I am writing this on an iMac computer, the fourth iMac I have owned. This Christmas, I bought my family three iPods – yes three. And I think I may have mentioned once or twice that I recently bought an iPhone. But over the Christmas break I read Steve Jobs biography and after reading it, I think these may be the last Apple products I buy.
I learned to program on early Apple II computers and I loved the straightforwardness of the process, and the sense of empowerment it gave me. In 1981, my final year as an undergraduate, I programmed the computer to display images of wave functions of particles approaching barriers and being reflected. I was amazed at what this machine enabled me to do – things even my lecturers had never done!
When Apple only made computers they constantly struggled at the interface between creating products that were easy to use – and products that restricted user choice. As an Apple –aficionado I was familiar with this and accepted whatever balance his-Steviness thought appropriate. And as Apple evolved into a consumer -electronics company, they have remained close to that interface. Crudely speaking it’s the interface between empowerment and enslavement. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.
My assessment of Mr Jobs based on this biography was not that he was a ‘quirky visionary’ as I had previously imagined, but that he was seriously disturbed: the book uses the phrase ‘narcissistic personality disorder‘. The company he built reflected his personality while he was alive and he has tried to make sure that the company will continue to embody his vision. However as a potential customer, I worry that their astonishing success has led them to embody a kind of ‘corporate narcissism’.
When I read about iBooks Author – a tool for creating rich text-books on an iPad – I was thrilled. At last, I thought, I can re-purpose my book and keep it alive. But as the restrictions of the product became clear, I began to feel uncomfortable. It only enabled me to write books for the Apple iPad – fair enough. But if I wanted to charge for my work – I would have no choice but to ask permission from Apple whether or not I could publish it. This doesn’t feel like Apple wants to empower me: it feels like they want to exploit me.
I hope that Apple have incorporated enough of the wisdom of Jobs to know when to back down. Historically, when they get things wrong they do relent. But in the absence of the one true Steve, it may be harder for people who have inherited his mantle to admit when they get it wrong.