The Many Boons of C. Steve

Tenali Rama

There’s a story about Tenali Rama, poet and jester at the court of Vijaynagar, no doubt put out by the old fox himself. He was a lazy young layabout, until he successfully sued a local deity to grant him a boon. “You may choose only one of these two cups,” she said, “Drink of the milk and be wise; of the curd, and be wealthy.” Quick as a flash, T. Rama thulped down both cups of prasad. Using his newfound wit, he proceeded to mollify the angry deity, saying that either one without the other was quite useless. And went on to amass fame, fortune and the undying hatred of his peers, who might have withstood a smartass, but simply couldn’t stand a rich smartass.

One can only speculate what multi-armed deity  Cupertino Steve summoned, and what cups he was offered. But you can bet he scarfed down every last one of them.

I’ve long been puzzled at the indecent glee that a certain set of people exhibit at the lightest missteps of Apple. Now I think I know why there are so many who absolutely hate Apple in general – without ever having used their products – and C. Steve in particular. It’s because Apple has violated a fundamental law: they operate outside the Pareto envelope of technology-esthetics-business.

You’ve heard the usual pick-any-x lists:

  • Features, quality, time: pick any two
  • Beauty, intelligence: pick any one
  • Popularity, critical acclaim: pick any one

The tradeoffs they represent are held to be almost universal laws, feeding the very strong human tendency to make excuses for the virtues and successes of others. “Oh, he bribed the Government, that’s how they made their billions”, “She may be hot, but she’s dumb as a brick”, and so on. Even the silliest reason will do, but a reason is necessary. It fills a need.

I Pie With My Little Eye...

People dislike Microsoft, but they don’t hate them the way they hate Apple. Redmond Bill craftily maintains a mild-mannered Clark Kent look, just so people can think, “He may be the richest man on earth, but what a dorky haircut!” One pie did more for R. Bill’s popular image than all the billions he’s spent on philanthropy.

Someone who makes it all work is violating a sacred no-free-lunch law, leaving the rest of us looking bad, lazy or stupid. Apple – like Be Inc. and Jean-Louis Gassée – might have been remembered with fond nostalgia and regret, if they’d had the decency to fail. Or at best, been content with the scraps available to a marginal player. Instead, they created beautiful, highly usable amalgams of hardware and software, invaded multiple markets (iPod, iPhone), created new business models (iTunes) and product categories (iPad) and most unforgivably, became a roaring commercial success.

What is everyone else supposed to do now? How can we keep saying people won’t pay for good design, that a f*$#@ing ugly user interface is fine, it’s the thought that counts? How can we half-heartedly mould some plastic and stick two prongs in it, shamed by an Apple plug gleaming at us from a nearby socket? How do you keep throwing crap at the cheap end of the market, when the $50 iPod Shuffle docks with a Lego-like snick into its base?

Mmm... Lego

Pundits and naysayers have been trying, of course. “Reality distortion field”, “Form over function”, “It’s all marketing, they could sell those fanboys turds covered in white plastic”,  reaching its nadir in Charlie Brooker’s masochistic “Beat me, whip me, make me use Windows.” Sorry, folks, that stuff won’t stick any more. Metrics talk, bullshit walks. Apple has eclipsed even Microsoft in market cap, their user base extends far beyond a fanatic hipster core, they’ve started from scratch and made huge inroads into mature markets with established dominant players. If it’s so easy, why doesn’t everyone hire suave, turtlenecked hucksters and make billions?

There are many reasons to criticize specific Apple policies and products, but if you hate them in toto, as a sort of ideological stance, then I have to reluctantly conclude that you are either technologically or esthetically naïve, unable to appreciate just how goddamn hard it is to create an Apple-level experience, or…

Envy. Sorry. The word is not mentioned in polite company, but there you are.

Envy isn’t all bad, it drives a lot of human behaviour, provoking imitation and competition. Apple’s severest critics would have to admit that it’s raised the bar and influenced other players to produce far better user experiences than before. With luck, consumer expectations will be raised and Apple DNA disseminated widely enough that it survives Apple itself. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the Malthusian trap where poorly designed and written software consistently outstrips hardware gains to deliver a mediocre user experience.

And Steve – the next time you have an Antennagate? Get that chap to throw a pie at you. R. Bill will be happy to give you his number.

4 responses to “The Many Boons of C. Steve

  1. I think there’s a little bit more to it than that. Are you sure your valuation of Steve isn’t inflated, and your valuation of average Joe’s personality a little deflated?

    I’ve always been an Apple agnostic, not anti-Apple as some people accuse me. I think it is illegal in most countries to be an Apple fence-sitter, which is why some people pull a “if you’re not for Apple, you’re against Apple” thing on me.

    I realize it is right for some people, just not for me. And I am not just saying that. I really pushed my wife to get a Mac because I was tired of helping her maintain her PC. She isn’t comfortable enough around computers to really be a good PC user.

