I have these thoughts on hearing this news.

Whatever health issues Jobs has been dealing with, he has not been able to overcome them. Jobs must have reached a point where he and his doctors realized his recovery would make no more significant progress. It is possible (and I certainly hope) that Jobs has many years ahead of him in which to contribute to Apple and to enjoy life with his family and friends. However, it is just as possible — and knowing Jobs’ concern for his privacy, not at all unlikely — that there may be more bad news about Steve Jobs ahead, and that it will come sooner than anyone wants to accept. I take no pleasure in thinking that. But I do think it.

In a sense, we are about to see the ultimate test of Jobs as a businessman and leader. How well has he inculcated his values and expectations into Apple’s culture? How well, in other words, has he enabled it to continue as though he were still there? The answer to this question will not be apparent for some time; Jobs will, as noted, continue to be involved with Apple, and it will take months or even years for the efforts he has overseen to come to fruition. That will not, alas, stop the tech pundits from clucking over Apple’s “loss of vision” at the first post-Jobs bump in the road to come along. For example, if the iPhone 4’s “Antenna-gate” issue had happened at a post-Jobs Apple, no one would skip a beat before denouncing the scandal as the inevitable result of Apple adrift in the leadership vacuum left by its departed visionary: “This would never have happened if Steve had been there.” There’s going to be a lot of bullshit like this in the months ahead, I’m afraid.

But it is true that, at some distant point, people will look at Apple and have to decide, as well as they can, whether the company they see is truly living up to its founder’s standards, or whether it shows the first signs of an inevitable decline. Apple could easily remain unassailable with no input at all from Jobs for at least three years, and probably closer to five. By then, the tech landscape may have shifted sufficiently to allow a smaller, faster competitor to undermine Apple’s dominance or to establish a new computing paradigm ahead of it. This is going to happen eventually; it’s just a matter of when. The only real question is: will it happen sufficiently far in the future that no one can reasonably blame it on Jobs’ absence? Indeed, could Apple remain dominant for so long that Jobs himself one day becomes a hazily remembered, almost mythic figure like Henry Ford, with no direct associations with any of Apple’s then-current products?

I think it could happen. If it does, that will be the true confirmation of Steve Jobs’ genius. He would not have merely started Apple. He would not have merely rebuilt it from a teetering computer company into the world’s most valuable technology company, capable of redefining entire markets at a stroke. He would have given it a soul, and not just a soul but his soul — the one thing even some of his greatest admirers were convinced he could not do. He would have achieved a kind of immortality: a cluster of dedicated people who absorbed his ways of thinking and distilled them into an essence that can be taught and passed on after he was gone. If he succeeds in this, then there is no telling how long Apple could remain in its present dominant position. Jobs came back to Apple 15 years ago. What could Apple be in another 15 years? It could come back down to earth, become just another successful purveyor of computers, gadgets and lifestyle accessories. Or it could be something that no one today can see, an integral part of industries we haven’t yet imagined. We might even one day call it the most powerful and innovative company that has ever been — greater than U.S. Steel, greater than Ford, greater than AT&T or Microsoft — a company so ingrained in our lives that it literally has no precedent.

Knowing what little I do about Steve Jobs, I am guessing that is the legacy he strives for. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t bet against him. How amazing it is to think that for all Jobs has accomplished, today really only marks a new beginning.

Mac OS X: The Lion in Winter

First of all, mea culpa: I was completely wrong about Apple’s pricing strategy for Mac OS X 10.7. That doesn’t bother me — it doesn’t even surprise me that much. I don’t believe Steve Jobs and company are incapable of error, but I do believe they know much more about running their business than I ever will.

But the fact that OS X 10.7 is being released to the public for the measly price of $29.99 (side note: what’s with the double-decimal pricing?) is a huge deal, and not merely because it will likely be the most successful — that is, the most immediately widespread — OS release Apple has ever had. It symbolically closes an era that began 16 years ago with Windows 95: the era of the retail software event. Back then, the country went crazy for Windows 95 in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, the iPhone came out. People lined up for it, bought it in droves, gossiped and kibitzed and complained about it. A lot of people liked it, a lot didn’t (at least at first), but everybody had an opinion. Windows 95 was more than the tech story of the year: it was the heart of the tech universe, a symbol of how much more than mere technology computer software was becoming. And it was Microsoft’s baby.

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The iPad and the Dog that Didn’t Bark. (And the Dog that Barked too Soon.)

The product Apple revealed yesterday was largely what most people expected. Called the iPad (well, that name probably wasn’t expected), it is slim and elegant, engineered with meticulous care to do a few things well: deliver the internet, display movies and photographs, play music and serve as an electronic reading device. The latter capability was revealed about halfway through Steve Jobs’ launch presentation, not quite an afterthought but lacking the marquee position of an A-list feature. As Jobs remarked several years ago when dismissing Amazon’s Kindle, people don’t read anymore; certainly they don’t buy books the way they buy music, movies and TV shows. Perhaps this justified the middling prominence of the iBooks application and its accompanying online bookstore, which aims (like the Kindle) to do for reading what iTunes and the iPod have done for music. And perhaps that explains why one of the day’s most significant announcements was made as little more than an aside. “We are also,” said Jobs, not sounding very excited, “very excited about textbooks as well.”

Perhaps Jobs soft-pedaled this announcement because he knew it wasn’t a surprise at all. The night before the iPad launch, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw spilled many of Steve Jobs’ beans in an interview with CNBC, breezily confirming that Apple was announcing a tablet computer running the iPhone OS, for which McGraw-Hill was collaborating with Apple to provide educational content. It might not appear entirely out of character for Jobs to lop McGraw-Hill out of his presentation, provided it had ever been included — Jobs famously dropped graphics chip vendor ATI from a keynote when they revealed upcoming Mac models before he could. And it prompts a mordant chuckle to imagine the look on Jobs’ face as he watched McGraw blithely steal his thunder. But I give Jobs the benefit of the doubt. It is likely that Apple’s negotiations with textbook publishers are still in progress, and that Apple will formally tout the iPad as an education tool at a later date. Because this arrangement is a very big deal — one that could potentially have a huge impact on both parties.

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