Saturday, October 22, 2011

Steve Jobs : What he wasn't

Q: Do you see yourself sometimes as Nabokov the writer isolated from others, flaming sword to scourge them, an entertainer, a drudge, a genius, which?

N: The word "genius" is passed around rather generously, isn't it? At least in English, because its Russian counterpart, geniy, is a term brimming with a sort of throaty awe and is used only in the case of a very small number of writers, Shakespeare, Milton, Pushkin, Tolstoy. To such deeply beloved authors as Turgenev and Chekhov, Russians assign the thinner term, talant, talent, not genius. It is a bizarre example of semantic discrepancy—the same word being more substantial in one language than in another. Although my Russian and my English are practically coeval, I still feel appalled and puzzled at seeing "genius" applied to any important storyteller, such as Maupassant or Maugham. Genius still means to me, in my Russian fastidiousness and pride of phrase, a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not the talent of Henry James. I'm afraid I have lost the thread of my reply to your question. What is your next one, please?

This is from my beloved Nabokov who, by any count or measure, was a genius. Steve Jobs was not a genius by similar or more lenient calibrations. I shall definitely explain why & shall provide the lagniappe of further clarifications on what else he wasn't. The reason I write this post is because I hate hype & feel sorry for Julius Caeser (...the good is oft interred with their bones).

Steve Jobs has been variously called a genius, "Michelangelo of the digital age", technologist, etc. Jobs was none of this, really. I shall break down his sobriquets into two major categories, viz., technologist & creative genius, and show you why he was neither of these. If you have no patience for reading through this or have infinite faith in my reasoning, search for "To quickly summarise" and read thereafter.

I would think a technologist is one who has his skin in the design decisions & implementation of hardware and/or software. The chief minister of Karnataka who opened the doors for MNC software firms is not a technologist no matter what one might have to say about his vision of growing the much abused "Bangalored" word. A technologist must either be an inventor or someone who has been able to lead a team of fellow technologists to create something in which he had a major say or contribution. If all he does is buys pizza for that team and/or pays salaries for that team, he is not a technologist. The devices that we associate with Apple (and mistakenly with Jobs) are the Macs, iPods, iPhones & iPads. Let us take each device and see how much of a contribution Jobs made to them.

Jobs is assumed to have created the Apple computers. Actually it was Steve Wozniak who did the real creation while Jobs did the marketing & handled the business side of things. This is clear from records of Woz creating the personal computer which took input from the keyboard & displayed characters on a screen. What are those records? USPTO Patents 4,136,359 , 4,210,959 , 4,217,604 & 4,278,972 where he is the sole inventor & not a shabby name along with half a dozen other "inventors" claiming some trivial inventions (you will understand why I say this). Being an inventor myself (yes, listed on the USPTO) I know the difference between being a sole inventor & being someone amongst half a dozen other inventors. In the noise, it is rarely clear who really came up with the idea & frankly, Jobs was shrewd enough to project things as if they were his. The Disk II interface of the Apple II was designed solely by Woz. Most of the hardware came from elsewhere. So most of the earlier line of Apple products had very little contribution (if any) from Jobs & were nearly entirely from Woz.

Let us now skip over the controversial years (when Jobs attempted a coup and was instead ousted from the company he co-founded) & head straight into 2000 when he became CEO. Even the iMac G3 was designed by Jonathan Ive & this is not something Jobs whipped up. The PowerMac design has Jobs' name on it which doesn't make sense to me given that it was the time when he was interim CEO & the design has all the traits of Ive's team. Still he has a patent with his name amongst the many on it (and this is one of the slightly non-trivial ones). The MacBooks & PowerMacs that were released thereafter might have had his stamp of approval on them, but Jobs did not make technical or technological decisions regarding their design. The only decision which could be considered technological (though it was clearly & provably business) decision was running on the Intel family of processors.

The Oh-so-famous iPod has been hailed as a great invention from Apple's stable. I wonder why! The click-wheel was not Apple's idea. Capacitive sensing existed since 1919. Even the design for this click wheel belongs to Synaptics & recently Quantum Research sued Apple over patent infringement. MP3 players existed even before iPod. What Apple designers (not technologists) managed to do was combine simplicity, capacity & elegance - mostly intangibles which don't make it a "world-transforming" device. I fail to understand how the iPod is considered a world-transforming device. All it has changed is Apple revenue & helped create the iTunes market. The iPod, like most Apple's devices, are premium-end products. Apple sold about 321 million iPods as of Dec 2010. According to ex-COO Tim Cook, the proportion of iPods bought by new buyers was 40% in 2007. If I keep that ratio, the number of unique people owning an iPod is 128 million. The world population is 6.97 billion (and that is probably just a portion of the real number) which means about 1.8% of the world population are unique owners of a world-changing device! Off the top of your mind, do you know of any device, owned by just 1.8% of the world & still being considered "world-changing"? Missiles are technically owned by an entire nation. Such is the blind stupidity of people to assume that something that reaches out to 1.8% of the world (and these are people who can afford the premium products of Apple) is world changing.

