His Steveness: the flip side

When I was a kid I was brought up to believe that one should never speak ill of the dead, at least in the immediate aftermath of their demise. I made an exception for Charlie Haughey, but then so did many others. In the last two days we’ve seen an avalanche of affectionate, admiring stuff about Steve Jobs, and most of it has — understandably — tended to gloss over the fact that no omelette was ever made without breaking eggs, and no great corporate height has ever been scaled without cracking some heads.

So it’s been interesting to see two more detached assessments of Jobs emerge. The first, by John Cassidy in the New Yorker, takes issue with the idea that jobs was an ‘artist’. If he was, he writes,

he was a great artist only in the sense that Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol are great artists: talented jackdaws who took other people’s half-baked innovations and converted them into beautifully made products with mass appeal. Apple didn’t build the first desktop computer based on a microprocessor: the Micral N and the MITS Altair predated the landmark Apple II. Steve Jobs didn’t create the mouse, either: he lifted it from a version he saw at the Xerox Parc research center in Palo Alto. George Lucas, and not Jobs, created Pixar. The Nomad Jukebox, a digital music player made by a company from Singapore, predated the iPod.

Jobs’s real genius was seeing, before practically anybody else, that the computer industry was melding with the consumer-goods industry, and that success would go to products that were useful and well designed, but also nice to look at and cleverly branded. He took genuine innovations and improved upon them. The Apple Macintosh, released in 1984, was the first PC that didn’t look like it belonged in the basement of the campus science center surrounded by math books and used pizza boxes. The iBook used bright colors to make laptops look cool. The iPod, unlike the Nomad, was sleek and light enough to carry around in your pocket. In a 1996 PBS documentary called “Triumph of the Nerds,” Jobs himself said, “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Unlike Thomas Edison, to whom he has been compared, Jobs wasn’t really an inventor. In fact, by the standards of Silicon Valley, he wasn’t really a techie at all all.

Cassidy thinks that jobs is best categorised as a “hippie capitalist”.

Gawker, as you might expect, has few scruples about raining on the Jobs parade. In a post with a giveaway title — “what-everyone-is-too-polite-to-say-about-steve-jobs” — it lays into Jobs for censorship and authoritarianism, having products manufactured in Chinese sweatshops, and having a tyrannical managerial style.

I guess there will be more in this vein over the next few months.