Steve Jobs and Napoleon: an exchange

My Observer piece about Steve Job’s place in history prompted some interesting responses, in particular an email from my friend, Gerard de Vries, who is an eminent philosopher of science. “With all the articles about the genius of Apple’s Jobs around”, he wrote

Tolstoy’s War and Peace came to my mind. This is how historians used to write about Napoleon: as the genius, the inspirer, the man who saw everything coming far ahead and who designed sophisticated strategies to win his battles.

That image was destroyed by Tolstoy.

Was Napoleon in command? Well, he may have given commands but – as Tolstoy’s novel stresses – a courier had to deliver them and maybe the courier got lost in the fog, or got shot halfway and even if he arrived at the right spot and succeeded to find the officers of the regiment, the command to attack may have been completely irrelevant because just a half hour before the courier arrived, the enemy had decided to launch a full attack and all Napoleon’s troops can now do is pray and hide, or flee. Tolstoy’s point is that Napoleon’s power is projected onto him – first by his admiring staff and troops and later by historians. Napoleon plays that he is “Napoleon” – that he is in command, that he knows what he is doing. But in fact he too was a little cog in a big machine. When the machine got stuck, the genius of Napoleon disappeared. But in our historical narratives, we tend to mix up cause and effect. So the story is that the machine got stuck because Napoleon’s genius ran out.

Isn’t this also the case with Jobs? He played his role as the genius CEO and was lucky. Is there really more to say?

The best advice to generals, Tolstoy remarked somewhere, is to publish your strategy after the battle. That’s the only way to ensure that your strategy relates to what has happened.

I was intrigued by this ingenious, left-field approach. It reminded me of something that Gerard had said to me when we first worked together way back in 1978 – that War and Peace was quite a good text for students embarking on the history and philosophy of science, where one of the most important obligations is to resist the Whig interpretation of history — which is particularly seductive in the case of science.

I replied,

I don’t think Tolstoy’s analysis fits the Jobs case exactly, for two reasons: we have corroborated accounts by eyewitnesses/subordinates of Jobs’s decision-making at crucial junctures of the story (when the likely outcomes were not at all certain); and there’s the fact that Jobs’s strategy was consistent in an interesting way, namely that his determination to keep the Mac a closed system was a short-term disaster (because it left the field wide open for Microsoft and Wintel) but a long-term masterstroke (because it’s now what enables Apple to produce such impressively functional mobile devices).

To which Gerard responded:

I’m less convinced by the eye-witness reports: Napoleon’s staff also thought well about his judgements and determination (until the French were defeated and had to retreat from Russia, of course). What IS however a good point is that Job’s name appears on a large number of patent-applications (there was an interesting report about that in IHT/NYT last week which also pointed out that this could not only be motivated by the wish to boost Job’s (internal and external) company stature, as patent offices are keen to check whether the people who appear on patent applications have really contributed to the innovation.) Jobs seems to have been active not only on the level of “strategy” but also on the level of detailed engineering and design work in Apple (and that would be a difference with Napoleon: I don’t think Napoleon ever did some shooting himself. As I remember, he kept a safe distance from the actual fighting).

The more one thinks about this stuff, the more one realises how important it is to try and see technological stories in a wider context. For example, I vividly remember how Jobs was castigated in the 1980s for his determination to maintain absolute control over both hardware and software — in contrast to Microsoft, which prospered because anyone could make DOS and Windows boxes. Now the cycle has come full circle with Google realising that it will have to buy a handset manufacturer if it is to be able to guarantee “outstanding user experiences” (i.e. iPhone-like performance) for Android phones.

And that, in turn, brings to mind Umberto Eco’s lovely essay explaining why the Mac is a Catholic system and the PC is a Protestant one.

Later, another friend, Jon Crowcroft commented:

“Well Jobs is a Buddhist and Gates is agnostic – that certainly tells you something. People I know that talked to Jobs on various projects support the idea he had a major hand in project successes. I think his early failure was a common one of being too early to market; once he got re-calibrated after Apple bought NeXT to get him back, then he had it all sussed.”

Still later: Comparison between Apple and Microsoft is also interesting, as David Nicholls pointed out in an email. In terms of market cap, Apple is now worth considerably more, but:

While it is true that Apple is doing amazingly well at the moment, and ‘gaining ground’ over Microsoft, when it comes to the total amount of money made over the years, Microsoft is still well ahead.

I did a quick bit of digging and found that Apple’s total Net Income from 2001 to 2010 (the only figures I could find) is around $35.5 billion. In the same period Microsoft’s equivalent is $119 billion. These figures aren’t corrected for inflation but that obviously won’t affect the relative amounts.

Microsoft’s figures are available back to 1991, and the 1991-2010 total is around $151 billion.