    For me, it’s ultimately always been about the lack of openness of Apple that’s turned me off. Even after the shift to a BSD Unix core after OS X, it still feels like a very closed universe. Same goes for all their products. I won a free iTouch, and use it as a quickie browser, but I have avoided synchronizing it with iTunes, which it seems to hate. Sometimes I have other criticisms (like I had for the iPad, some of which I now take back, partly thanks to you), but in general, I don’t like living in the paternalistic universe. I’d rather make my own mistakes, including dealing with viruses etc., than cede too much authority to C. Steve.

    And yes, his personality has something to do with it. You can admire technology, but trust is mainly about people, and I just don’t trust the guy at some deep level. And it isn’t just the way he manages perceptions compared to R. Bill. Even at his childish worst, R. Bill somehow struck me as fundamentally trustworthy, and it isn’t just a Clark Kent thing. It is that he has always bothered to defend his thinking against those who disagree. C. Steve OTOH, has a Pharoah-like “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” air to him that preempts dissent.

    Possibly, my reaction has less to do with Apple, and more to do with a preference for a more horizontal industry structure (non vertically integrated), where I can, at least in principle, mix ‘n match more, and no one player controls the entire information supply chain. This includes a suspicion of the SaaS+tethered device model. Apple is merely the best example of this, but Amazon and TiVo are part of it too. I use my wife’s Kindle, and buy selected books I wouldn’t really care about losing on it, but have avoided buying one of my own so far, even though I could really use it (I might cave there first…)

    I have other such gut reactions in other areas too. I instinctively distrust Facebook, instinctively trust Twitter, even though here the CEO personalities don’t even figure (I don’t know enough or care enough about Zuckerberg and Biz Stone). I used to trust Google, and that is starting to fade a bit (I still trust their best faith and good intentions. I just no longer trust that they are smart enough to deal with all the problems they offer to solve for me).

    Venkat

    • Thanks – it’s always good to reason with the reasonable (unlike the Charlie Brooker types).

      OSX is not as open as Linux, but it’s certainly the most open proprietary platform out there. Comes with free dev tools, C compiler, python, ruby, and so on. A Unix-y guy can start working on a Mac without ever having seen it before. Windows, on the other hand, feels claustrophobic, because I can’t instantly switch from user-mode to hacker-mode like with Linux and OSX. Unlike the device space, anyone can publish software for OSX without Apple’s say-so.

      Once you ‘get’ that Apple’s philosophy is all about fanatically optimizing the user experience, much of their seemingly bizarre behaviour makes sense. Apple (at least, Steve’s Apple) puts this philosophy first and everything else – profits, market share, mind share, shareholder value – second. They behaved like this when they were marginal players (and Michael Dell famously called on them to liquidate and return shareholders’ money) and continue to behave like this when they’re major players. Those who don’t ‘get’ it continue to analyze them in traditional tech-company-like framings and wind up very confused.

      People spend a lot of face time with their computers and phones and relate emotionally to them as a whole. They don’t make fine distinctions about which part came from which source. This is Steve’s key insight, which is why Apple will never – even under pain of death, as has actually happened in the past – release their software stack separately to run on generic hardware. Every time I used Dell or Lenovo with Windows, it looked and felt gloomy, even when the only comparator I had was Linux. Laptop configs handicapped and RAM-starved by laptop vendors shaving costs to improve wafer-thin margins, TFT screens of poor quality, a dozen crappy software packages pre-installed and icons looking seriously moth-eaten. This is not because Microsoft programmers can’t render icons correctly, but because Dell did a sub-par job of system integration.

      You don’t blame Nichicon capacitors when your motherboard dies, you blame Dell. Similarly at some level, you don’t blame Dell for your slow app load times or ugly icons, you blame Microsoft, since it’s the most visible author of the user experience. I did try the bootleg Mac OS on Dell when they moved to x86. You would be very surprised at the difference in user experience with the same software on the Dell and the Macbook.

      In the phone/touch/pad space, the whole idea is to get the device to function as a seamless extension of your will. This means instant reactions, no fracturing and sudden stops, which break the illusion. There is less resource wiggle-room in the mobile world than in the laptop world.

      This is why Apple waited until they could establish enough guidelines before opening up the app development space. Apparently Steve has pulled this Flash-ban, middleware ban stunt in the past too (damn, can’t find the link and can’t remember the details too well). He blocked cross-platform compatibility for some new Apple product, starving it – suicidally, many said – of apps. His logic then was the same as now. Quick and dirty cross-platform ports would deliver a half-assed experience, without exploiting the new features of the product.

      When there is a critical mass of “good” apps, new apps tend to be “good”, or stick out like a sore thumb and die. When there isn’t such a critical mass, it’s all too easy to have a software ecosystem get dominated by half-assed, “good enough” apps and new apps aren’t shamed into looking or doing better.

