A review of Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, Little, Brown, London 2011.
By Julian Thomas
Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece (14 November 2011) offers a familiar, contrarian view of Steve Jobs’ career and significance. The key theme is drawn from Walter Isaacson’s extraordinary new biography: the dazzling successes of Jobs, together with his signal failures as a technology entrepreneur, were not the result of great vision or technical genius. Instead, Jobs’ significance lies elsewhere. He was an adept appropriator of other people’s ideas. He unfailingly recognized failure in other people and things. He had a perfectionist love of “closed systems” — that is, he could not relinquish control over the uses and applications to which Apple’s devices might be put. So the machines that Jobs introduced and helped invent – the computers, phones, tablets, and music players – embodied both his strengths and weaknesses; they were and are distinguished by being both brilliantly designed and obstinately difficult to adapt, extend, or modify.
The last three decades of computer history, and the debates that have raged over innovation and control in the technology business, are the background to Isaacson’s book. In a sense he has written, almost inadvertently, a biography of a certain kind of intellectual property. The foreground narrative is a rich new source of Jobs folklore, and this is what occupies Gladwell, and presumably many other readers. Some, maybe most, of these new stories confirm the nightmarish picture of Jobs’ manic, profligate pursuit of technical innovation. Again and again, Isaacson’s protagonist drives himself and others to extraordinary lengths by his oppressive, relentless, contemptuous, and sometimes ridiculous perfectionism. Towards the end of the book, Jobs’ expresses his disappointment in President Barack Obama, whom he thinks is reluctant to offend people. “Not a problem I ever had”. In Gladwell’s version, Jobs’ real significance is as a flawed example of a specific kind of technology developer and marketer. He is the archetypal ‘tinkerer’, not an original inventor, but an improver and tweaker of other people’s ideas. His skills are ‘editorial’, not inventive; his products are derivative, their development driven not by an original vision on Jobs’ part, but by his caustic, unerring grasp of the weaknesses of his competitors. Nothing Jobs did, in this account of things, was entirely new. The Mac’s great original selling points, its graphical user interface and bitmapped screen, were borrowed from technology developed by Xerox. The first versions of tablet computers were produced elsewhere, as were smartphones and music players.
Jobs’ tale, then, is about adaptation and appropriation, and these attributes, for Gladwell, turn out to be the essence of economic progress. Far more than the breakthroughs of visionary inventors, it was the work of engineers and technology entrepreneurs in taking ideas from elsewhere and improving them that powered the industrial revolution in Britain through the nineteenth century. As a tinkerer in this vein, Jobs achieved great things. But his tinkering has an unusual characteristic: his perfectionism, which was necessary to his success, also led him to jealously refuse others the freedom to adapt and modify that he enjoyed. He was a tinkerer who perversely created obstacles to the tinkering of others, whether amateur users, or firms wanting to make products that would work with his. He resisted suggestions that the early Apple computers should include more (or any) expansion ports for third party add-ons; he struggled with the idea and consequences of licensing operating systems at Apple and NeXT; he tied the iPod to the iTunes store, and would not allow other music stores access to the device. And now, in the case of the newer iPhone and iPad, the development and distribution of third part applications is strictly controlled through the App Store. At the same time, Jobs is enraged when others copy his ideas: he sues when Microsoft copies the Mac’s “look and feel”; he goes ballistic when Google launches the mobile operating system Android, which he believes steals ideas from the iPhone.
So in Gladwell’s account, Jobs was an innovator who lacked the modesty and self-awareness to understand his own role and achievement. He was a ‘tweaker’ (no dishonor in that) who imagined himself a visionary. Famous from early on for his “reality distortion field,” he deceived himself, and became an innovator who stood in the way of innovation. Other contemporary commentators on technology have taken this theme further: Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It) presents the iPhone as the ultimate ‘tethered device’, designed to ensure Apple’s control over users’ applications and content. For Zittrain, the iPhone is a salutary contrast to the ‘open’ architecture of the classic PC, which, for all its faults, could be far more readily adapted and modified by users and third party businesses. Here we find an old line of argument, that “openness” (and the associated goodness of “open source”) is the real recipe for innovation and inexpensive distribution. In the case of computing, it’s hard to argue with: even deep within the iPhone, there is POSIX, and elements of BSD Unix. The striking thing is that the closed iPhone has itself sparked an amazing wave of innovation. Whole new kinds of software, including locational media and games, educational, creative and social software, have been developed, and are readily and cheaply available for Apple’s devices. The good thing for everyone is that all this new software is now also spreading to a host of other phones and tablets, including the freely licensed (if not precisely open source) Android machines.
Isaacson’s book participates fully in the “closed system” narrative. But it also presents the elements of a more complex and interesting picture, of someone who did possess an unusual intuition for the design of useful machines; and of someone who modified his business strategies as his career progressed. Jobs did want control, and more of it than many of his customers would like, but he also realized he had to make the iPod compatible with Windows machines, and he opened the iPhone to third party developers after originally resisting the idea. He obviously hated Android, but he knew also that Apple had to compete with it. If he was a tweaker, he was (to use a metaphor that would not usually be applied to a Californian) in the Shane Warne league. But I’m not sure that tweaking aptly describes what Jobs did. It should not be difficult to acknowledge that he, together with many others, created novel things, even if they did so on the basis of the work many others had done: after all, that is usually the way. Some of this creating certainly involved adapting, or ‘editing’, but it also required acts of imagination. Gladwell’s generally precise language is vague when he describes Apple’s famous appropriation of the graphical user interface from Xerox: he says Jobs “borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh — the mouse and the icons on the screen” — from the engineers at Xerox PARC”. Whatever that sentence means, in fact Apple successfully and almost completely transformed both the mouse and graphics: the machines it produced in the following years were clearly major advances on Xerox’s Star.
Anyone interested in contemporary debates over innovation and intellectual property will have their own reading of Isaacson’s book, and their own sense of the stakes in Steve Jobs’ daring adventures. Some of the most interesting elements of the story concern the way Jobs re-organised Apple around his characteristically ambitious and romantic idea of connecting the humanities with technology. In a couple of presentations he used the image of an imaginary intersection between two streets: ‘liberal arts’ and ‘technology’. Design and engineering were to be deeply connected in the conception of new products, even if that meant that everything was more difficult, more protracted, more risky, and more expensive. Sometimes in his career Jobs overcooked the aesthetics, but Apple’s results in the end justified the effort. Like much else in Jobs’ story, ideas and aspirations of this kind help us think again about the assumptions we make about computers and their places in our lives, about the relations between technical and creative innovation, the unexpected places we find novelty, and the persistent question of who owns what.
Julian Thomas is Director of the Swinburne Institute for Social Research