Steve Jobs: Death of a salesman

[An edited version was published in the Deccan Herald ]

The only time I came close to actually buying an Apple product was on a Sunday four years ago at Delhi’s Kabadi Bazar. It was a Macintosh SE of late-1980s vintage; as somebody who had used intermittently for 10 years Apple’s Macintosh in my work, I knew its value at once. Off hand, I could think of at least five friends who’d have paid good money to have it sitting in their drawing room. The seller said it was a working piece and asked for Rs 3,000. I was short. I passed.

At first, I didn’t buy Apple’s machines because they were unaffordable. I knew all along that Apple’s hardware and software were better built, easier to use and more attractive than the variety of personal computers (they were called IBM clones) using Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Apple’s machines did not need anti-virus software, they worked faster, seldom crashed, had better displays, ran several programs at the same time. Reliable.

In those days, buying an Apple machine was ambition. Apple users were an exclusive club of people willing to pay a usurious premium for quality. People who believed the only reason others didn’t use Apple was they couldn’t afford it. That Apple verged on bankruptcy didn’t seem to matter. This was around the time Steve Jobs returned to helm.

First came the iMac. Gradually, a slew of products that propelled Jobs from freak to legend. While they became affordable, my income had increased. An Apple was well within reach. But my Apple loyalist friends would often crib about how they were trapped in a high-cost contract. Small spares were exorbitant, as were annual maintenance contracts. It wasn’t that they couldn’t afford it; they felt taken for a ride. Several of them used pirated software programs because the Apple versions of the same software packages were more expensive than MS Windows versions.

Their complaints made me hesitate. This was around the time I’d discovered that staying on the Microsoft Windows platform was fraught with hazards that included unavoidable virus intrusions, frequent crashes and, eventually, data loss. I wanted out. But Apple, though affordable by now, didn’t seem like an option, notwithstanding the catchy adverts and slogans, the attractive and colourful machine designs.

All these products pushed the Apple monopoly in software and hardware. If you bought an iPod, you got a touchscreen but you couldn’t copy the music out of it. You needed to use iTunes on an Apple machine or, worse still, iTunes on a Windows machine, to load music on to it. There were restrictions after restrictions. Now, if you use an iPhone, your program options are restricted to apps Apple’s censors approve. Apple’s 1997 ad campaign was dedicated to “the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers…”, well in line with Jobs’ counter culture aspirations. Apple’s rise, though, is patently corporate and old world. Simple spares like a battery recharging adapter were difficult to find or ridiculously expensive.

There’s nothing wrong in earning from what you’ve invented, an Apple lover told me, like the personal computer. The level of ignorance on this is nothing short of shocking. The two inventions that made for the personal computer’s success, the GUI (graphical user interface) and the mouse pointer, were invented by Xerox’s engineers at their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The Xerox management was not savvy to the implications of what PARC had created. So, in exchange for preferential shares in Apple’s upcoming IPO, they allowed Apple engineers to visit and use their creations.

Without doing a thing, Apple got a headstart on the two inventions that went on to make a success of the computer personal. It didn’t take long for Apple to taste its own medicine. Microsoft was working with them at the time, and had access to Macintosh prototypes. Around the time Apple’s Macintosh got released, Microsoft released Windows which featured a GUI and a mouse. Later, after Steve Jobs had been sacked from Apple by a CEO he had hired from Pepsi, Apple sued Microsoft for plagiarising the look and feel of the Macintosh’s operating system. Soon, Xerox sued Apple with the same charges. The courts dismissed both the cases.

The Macintosh had been preceded by an advertisement based on George Orwell’s novel 1984. It featured a rebellion, the Apple rebellion, against the Big Brother, namely, IBM. It took very little time for Bill Gates to become the Big Brother of the personal computer world. Steve Jobs’ second coming at Apple in 1997 changed that over the coming decade. There was a poetic irony about Apple’s market valuation overtaking Microsoft’s a few months ago. If nothing else, for the simple reason that Apple has consistently made better products than Microsoft. Jobs’ cult following had something to do with the fact that products designed under his leadership gave people not only what they asked for but what they wanted, and didn’t know how to ask for it.

Now, Steve Jobs’ Apple is the Big Brother of the personal computing world. More colourful than IBM’s grim designs. Imagine Nurse Ratched dressed up like Marilyn. It lords over the world of proprietary software that propelled the Microsoft monopoly in the first place (about 85 percent of all personal computers still run on Microsoft operating systems). Apple is as coercive and restrictive as Microsoft and has the financial might to back its practices.

Somewhere in the middle of Apple’s turnaround, I decided to escape the proprietary software trap. Some friends mentioned Linux, which heretofore was an operating system for servers and the geeks who ran them. They told me it now has a graphical user interface. I read up and asked for help to make it work. The initial months were horrible, not because Linux didn’t work but because hardware vendors did not provide drivers for Linux machines.

With each year, it has become easier. Especially with Ubuntu, Linux has become the easiest option for personal computing. It’s been six years of using open-source and free software. Six productive years. Over the past few days, reading obituaries describing Jobs as nothing short of the Edison of our times, I am impressed with the power of advertising. Tragic as Jobs’ death at 56 years is, the exaggerated accounts of his influence on our age convince me of the power of advertising, marketing and our our vulnerability to what entraps us.

Categories: Media, Technology

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