      (Suppose the immigration gates to the US and Western Europe were thrown wide open and free teleport facilities were available – what do you think will happen? :))

      This has bad short term impacts, but long term, it’s one of the few viable methods to break the shackles of legacy limitations and forklift us out of Malthusian traps (Farewell-to-Alms style)

      Like a good boy, I routinely jailbreak my devices. I may just have been unlucky, but many of the jailbroken apps were frustrating because they routinely fractured the user experience, e.g. not responding to user input for several seconds, and so forth. The utility function of most programmers is about getting something done, not about optimizing the user experience until it hurts. Programmers are very good at solving their own problems – so programming tools are usually very nice – but are terrible at solving other people’s problems.

      If you don’t understand this, you’ll have a hard time figuring why Apple is so prissy about people programming in native and not even allowing flash-to-iphone converters, which would go through the gated AppStore anyway. After all, they don’t make money teaching Objective-C or sell expensive developer toolkits. It’s just that the intermediate layer adds to the overhead and shaves off that much from performance and responsiveness.

      As a programmer, I don’t like Apple’s tethered devices because the bar to program is too high for me (HTML5 and its persistent client-side storage is intriguing though) As a user, I love ‘em and use them on a relentless basis.

      Jobs does explain himself – the problem is most people don’t understand his axioms, so when they see that his logic isn’t making sense they tend to accuse him of bad faith or prima donna behaviour. For example, the tech punditry keeps ridiculing the use of the phrase “magical” to describe the iPad. I immediately related that as a way to describe “seamless-extension-of-will”, “move-your-fingers-and-it-just-works” – since I’d been using the iPod touch and knew what they were talking about. I also knew its exact Muggle counterpart – a terrible HTC WinMob resistive touch phone which I’d had the misfortune to use for a few weeks. Someone would call you, you’d press the green button and wait with frustrated rage until the device registered the press, a process which took several seconds, while the rings went reproachfully carried on. Sometimes the caller gave up.

      Re your point about trust: there are many types of trust, but the one we need to consider is: would I hand this guy the keys to the software factory? C. Steve has very good taste overall, but I wouldn’t want him – or anyone – to be the sole dictator. If I have to go by what Windows is like, I am less enthused with R. Bill’s architecture and design taste. The worst of the lot, though, is G.N.U. Richard.

      I use and love free software, think it’s one of the greatest things since sliced bread, the GNU license an excellent hack of the copyright system and the world is much better for it. But Richard fundamentally does not understand humans (all software must be free, nebulous ideas of a ‘software tax’ and NSF-style funding for software projects…brrr… just about the worst idea from a smart guy I’ve ever heard, short of Einstein’s ‘world government’)

      Microsoft, like God, is inevitable: if it didn’t exist, someone would have invented it. People don’t choose Windows, they buy a computer and it comes with a good-enough, market dominant piece of software, made in this reality by Microsoft.

      Apple is not at all inevitable. Neither is GNU. Both are very low probability events which have fortunately survived and thrived, much to the betterment of the industry as a whole.

  2. I didn’t find the link I was looking for, but here’s Jean-Louis Gassée on the Flash controversy.

  3. Re your point about trust: there are many types of trust, but the one we need to consider is: would I hand this guy the keys to the software factory? C. Steve has very good taste overall, but I wouldn’t want him – or anyone – to be the sole dictator. If I have to go by what Windows is like, I am less enthused with R. Bill’s architecture and design taste. The worst of the lot, though, is G.N.U. Richard.

    Very good point. Students of Karl Popper used to call his “The Open Society and Its Enemies” “The Open Society by One of its Enemies.”

    Stallman I think falls into that category.

    I too have gotten a bit disenchanted with “Open” ideology because it creates a certain amount of avoidable toxicity by turning what could have been negotiations into moral posturing. The recent Matt Mullenweg vs. Chris Pearson mess (Pearson’s Thesis theme wasn’t GPL’ed, Matt thought it ought to be) illustrates this nicely.

    But overall, I don’t know that I agree with trust being too narrow. Certainly there are broad levels and subject areas, but I don’t think “fanatically optimize UX” is a good starting axiom to analyze ALL of Apple’s behavior. If that is true (and I don’t think it is… Jobs is more visionary than that and has opinions far beyond… see a recent Kottke.org collection of 3 of his classic interviews over time, plus his Flash rant which gets into bugs etc), then it is a bad thing that a company would manage an n-dimensional beast along 1 dimension. Some m<<n is acceptable corporate focus, but make the mission too narrow, and trust falls apart. It becomes more like a one-dim performance grade. Hmm… there's a thought somewhere there, that "trust" as a variable must always be of a certain minimum dimensional complexity w.r.t domain where it spreads…

    Venkat

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