Sex, drugs and Apple

2012-09-17 00:00

Last month’s ruling by a Californian court that Samsung had infringed Apple patents has led to further legal action, aimed at stopping sales of eight Samsung products in the United States. American economic imperialism has been read into this situation: as one commentator asked, “is Apple trying to patent geometry?” The role of corporate bully sits uneasily with Apple’s image as progeny of the social revolution of the sixties. Or is this just a myth?

Fifty years ago computers were mainframes housed in special rooms with restricted access. Earlier they had been tended by people in lab coats and the idea that they could form part of everyday, domestic life belonged to science fiction. Instead, they symbolised military and, increasingly, corporate power in Western society where post-war conservatism was about to be challenged by alternative, often radical views. Along came programmable calculators and then in the mid-1970s the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. Users had to write their own programs and often preferred to put together machines from kits.

It was a very different world and Luke Dormehl connects the emerging technology with sixties counter culture. But wisely he warns against a simplistic relationship. Some of those involved were hobbyists eager to share their technological wizardry and one of them was Steve Wozniak who built the first Apple computer. Others included hippy programmers, phone freakers and revolutionaries of various callings. Then there were the outsiders seeking opportunity and possible fortunes. A significant part of the dynamic of counter culture was acute generational conflict, possibly the greatest of all time. The time was right: an era of relative prosperity following two devastating world wars. The rest of it seems to have amounted to little more than enthusiasm for Timothy Leary’s famous libertarian injunction to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ in a drug-induced haze to the music of the time.

And then there was Apple co-founder, Stephen Jobs. He dominates Dormehl’s book, but there is little evidence that Jobs was part of a meaningful counter culture or anything more than a shrewd and often ruthless businessman with a genius for marketing akin to evangelism. The best that is said of him is that he was an inspirational visionary, but it is also patently obvious that his massive fortune was created out of short-changing the creativity and technical ability of many of his colleagues and even his friends (the floppy disk drive is a good example.)

One associate describes Jobs as a ‘renegade from the human race’ and he emerges from Dormehl’s book as an unpleasant control freak and micro-manager with a Neanderthal approach to labour relations. Disruptive, obnoxious, abusive, irrational, mean and fond of humiliating and embarrassing people are other descriptions and it appears that he had an unhealthy binary view of the world and its people. He was such a sociopath that he was expelled from the Lisa development team, and in 1985 at the age of 30 left Apple to re-invent himself , although he was to return in 1996.

Jobs’ new ventures included desktop publishing (a development that was mistakenly predicted to turn us all into publishers) and film technology. At his NeXT corporation there was a greater air of collegiality, but he was still known as Chairman Jobs. Having once drawn heavily on Xerox research, he now collaborated with IBM. Both were bastions of corporate America. Co-workers who saw little of him counted themselves fortunate: he would, one of them recounted, descend on them, distort the world and leave them picking up the pieces.

In spite of his sandals and casual dress, the world view of Jobs was in some ways the very antithesis of the heady free-wheeling, anti-authoritarian days of the sixties. His machines were user friendly, but had locked-in functionality. His ability to recognise profitable technological advances created by others was matched by his obsessions. He once had a tiled floor pulled up at great cost because the grouting was the wrong micro-shade of grey. His computers had limited capacity because he insisted they should have no fans and on one occasion he demanded that every component of one of his machines be coloured black, a decision described by colleagues as insanity.

While it had an admirably flat hierarchy, Apple was broken down into autonomous units and paranoid about security with only Jobs enjoying complete freedom to move around. And the company developed, in the view of many, into that most oppressive of institutions, a cult created around an evangelist leader. It is an intriguing thought that a mix of personality, control, aesthetics and a disdain for certain groups of people added up to mid-twentieth century fascism. Yet paradoxically Apple created products that had very human appeal and even greater utility. Commendably its retail stores became user-friendly places where products could be tried out by potential customers.

In spite of the sub-title of this book, no one, crazy or otherwise, took over the world. It is remarkable how books of this type succumb to ahistoric hyperbole. Jobs, claims Dormehl, ‘invented the future’. This is an extraordinarily rash statement given the collaborative effort that has resulted in the technology we use today. And the world remains distressingly unchanged. Is the iPhone a more significant invention than the wheel or the internal combustion engine? The question is endlessly debatable, but it is significant that the pretentiously labeled ‘life validation products’ manufactured by companies like Apple are marketed to the well-off. Jobs was famously interested only in people who had the money to buy his products. Nor was he a philanthropist of the scale of Bill Gates, with whom he has often been favourably compared.

Apple built up an intensely dedicated clientele, making user-friendly machines and applications such as the graphic user interface (GUI), the first business spreadsheet (VisiCalc) and a sophisticated desktop publishing facility (Page Maker). GUI replaced the need to understand MS-DOS prompts. The premise is that we use toasters every day with little inkling about how they work, but nevertheless the substitution of graphics has debatable consequences. The deserved popularity of Apple products is undeniable, although some commentators call it brand fanaticism. But as John Sculley, the man who ousted Jobs in the mid-eighties, shrewdly pointed out Apple has always been primarily a marketing company.

• The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, the Counter Culture and How the Crazy Ones Took Over the World by Luke Dormehl is published by Virgin Books.

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Apple is an American multinational producer of consumer electronics such as Macintosh computers, the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and the iTunes browser. Founded in Silicon Valley, California in 1976 it has grown to become the biggest technology company in the world and largest public company in history. In 2011 its revenue was $108 billion and for a few days in July that year its financial reserves exceeded those of the US government. Fortune magazine named Apple in 2008 as the most admired American company, but it has recently come under fire over environmental issues and the labour practices of its contractors. Its bitten apple logo and slogans such as ‘byte into an apple’ became emblems of the personal computer age (Source: Wikipedia).

WHAT IS APPLE?

 

AN American multinational producer of consumer electronics such as Macintosh computers, the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and the iTunes browser, Apple was founded in Silicon Valley, California, in 1976. It has become the biggest technology company in the world and largest public company in history. In 2011, its revenue was $108 billion and for a few days in July that year its financial reserves exceeded those of the United States government. In 2008, Fortune magazine named Apple the most admired American company, but it has recently come under fire over environmental issues and the labour practices of its contractors. Its bitten-apple logo and slogans such as “byte into an apple” became emblems of the personal computer age.

— Wikipedia.

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