I originally set up this weblog a full year ago, even writing a ‘first post’ breathlessly explaining how this was going to be an active site. Then I let it lay fallow ever since, failing to live up to my own expectations and falling further behind in catching up every one of the three hundred and sixty days elapsed since.
There are several reasons for this; not excuses, but reasons. I’m not going into the gory personal details (you are welcome), but the biggest problem was one of my own expectations: I didn’t have any! Here I had this an eponymous blog-and not a single clue what to do with it. My first idea was to make it something purely professional, except at the time I was writing and editing a professional blog as part of my job. (A blog my business partners pulled down after I quit the company, so I can’t even link to it now; but that’s something for a different post.) I figured I could create a blog about writing and programming on some kind of meta level, but that didn’t excite me enough to get me going.
I certainly didn’t want to make it a personal blog or a journal. I have a LiveJournal for that and I suck at writing about myself there. In fact I tended to use it more the way I really wanted to use this blog. Only, being human, what happened after I decided to post the stuff I used to post on the LiveJournal here and leave the personal stuff for the LiveJournal was that I posted nothing here and less often (although more personal) there.
Yeah, kinda sounds human doesn’t it? I am a Homo I. Sapiens and the middle initial stands for ‘Inconsistant’.
So, what changed? Why am I writing this? Steve Jobs died, that’s what pulled the trigger for me. Here I was trying, and failing, to make a beginning and Steve-O came to an ending and gave me something to write about.
You see I have a lot to say about Apple and Steve Jobs. (Like many people, I have a difficult time separating the corporation from the man in my mind.) I never knew Jobs personally, although I have several friends and acquaintances who did. (Robert Scoble’s write-up is here.) I’ve heard the stories and everyone seems to agree that Steve Jobs, the man, was equal parts genius and asshole. He was a controlling perfectionist and a bully and yet he could bring out the best in those working for him. Compare this to Bill Gates, also a bully and also capable of driving his people to heights they might never otherwise attained, but not a perfectionist. Willing to settle for ‘good enough’.
And that is the underlying difference between Apple (under Jobs) and Microsoft (under Gates). In the long running war between the two empires one sought perfection and assumed the consumer was willing to pay for it, while the other assumed the consumer would settle for ‘good enough’ if it saved a few bucks. Strangely, both were right.
Looking at the sales numbers it’s easy to say that Microsoft had it more right than Apple, but looking at the influence on the industry the balance clearly tips in Apple’s favor. Especially in the last few years, as Jobs led Apple into the consumer electronics marketplace, delivering pocketable computing power in sleek, beautiful packages. Apple was always good at industrial design, but when a computer becomes a fashion accessory suddenly design matters to people in a way it didn’t matter when computers were things that sat on desks.
And, make no mistake, whether we are talking iPods, iPhones, or iPads-what we are really talking about here are general-purpose computers with packaging and software that makes them look like something else. To be precise, we are talking about what happens when the trend-line described by Moore’s Law reaches that inflection point where the average person can afford to carry a powerful computer in their pocket.
So Jobs finally won one before he died. He took computers into a realm where ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough and the behemoth that Gates built couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t copy themselves into the consumer electronics market and, without Gates at the helm, they couldn’t use a combination of brute force and innovation to force themselves into it as they had with the XBox. In the end Jobs won, Apple is ascendent while the Microsoft empire slowly crumbles away.
But the cost, oh the cost. The cost of Apple winning can only be measured in moral and spiritual terms and that cost greatly out-paces the gain. For Steve Jobs it meant reneging on everything he believed in as a young man. For the rest of us it means a kind of enslavement. What do I mean by that?
You see, if the story of the computer industry over the last thirty-five years was a ten-volume high-fantasy series it could hardly have more complications, plot and pathos. Especially over the last ten years, as Steve Jobs traded Apple’s soul to the media companies to enable that all-encompassing magic talisman we call the ‘iTunes Store’. Admittedly, Jobs bound the demons to him in the process, forcing them to accept his terms if they wanted to play, but he also gave them copy protection and trusted computing as his skin in the game.
I have my doubts it was intended from the beginning, but once the iTunes infrastructure was in place Apple extended it from media to software and the iPhone App Store was born, making the iPhone an easier sell to AT&T and the other cell carriers; long known for their insistance on controlling the ‘deck’. Thus they broke through the invisible wall keeping smartphones from reaching their full potential while retaining the keys in Apple’s hands. And thus the first widely available pocket computers were deliberately hobbled and locked down. Leaving the unknowing consumer with a device they didn’t actually own because they couldn’t do anything Apple or the cell carriers didn’t want them to.
Steve Jobs did this to us. What is more, I believe he did it with full awareness of the consequences. Sure, I know the reassuring words Apple says about ‘making the platform stable’ and all that. But the truth is that the man who once spoke glibly about counterculture values, the man who took acid and spent time in an Indian Ashram, defaulted on the debt he incurred to computing freedom in the early years of Apple and dumped us all into a walled garden that, if not free from weeds, is at least free from non-Apple-approved weeds. A sterile and restricted dictatorship created by limiting users to only one source of approved software.
And thus, step by step, Apple went from the avatar of freedom embodied in the famous 1984 commercial to becoming Big Brother themselves; deciding where you can go and what you can do and watching while you do it.
Oh, I’m fully aware of my own culpability in this traitorous journey. I’ve written software for iPhones and I was in the original clique of iPhone owners, buying one the first week they were available. I own an iPad. I’ve told people how great they are over and over. Hell, I’m typing this rant on a Macbook right now. Thing is, they really are insanely great devices and Jobs has a lot to be proud of. Had a lot to be proud of.
But the cost…
There were other bites to Apple’s soul as well; including the moral expense of low-cost manufacturing. And it isn’t like they were alone in the walled garden approach; the expanding universe of computerized consumer electronics is full of walled gardens. Some, like game consoles, were locked down long before Apple got into the game.
Yet I feel like I’ve been had in some significant way: I expected more from Apple. I bought into the hype and now I want out. I don’t want ‘trusted computing’, I want computing I can trust because I control what software goes into it. Some, like Eric Raymond, have been saying these things for years and are taking the opportunity of Jobs’ passing to point out the emperor really had no clothes all along. And maybe they are right. But I wanted to believe. I really did.
So, endings and beginnings. Steve Jobs dies and I realize that this blog is where I want to start bending your ear with my opinions. I know what this blog is for now: my soapbox, whatever that might mean at the moment. (If anything gets posted to the LiveJournal going forward, it will be intensely personal and probably friends locked as well.)
Endings and beginnings. My love affair with Apple is over. My commitment to Open Computing, never far from my mind, is renewed and revitalized.
Endings and beginnings. We have lost one of the great men of my generation, a genius and an asshole, and we are entering a new era of ubiquitous computing he helped bring into being. It is up to us what we do with it; whether we allow ourselves to be trapped into the walled gardens or to walk freely where we will.
I know the path I would choose.