Steve Jobs at 55: The Blind Spot in a Visionary's Legacy
It's the device that Jobs clearly views as his crowning achievement. "This will be the most important thing I've ever done," he reportedly said in the days leading up the iPad's official launch announcement on Jan. 27.
The Two Sides of Steve
For sure, Jobs revolutionized modern computing. "Apple defined the personal computer, then reinvented it, and that would be a dramatic legacy for anyone," says veteran Apple analyst Charlie Wolf of Needham & Co. "Steve really saw before anyone else how individuals would use personal computers."
I fully agree with Wolf on that point, having used and loved Apple products since I was young. But Jobs's legacy is unlikely to consist purely of magic and light. In recent years, a more nuanced picture of a complex -- and perhaps contradictory -- person has emerged.
On one hand, Jobs will be remembered for his unparalleled design acumen and product vision that disrupted entire industries while delighting millions of consumers. On the other, he'll be remembered for his autocratic management style, obsession with control and, perhaps most worrisome, his increasing embrace of closed, hyper-proprietary products at a time when the tech industry is moving toward open standards and platforms.
A 10-Year Drive to Consolidate Power
"Steve Jobs's legacy will ultimately be about control," says Jamais Cascio, a technology expert and futurist. "With Apple products, consumers have always gotten what Steve Jobs thought they wanted, whether they knew it or not yet. But increasingly, Apple products are not about what consumers want to do, but what they're allowed to do."
Whether or not the iPad is Jobs's final major launch, it clearly cements Apple's 10-year drive to consolidate power and market position through locked-down products and a tightly-controlled ecosystem of hardware and applications software. While that philosophy has paid off handsomely for Apple, it doesn't bode well for the future of the computer industry, according to Jack Lerner, director of the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic.
"Jobs could have been the greatest visionary of the personal computing age," Lerner says. Instead, he thinks Apple's CEO squandered an opportunity few ever could have to lead his industry into a new era of open-source software and platforms.
"Given how closed Apple products have become over the last decade, I think he'll ultimately be remembered as a man who was fanatically dedicated to really slick products that consumers love." Nothing shabby about that. But, Lerner adds: "I don't think these products are the game-changers they could have been because of how closed they are."
Determined to Stifle Competition
Jobs's resistance to openness has put Apple in direct opposition with Google (GOOG), which is aggressively building its own mobile phone business around its Android open-source operating system. Last month, Google launched the Nexus One, its first branded cell-phone (Verizon and Sprint have marketed Android devices for months) to a decidedly mixed reaction. Clearly, Apple is way ahead of Google when it comes to operating systems and software. For instance, Google has yet to make inroads with its own Web browser, Chrome, or with its attempt to wean the masses off Microsoft's ubiquitous Office productivity suite.
Nevertheless, Android has shown impressive gains, and Jobs clearly views Google as a threat. One week after he unveiled the iPad, the CEO reportedly delivered a secret pep talk to Apple employees during which he said Google wants to "kill" the iPhone -- but he wouldn't allow it. For good measure, Jobs called Google's "Don't be evil" motto "bullshit" (or a "load of crap," depending on which rendition you prefer), according to an account in Wired.com.
Jobs is so obsessed with maintaining control of Apple products that the company goes out of its way to ask suppliers to deliver custom parts that can't be used on competitors' products. "That means we won't be able to use a common platform or rework those components to serve other clients," one official at a South Korean supplier told Reuters recently. Of course, there's nothing wrong with demanding that suppliers build components to exacting specifications, but Apple seems positively determined to stifle all possible competitors.
When it comes to the applications and media that work on its devices, including the iPad, Apple insists that it, alone, be the gatekeeper. "Apple is going to control what goes on the device and will have to sign off on every function," says Lerner. Last year, in a possible prelude of battles to come, the Federal Communications Commission opened an inquiry into Apple's refusal to allow Google Voice, a Web-telephony application, onto the iPhone.
"Seductive and Dystopian"
The iPad isn't even for sale yet, but critics have already blasted it as a closed media hub, through which only Apple-approved content will flow. Alex Payne, the 26-year-old lead platform engineer at Twitter recently wrote that "the future of personal computing that the iPad shows us is both seductive and dystopian."
Like most Apple products, the iPad is a gorgeous engineering achievement, but beneath the signature gloss and subtle curves, it's designed to control what media we consume -- and how. "Apple can't -- or won't -- conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free," Payne concluded.
Other open-platform advocates agree. "The iPad appears to be Steve Jobs's attempt to roll back the multi-decade trend toward more open computing platforms," Princeton computer science researcher Tim B. Lee wrote recently. "Jobs's vision of the future is one that revolves around a series of proprietary 'stores' -- for music, movies, books, and so forth-controlled by Apple. And rather than running the applications of our choice, he wants to limit users to running Apple-approved software from the Apple 'app store.'"
Once a Rebel, Now a Schoolmarm
Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought it would come this? Back in 1984, Apple planted itself firmly in the public consciousness when it presented a defiant image in one of the most famous ads ever: The sledgehammer-throwing rebel destroyed the dominant computing "Big Brother" and rallied a generation of iconoclasts to fight Establishment control.
Today, absolute command of the application ecosystem is paramount for Apple. "Steve Jobs is a control freak, and by extension Apple has become a control freak," Wolf says. The company incited cries of protest last week after rolling out -- without notice -- what can only be described as "decency" standards for iPhone applications. Some 5,000 applications were removed because they contained no more than a dash of modestly risque content or "innuendo."
Now, Apple is your schoolmarm, defender of your virtue and modesty. "Apple doesn't actually make explicit what the App Store rules are, and it can arbitrarily decide to change them without notice," says Cascio. Adds Princeton's Lee: "There's a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple's capricious and irritating approval process."
Of course, Apple's insistence on highly-closed products didn't begin with the iPad. The iPod and iPhone brought home the meaning of closed computing to millions of consumers. ITunes was heavily laden with restrictive rights-management software, while the iPhone was launched with one service provider and a tightly-controlled application ecosystem.
It's one thing to offer a closed, restrictive cell phone or music player, but it's quite another to impose the same kind of restrictions on a device meant to replace laptops and netbooks. "This is Apple's big push of its top-down control over applications into the general-purpose computing world," Cascio told futurist blog io9 recently. "On a phone, that's borderline acceptable, but it's not for something that is positioned to overlap with regular computers."
A Sympathetic Ear in Isaacson?
Apple's behavior in this regard is so reminiscent of Microsoft's (MSFT) 15 years ago that one Redmond honcho couldn't help but notice the irony. "It is a humorous world in how Microsoft is much more open than Apple," Brandon Watson, the director of product management in the developer platform at Microsoft, told the website Technolgizer. For Jobs, the iPad seems to represent the holy grail not so much because of what it is -- basically a giant iPhone -- but because of what it does, namely allow Apple to maintain its steely grip on the content that flows through the device.
As Steve Jobs enters what could be the final act of his incredible career, he's right to be concerned with his legacy. And in Walter Isaacson, a respected author, Jobs may have found a sympathetic ear, or at least one he can bend more easily than the tech journalists who have covered the company for years. Isaacson's challenge will be to avoid creating a hagiography and deliver an account that acknowledges the incredible tech innovations Jobs authored, while honestly assessing his drawbacks and missed opportunities. Jobs is a visionary, but not everyone is convinced that his vision of computing's future is the right one.