Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steve Jobs: End of an "Insanely Great" Era?

Exit Stage Right?
Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
(Image from NYT)

My first computer was a Mac, but I got it rather late, and second-hand. Even though I had done some word processing on a friend's computer in 1985, I didn't yet know how to open a new document when I took that Mac with me to Germany in 1989, and I had to write to a friend back in Berkeley for long-distance assistance because Germans were unfamiliar with Apple products at that time and could offer no advice.

Despite my own grave ignorance, I knew very well who Steve Jobs was, and why he was important. I knew because I had arrived in the Bay Area in January 1980 to start a graduate degree later that year in history of science at Berkeley, and most of my cohort were enamored of computers and soon could talk only of Steve Jobs. I therefore knew that he was a genius long before I understood why he was a genius.

I only began to understand when I bought my first Powerbook, around 1993. In fact, I purchased two -- one for me, and one for Sun-Ae, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife (of course). On that laptop, I wrote my doctoral thesis. That same computer accompanied me to Australia and Jerusalem, then on to Boston for a conference in 1999, when I purchased a new version of the Powerbook, sleek and seductive. I took that one to Korea, only to find that Korea was not a good country to own an Apple computer.

I eventually switched to Korean computers for convenience and have even missed the iPod, iPhone, iPad revolution despite their 'conquest' of Korea . . . but I still think of myself as a MacMan, or rather an Apple-Man.

So, I discover myself saddened by the departure of Jobs and find myself wondering if this is the end of an "insanely great" era, and I'm not alone in reflecting on Jobs the cultural-technical-business phenomenon and what his absence might mean. In "What Makes Steve Jobs Great," Joe Nocera, writing for the New York Times (August 26, 2011), tells us:
The businessman I met 25 years ago violated every rule of management. He was not a consensus-builder but a dictator who listened mainly to his own intuition. He was a maniacal micromanager. He had an astonishing aesthetic sense, which businesspeople almost always lack. He could be absolutely brutal in meetings: I watched him eviscerate staff members for their "bozo ideas."

The Steve Jobs I watched that week was arrogant, sarcastic, thoughtful, learned, paranoid and "insanely" (to use one of his favorite words) charismatic.

The Steve Jobs the rest of the world has gotten to know in the nearly 15 years since he returned to Apple is no different. He never mellowed, never let up on Apple employees, never stopped relying on his singular instincts in making decisions about how Apple products should look and how they should work.
As Nocera remarks in closing, Jobs is stepping down "at the too-young age of 56," presumably because of cancer.

From Nocera's article, one would be justified in imagining Jobs as disliked, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Claire Cain Miller tells us in "Where Some Earn Enmity, Jobs Won Affection" (New York Times, August 25, 2011):
Steven P. Jobs -- domineering, short-tempered and anything but warm and fuzzy -- has done something few business people in history have ever accomplished: engender genuine affection . . . .

That Mr. Jobs is seriously ill gave the tributes [of affection] a poignancy and sense of foreboding. But the aloof man in a black turtleneck -- who spent the last month on a yacht with his family, according to people with knowledge of his whereabouts -- also managed to foster familial emotions among those who work in technology and business and ordinary people who use Apple products . . . .

On Twitter, many of the posts expressed love for Mr. Jobs, an emotion that rarely surfaces in business chatter.
Even his critics love him:
One sometimes critic of Mr. Jobs, Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin, an online real estate agency, wrote on the company's blog: "I still remember exactly where I was, standing in a Dolores Street apartment with a cereal bowl in my hand, when he came on TV to say a competitor had no poetry. It made me think poetry had a place in business and that in turn made me think I had a place in business, too."
Well, maybe that's not quite love, but I also remember that statement by Jobs, and it endeared him to me as well . . . though I didn't go into business. Jobs wasn't insanely great on his own, he wasn't alone. Never forget that he started Apple with a friend of genius, Steve Wozniac, and pulled in a great businessman, John Sculley. Every great man has creative, hardworking people behind him, and the journalist Rachel Metz reminds us that "Behind Apple's products is longtime designer Ive" (, August 26, 2011), drawing attention to the role of Jonathan Ive:
Ive, known to his friends as "Jony," has led Apple's design team since the mid-'90s. Working closely with Jobs, Ive has built a strong legacy at Apple, ushering in products that are sleek and stylish, with rounded corners, few buttons, brushed aluminum surfaces and plenty of slick glass.

