Reflecting on the career and contributions of the Apple cofounder.
The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the February 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/2/145403).
Thank you to Michael A. Cusumano for his Viewpoint "The Legacy of Steve Jobs" (Dec. 2011). Before exploring that legacy, I'd like to express another view of why Microsoft DOS and later Windows became the dominant "platform" despite Apple's superior Macintosh "product." Microsoft platform dominance was a legacy of the "IBM factor" that said: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."
Anyone who worked for a non-IBM vendor, 1960s-1980s, was continually thwarted by it, particularly mainframe vendor Burroughs, with a far superior mainframe, the B5000, guided by software concepts that are still with us today in Apple (via Alan Kay, a student of the B5000 designer, Bob Barton), including virtual machines (such as JVM), virtual memory, and combined software and hardware design leading to systems software written exclusively in high-level languages (such as ALGOL). The IBM factor was far stronger than even the "dominant platform" effect, and inherited by Microsoft from the lumbering IBM. Burroughs was extremely open, distributing the source of its software; following the theory of openness, Burroughs should have won.
Jobs stood against the resistance of those who were too ready to compromise, using "engineering" to justify obscurity while speaking in terms of megacycles and megabits. To those stuck in this technical rut, Jobs declared "Think Different," changing computing's focus to: "Yes, but what can computers do for me?," meaning the customer, rather than technologist or IT manager. The power-breaking effect explains the disdain for Apple by many people and earlier failure to accept Barton's B5000 concepts, which would have changed the focus to designing hardware to support software, but that battle was lost to the IBM factor, as well as being too far ahead of its time.
Jobs elevated design above technology, reversing the constraints of engineering compromise that puts technical specifications before design. Burroughs followed this ethic, and any serious student of computing should explore the resulting machines, as well as their direct and indirect descendants. Being far ahead in the computer industry usually does not pay off. Jobs and Apple understood this but were unwilling to compromise the principle of design over technical specification. Specifications are important only for enabling the possibilities of design. Specifications are not an end themselves, and changing this perspective is, perhaps, Jobs's greatest legacy. He also had the right no-nonsense, acerbic personality to see it through.
Jobs broke the power of IT managers, putting users and customers first, which should indeed be the foremost management paradigm of the 21st-century corporation: "Manage without management."(1)
The IBM factor could not last, as indeed it did not for IBM and is now breaking down for Microsoft. While others embraced such a vision before Jobs, the Jobs legacy is the breakdown of false power and longevity of good design. However, if Apple ever falls into making mediocre products (like IBM, with its 360, and Microsoft, with DOS and Windows), depending solely on reputation, I hope the day never comes when one could be "fired for not buying Apple."
(1) Koch, R. and Godden, I. Managing Without Management: A Post-Management Manifesto for Business Simplicity. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1999.
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