Inside Steve's Brain

Posted on January 1, 2012 by Jack Kelly
Tags: readings

Last year, Steve Jobs died. As Richard Stallman wrote, “I’m not glad that he’s dead, but I am glad that he’s gone”. As a self-confessed Free Software Hippie, Steve stood and Apple stands opposed to a number of principles that I hold dear: software freedom and the right to tinker with your own devices among them. When a friend recommended this book to me, I immediately added it to my reading list; I need to study my enemy and see what I can learn.

Naturally, the book is very flattering towards Apple and Steve. Apple’s famous secrecy is described in exciting terms, likening it to a spy agency with individual cells working in the dark. (Apparently only four people knew the name of the first iPod before its launch.) Other companies (e.g., Sony) are described as having their talent locked into silos, unable to combine that talent to produce anything comparable to Apple’s offerings. Even so, that level of secrecy means that staff will have difficulty combining assets. Apple discovered that it held the trademark for the iPod after the name was chosen for its music player. (It was going to be the name for an aborted internet kiosk project.)

Even so, the stories of Steve make me wonder how anything got done at all. One chapter describes Apple’s retail stores and the thought process that went into their layout. Ron Johnson mentions to Steve that the proposed layout of the stores is all wrong; the Mac and its peripherals need to be seen together to give the idea of the digital hub. Steve responds by yelling at Johnson and storming off to his office, coming back an hour later to admit that he was wrong. Steve’s outbursts are mentioned many times in the book and I don’t understand how Apple avoided degenerating into a “cover-your-ass” culture as a result. Steve (and a small number of Apple staff called “Friends of Steve”) were handled by general staff with extreme caution, and staff were known to report to each other when one was nearby.

Some of my best work has come from impassioned debate with friends or coworkers, but I don’t see how that makes screaming at your employees a good motivational tool. Steve sounded like a control freak who had a very low opinion of everyone else (an example of high praise: “This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple that I’ve seen yet.”). The result was a company full of very smart people who could stand the heat, at least for a little while. I don’t expect the real workforce to be some kind of hippie love-in, but I hope that an environment that caustic is not a prerequisite for high-performance work.

Steve’s control of every facet of a product is something he considered essential to the user’s experience. The original iPhone didn’t even have native code apps, to prevent “bozos” from writing “crap” that would make the phone frustrating to use. Unfortunately, customers don’t yet realise that they should care about freedom and openness, so the App Store has been a huge success. Time and time again (OK, Apple backed off on this one after huge outcry) developers have been burned by building upon these proprietary platforms and I hope to see them turn to Free alternatives. Without the developers, the user experience cannot be sustained forever.

Unfortunately, the out-of-the-box-experience of Free Software is still sub-par (although hugely improved in recent years). For instance, my microphone will only capture if one of its channels is set to zero. I have no idea why. The iPhone’s success proves that the average user doesn’t (yet) care about Software Freedom. A good experience is critical to Freeing users and retaining them long enough to teach them the philosophy. The GNU project knew this years ago, when its Free replacements of basic system utilities had additional features or were easier to use than the default, proprietary versions.

The runaway success of these semi-closed app marketplaces (which people call “open”, with a straight face) are part of a battle over general purpose computing which we cannot afford to lose.

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