18 September 2012

Apple, Android and a preference for "theft": Some thoughts on reading the Steve Jobs biography

A close friend bought me Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs for my birthday last year, and as I'm on holiday this week, I got around to reading it. As someone who's been a loud critic of Apple in the past, and someone who only owns one Apple product (an iPod Nano which I received as a freebie with an Android phone - ho ho), I was intrigued to see whether reading the biography would give me a more positive view of either the late Mr Jobs, or Apple.

I guess the main thing that the biography gave me is a more rounded appreciation of the huge contribution Steve Jobs made to the the computer and related hi-tech industries. Before reading it I knew what he'd done with Apple since becoming CEO in the late 1990s and also I knew the early history of Apple (from Robert X. Cringely's excellent book Accidental Empires), but I was pretty clueless about NeXT and had no idea at all that he had been CEO of Pixar as well. So here was a guy that was at the very least an interesting player, and for most of the time completely transformative, in his chosen field for thirty years. Not many people can say that.

So I have immense respect for Jobs the hi-tech entrepreneur and craftsman after reading the biography. However, I still won't be rushing out to buy Apple product any time soon. Why not? Well, to quote Steve Jobs's own words on what motivated him to start - and come back to - Apple,  when interviewed for the biography:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.
 And I'd agree that Apple makes great products - assuming you concur with its design philosophy (which is Steve Jobs's design philosophy), which involves accepting the following aspects of buying any Apple product:

  • you will be paying a substantial premium over production costs (including R&D costs)
  • you will be using the device in the way Apple thinks is most appropriate 
  • the device will only work to its full potential when combined with other Apple devices which are also subject to the first two conditions above.
The problem for me is that - once these conditions are taken into account - Apple products are not as great as the competition. 

Take the iPad for example. The 16Gb iPad 3 costs about £400. I can get a decent 10" Android tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean for half that, or maybe even less. It will be more customisable, it won't be limited to running only those apps which Apple has decided are safe enough for me to use, and I won't have to use the accursed iTunes software (a program Charlie Brooker memorably described as a "binary turd" whenever I want to upload an MP3 to the tablet. 

With laptops, the price contrast is even more acute. You can get a great Windows 7 laptop from Samsung for around £500. A comparable MacBook will probably cost you twice that. There's a reason Apple is the most highly valued company in the world; because it's a cash cow. Every time someone buys an Apple product they are engaging in a subsidy of several hundred dollars to Apple's shareholders. A kind of philanthropy, I guess. But a strange one. 

At the end of the day, I'd rather make my own decisions on how to use hardware and software, and what combination to use, than the ones Apple thinks are best for me. Steve Jobs's view on this was very clear. He thought his decisions on which products Apple chose to bring to market, and the  parameters under which they should operate, was right, because he was smarter than the consumer.  It's a view of the world that can best be described as "conditional benign dictatorship". The Steve Jobs technological dictatorship is conditional because no-one's being forced to use Apple products. But, if they do decide to use Apple, then at that point Steve Jobs calls the shots. 

I very much doubt I'm as smart or as tasteful as Steve Jobs was, but I'm perhaps as arrogant as Steve was, and maybe that's why I think although Apple is a significant technological and ergonomic achievement, it sucks philosophically. And so I choose to stick with Android (for phones and tablets) and a combination of Windows and Linux (for PCs). Make no mistake: Windows was absolutely useless up until at least Windows 2000, and Vista was awful. But XP was pretty good, and Windows 7 is a very good OS indeed. Linux is also extremely impressive, totally customisable - perhaps the ultimate hacker OS. And I have fifteen years of experience with both of them, whereas I haven't used a Mac since 1995. 

With Android, there is an additional philosophical reason for me to want to use it. The Jobs biography is full of great quotes; the guy was one of the most quotable interviewees of the last 50 years. And he hated Android because it infringed Apple's intellectual property: 

Our lawsuit [against Android phone manufacturer HTC] is saying, "Google, you f***ing ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off." Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google's products - Android, Google Docs - are shit.

Strong words in anyone's terms. But now go back 30 years to the early 1980s when a team of Apple engineers were shown round Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) and saw the world's first Graphical User Interface with a bitmapped screen. In 1984, Apple launched MacIntosh; the first reasonably priced computer with a GUI and a bitmapped screen. At that point, the CEO of Xerox would have had just as much justification to tell Apple that "you wholesale ripped us off" as Jobs told Google 30 years later. The supreme irony is that Steve Jobs, a guy whose entire early career was based on "ripping off" other people's research, couldn't take it when Google did the same thing to Apple. He could dish it out but he couldn't take it. 

For the record, I don't see what Apple did in the early 1980s or what Google did with Android as "ripping anyone off"; rather, it's a healthy - perhaps essential - part of an innovative economic system. Copying other people's ideas in a cost-effective manner may be, in the end, a more important part of technological progress than having the ideas in the first place. And this means that the patent system is complete bullshit that should be abolished. (But that is a topic for another post). 

So in the end, I'm backing Android for phones/tablets on grounds of ideology as well as on cost grounds. At least, I am until somebody else rips them off and comes up with something better. 

RIP Steve Jobs. One of the true greats of the computer age. 


Hal Berstram said...

Since writing this blog, I've found an excellent article by Tim Lee at ArsTechnica on the Android/Apple controversy which I warmly recommend.

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