Similar observations can be made of the iPhone. The device is elegant, sleek & works well but there is nothing mind-blowing in any of its components which are truly Apple's. Ironically, it was rated as 8th amongst the greatest inventions, higher than the refridgerator & camera! It is this very idiocy & mindless devotion that was Steve Job's trump card. Were it not for this, there would be very little worship surrounding the devices that his company creates. I do not wish to descend to device-bashing as that is not the intent of this article. I would love to own an iPhone or iPad but I will not seek them out because I personally am not a gadget-freak. Lesser said about the iPad the better. The device is perfect for people who wish to play games & watch movies. Without neat universal extensions to external devices (USB, HDMI, microSD card support etc.) the iPad to me is not value for money. I can show it off & get people to request to hold it but that is that. Hence, to hail these as great inventions (which they aren't) or brilliant technological devices (which again they aren't) is mere gushing. To laud Steve Job's for inventing them or creating them is silly. He did not. There is not a single component in the iPad/Phone's system which was clearly created by Steve Jobs.

To me the interesting ideas in the iGadgets aren't new or unthought of. They existed before these iGadgets came into being. What makes them wonderful is the delightful design & clean interface. That is perhaps less of Steve Jobs' doing than of Jonathan Ive and his team. Even if I were to grant Jobs the greatness of design acumen etc. it is still not a technological gift that we are applauding. If one realises & accepts that, then we can also understand why I do not consider him a gift to the world of technology from a technical point of view.

What makes him a lesser technological person is the vulgarity with which he hunts down other competitors accusing them of patent infringement on the most childish grounds. He doesn't care about technological greatness or growth. Neither does he invent them nor does he let them grow & improve throughout the world. He was only interested in eliminating competition with lame excuses & making more & more money. The irony is that several companies, including Nokia, have sued Apple for patent infringement. Nokia actually claimed 40+ patents infringed. Apple had to settle out of court paying royalty & other charges. In short, Steve Jobs never invented a thing but was at everyone's throat for things that often didn't even belong to Apple. What he should be lauded for is his cunning aggression. Jobs didn't create a single thing (since the first computer that Woz built) which was a technological novelty or advancement. Apple has assembled several things & re-presented or re-designed several things, but that to me is it. They have created excellent marketing campaigns and been aggressive hounds in eliminating competition, but to call that genius or compare Steve Jobs to Edison is ridiculous (except for the Edison vs Tesla episode which can be likened to Jobs' instinctive way of doing things).

In summary, Steve Jobs never invented a single thing, was not singularly responsible for the design of any of the iGadgets, has design patents (and most of them ridiculously trivial as I shall show, shortly), has inhibited competitors from marketing their own versions of iGadgets while he (and Apple) continued to violate several intellectual properties of other companies and finally, & most importantly, hardly ever made a technological decision beyond okaying the Intel platform & perhaps some minor decisions on what went into some of the iGadgets. How does that make this man a technological genius? To even liken him to Michelangelo is vulgar. To compare him to Walt Disney or Edison is a stretch of imagination. He is at best an excellent marketer of technology with a knack for recognising that people love shiny things.

The New York Times was at least partly honest in summarising the same thing:

Mr. Jobs was neither a hardware engineer nor a software programmer, nor did he think of himself as a manager. He considered himself a technology leader, choosing the best people possible, encouraging and prodding them, and making the final call on product design.
Randall Thorne (supposedly a big shot) claims that "Every creative person on this planet has used Steve Jobs #Apple products to inspire or create". I consider myself creative enough to let the world know that I have never used a single Apple product to create anything on this blog or on Twitter or on canvas. It is thanks to such gushing fools (including Paul McCartney) that Jobs has been called "creative" & an "artist". Was Steve Jobs creative? I am not sure how to measure that. At one extreme is the claim that everyone is creative. I have never bought that. It is like saying everyone's a cook. Purely from an artistic point of view, he created nothing of note. If creativity is extended beyond that I do not know of him being a dancer, musician or anything like that. I haven't heard of any of his creative solutions to vital problems of the world. If there is one space he could be considered a creative genius then it must be in the space of iGadget design. But that to me seems far-fetched. His original design for the initial Apple computers reveals that he didn't have any noticeable taste. Jonathan Ive & his team visibly designed all the post-1997 devices & gadgets. Hence, I am not sure how to clearly mark him as a creative genius when he has merely been just one of the pair of several hands that pulled the iGadget design cart. Yes, he was the celebrity name in all those design ideas. At best I can only say that he had good taste and a commendable aesthetic sense. Without a single piece of evidence of his singular creative output, calling him a creative genius is misplaced.