Apple's pride in this work is evident even in the packaging: Open up any iPhone box, for example, and see Apple proudly proclaim, "Designed by Apple in California." Six of Ive's works, including the original iPod, are even part of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

People who have worked with Ive describe him as humble and sweet, quiet and shy, but also confident, hard-working and brilliant. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design for MoMA, said she knows "hardly anybody that is so universally loved and admired" as Ive.

"Products have to be designed better now for people to buy them because of Jony Ive and Steve Jobs and Apple," Antonelli said. "All of a sudden people have gotten used to elegance and beauty, and there's no going back."
I've read that Ive himself looks back to the German design expert who worked for Braun, Dieter Rams, but others will have to confirm this point. I learned a bit about Rams when my wife recently translated an article reviewing his career at Braun, and a point was made in that article -- to which I unfortunately have no link -- about Ive's debt to Rams in designing the iPod, possibly modeled on the Braun radio designed by Rams. This isn't meant to detract from the originality or either Ive or Jobs, for there are always predecessors.

Anyway, my point is that Jobs didn't make Apple great on his own. His success built on the work of predecessors and associates. Jobs is a technical genius, an innovative businessman, and even a great artist, but others at Apple share these talents -- as a group, at least, if perhaps not individually to the same degree as Jobs. So, with Ive and other brilliant individuals still at Apple even as Jobs steps down, perhaps the era of insanely great products there won't draw to a close for a while . . .

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At 6:01 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Hi, McHodges:

McRivarossa here, writing from a Mac Mini.

In Italy "we" still are a minority, so this is a Minority Report. But in the professional field great, hard apples are usually more appreciated than micro, soft chips.

Ugh: iSaid.

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Another who bit the Apple of knowledge . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:17 AM, Blogger dhr said...

OK, gotta "give away" a pun that was kept in store for the column Puntheism:

in Eden, Apple was the hope-rating sin-stem.

[but, will publish it there as well, one day]

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Quite a cleaver pun!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:22 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Think? Tank!

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Stink? Stank!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say you "bought it late"?

Does that mean you're now allowed to stay up past midnight?


At 10:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I wrote that I "got it rather late," though that makes little difference, I suppose.

That was in 1989, and I was allowed to stay up late back then.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:16 AM, Blogger John from Dajeon said...

In this world's actual reality, Jobs might crack the top 100, but he is not even close in importance to the likes of Mr. Carrier and Mr. Borlaug.

How many people would have died (and died extremely young) without the benefits that those two men brought to the world in their "insanely" great eras as opposed to how many would have died without Jobs? It's not even a contest. What would you be willing to give up, air conditioning, or Apple products?

At 6:10 AM, Blogger dhr said...

He was (...) a dictator (...) . He could be absolutely brutal

"Homo homini lupus."

_____ jHobbes

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John, there are various sorts of greatness, and various sorts of criteria to evaluate them.

The greatness of others doesn't detract from the greatness of Jobs, though it helps keep things in perspective.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The sarcasm, arrogance, and brutal evisceration of employees that made Jobs a 'wolf' certainly detracts from his personal greatness. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to have alienated those who worked for him . . . though we may begin to hear stories as time goes by.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:43 PM, Blogger dhr said...

The Unauthorized Biography

or, vice versa, Job(')s Book:

"I created the Behemoth and the iPad, so shut up!"

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"where were you when I . . ."

Jeffery Hodges

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