Jobs has his name associated with 317 patents. A beautifully designed page contains all the details. I love this page. It beautifully helps me prove that Steve Jobs perhaps felt so insecure that he had to patent every detour he took on the way to his office. Please spend sufficient time on that page. It is sufficient evidence of the stinginess of Steve Jobs disallowing people to arrive at the same design (and some are such trivial designs that nearly anyone who could draw would probably draw just that) & utilise basic technology which was perhaps never Apple's original creation in the first place. Allow me to highlight two such patents:

Ridiculous Patent 1:
CLAIM: We claim the ornamental design for a package, substantially as shown and described.
Please review the images for this invention. We had a medicine box like this at home, back in 1990. This is the most common idea one would have about a smooth rounded box. Why does it take 14 people to design this? If I submitted this as my design drawing, not one design school would admit me in. So what is novel about this design? NOTHING! And this is one of the 317 patents that Jobs holds. This is not an exception. Nearly all the patents are equally if not more trivial.

Ridiculous Patent 2:
CLAIM: The ornamental design for an electronic device holder, substantially as shown and described.
Again, please review the image & ask yourself whether there is anything unique or unimaginably novel about that design. Again, why does it take 12 people to design this?

There are many many more in the cache of Jobs' patent portfolio which range from ridiculously trivial to decent ideas (perhaps countable on two hands). I am not against the idea of someone being insecure & stupid enough to patent each and everything. There is defensive patenting & aggressive patenting. In the former I patent all my ideas & thoughts & deviation from known ideas & thoughts so that I am protected from other people suing me over infringement of intellectual property. Sickening as it may be, I am ok with that. In aggressive patenting, one patents every cough & sigh so that one can make money out of everyone's emotional outbursts because one cannot be sure of being substantially creative. It is like American cowboys patenting the "Hee haa" as they ride along & then suing Indian workers for their "Zor lagake aiii-sa" as containing the same vowels. Apple is, to the vulgar extreme, aggressive in their patenting strategy. Nearly all of these 317 patents & many others on which the CEO decided not to put his name (lest everyone smell a rat) are trivial and only force people to lose the opportunity to market with rather simple & common-sensical designs because Apple has patented them. And if they make modifications to the obvious, then Apple will sue them anyway for making only modifications.

Recently, Scott Hanselman also pointed out what I believe is a growing trend in associating fundamental obvious things as belonging to Apple's design stables. The cloud icon that Scott refers to is extremely common & sufficiently visible in schoolchildren's drawings. The entire article shows the various places where this icon was used way before Apple decided to make it "theirs". This is the vulgarity of Apple & Steve Jobs which make it impossible for me to associate creativity with them.

I am willing to grant the "obvious" design creativity to Jobs but when he goes hunting after people claiming every remotely resembling thing as his with a rabid vehemence that he has oft exhibited, I cannot imagine associating creativity with him.

Steve Jobs was vindictive when he gets to know that someone else was making more money than him or even getting popular on his account. When Gizmodo published an article based on the lost iPhone that they procured, Apple instructed police to excessive raids on the Gizmodo office. To keep things a secret might be Apple's strategy but if the device did get lost (and there are claims that an offer to return it was made which Apple didn't respond to) then why turn your frustration on a blog!? Again this year, the iPhone 5 was "misplaced" in a bar. Seems like Apple's marketing prefers creating hype in shady joints! There are rumours of Apple paying journalists to rave about their iGadgets. True or not, Apple has consistently presented the face of one who will not tolerate anyone in the vicinity behaving contrary to their preferences. If the Gizmodo episode & other rumours are merely to be forgotten, then at least the latest report where Jobs was clearly quoted as being vehement & murderous about Android's success is sufficient evidence that Jobs was not even remotely a man to be considered creative. While jealousy is often a trait of the creative, being sickeningly vindictive is not (IMO). Jobs called Android a stolen device & a grand theft. Coming from a man who has repeatedly stolen inventions (genuine, and not mere ornamental designs) like the mouse, GUI, clickwheel etc. this is ironic & at once stupidly misplaced. Android is clearly based on the Linux OS. iOS is not(XNU). If they are clones & grand thefts, why would someone want an iPhone when they have freely upgradeable & open systems like the Android? Android is hardly a clone of the iOS. Still, the blood-thirsty Jobs, even while nearing his death, preferred to vow hell for Android. More details are available in the reference section below. Here is an excerpt from an article about Motorola's attempt at annulling some of Apple's patents:

Motorola said in its filing that the ideas in the patents "would have been obvious" to anyone in the industry, given the existence of prior art, and said they included "vague and indefinite and incorporate limitations that are neither disclosed, described, explained, nor enabled by the specification".
To quickly summarise, Jobs invented nothing, created no new technology nor spearheaded any technological invention. His patents are design patents (primarily) where he is just one of the dozen-plus names. He never cared about technology enriching people's lives (else why create a ruckus about a free Android selling so well?). He solely cared only about making money by marketing shiny iGadgets to a premium section of the market. His design ideas (which hardly are his) are so obvious that every decade old object in my house feels like an infringement. Apple & Jobs have shamelessly been thieves of technological inventions (true ones and not mere twinkles to existing ideas) over the past several decades but act like blood-thirsty hounds when competitors use seemingly similar ideas to sell their products.

Steve Jobs had the cunning to know how to manufacture & market technological products without technical complexity. He made them beautiful. He made them desirable. He also made them closed & unavailable for tinkering with (as he once did & hence, was able to market the stuff Woz created). What he had were the following:
  1. An interesting vision of where money could be made in technology (shiny consumer electronics)
  2. An uncanny finger on the pulse of the population that had disposable income coupled with an aesthetic taste of things worth possessing
  3. A lot of luck
So is Apple bad? Jobs was evil? Frankly, I don't care. What he wasn't was creative or a genius. He was a shrewd, cunning, aggressive marketing expert. He had a decent sense of aesthetics & could recognise good design. These are all I think one can remember him for. He changed the world in no way other than giving it a few more shiny devices. By that measure, Nike, Lexus, Zippo, Harley Davidson and several other companies have done & continue to do the same. I wouldn't even think they have scratched the surface of the world let alone change it. Steve Jobs was a money maker (I won't even call him a capitalist in an Ayn Rand sense) & not a technologist. Had he found tonnes of oil wells, he might have dropped it all & gotten into the oil business. Was he a good man? I didn't know him to call him that or anything otherwise, but going by Woz's claims of being cheated by Jobs, and Apple employees who felt micromanaged by Jobs & seeing how he behaved in the face of competition, I do not regret not knowing him. He clearly had no intention of giving back to society or creating products/offerings which could be of use to a vaster & needier population. On the contrary, he stymied competition which might have made technology accessible to a vast population. I might even echo Stallman's sentiments slightly because I think the world of technology is better off without him & his ridiculous patent frenzy. The world of design will continue to grow with or without him. If Apple shuts down due to a lack of a strong aggressive leader, then there is no loss to the world. I am certain better companies will come and go.

Ridiculous praise/mourning for Steve Jobs: (why ask the question about cancer sparing Jobs when that wasn't asked of anyone who died of cancer?)

Obits from around the world:
An honest one:

Perspective about Steve Jobs:

Click Wheel:
Randall Thorne's ridiculous tweet:
Jobs' rant against Android:
Motorola asks to annul Apple's patents:
Workers World's take:
Stallman on Jobs:


  1. Anonymous10:08 AM

    Brilliant effort. Disambiguates Steve Jobs and how! The power of your intellect to analyze, collect evidence to prove and conclude regarding premises boggles. A must read for all that are bent on making a messiah of Steve Jobs, it will be a revelation mandatory to them.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Er! Hope you are doing well! Apparently, a lot of reading (which you do a lot anyways) has gone behind this article. Thanks for the article! Great Read!! :-)

  3. Anonymous8:28 AM

    Cant agree more.. Walter Isaacson has done a pretty good job at being honest in his book - pretty much telling what you are saying here..

  4. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Dennis Ritchie - The creator of C language and co-creator of UNIX operating system died on 12th Oct 2011 - within a weak of Jobs' death but we see nothing about him in media and social n/w as compared to Jobs. It's the man like Ritchie who are really worthy of the kind of praise bestowed upon jobs.