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I got a request from 4shatteredstars to write up my thoughts on Steve Jobs and his departure from Apple and what that could portend.

I wasn't sure about writing anything up because my perspective is so different. Remember, I've been in the computer trenches most of my life, reading about them even when I didn't have a computer, and have only gone deeper since I discovered FOSS and started advocating for digital rights. So just a warning, what you read is not going to be the regular opinion you get from the media.

That said, strap on your helmet, we're going in.

Steve Jobs is insane.

Not clinically, mind you. I mean from the standpoint of a person who was at the forefront of creating a technological revolution (several times) and blundered it so much, I start feeling better about myself.

Jobs and his buddy, Steve Wozniak, were responsible for the personal computer revolution, engineering the original Apple and selling it from their homes. They had so many chances to make Apple a powerhouse. Their competition was the IBM standard PC. Here's a little computer history for you -- the reason so many IBM clones were made was because, when IBM started making the machines, they didn't patent the configuration. They were essentially public domain, and people could do what they wanted with them to make them work with the IBM stations.

Most people don't understand what makes this a big deal. See, how modern computers operate is largely unchanged since the 1950's. IBM PC's start off in what is called "real mode" (anyone who played with DOS knows about this). All that fancy hardware, the graphics cards, the memory, all that? It's useless. Operating systems are required so that these things can be functional. But even in an era of NTFS or EXT3 with journaling or video cards with their own cooling units, it still starts in real mode, building everything as the OS loads. It is still an SBC (single board computer). It's a mansion built over a Barbie's Dream House.

Apple was different because it actually integrated things differently and more completely. The computer was actually engineered to do more than just support a bunch of disparate components, like a messenger running between different stations. Even its real mode was functional, which was also done by Commodore and Atari (and, to a far lesser extent, Tandy and Texas Instruments). Operating systems to do the heavy lifting were coming but not quite on the radar yet (the Blue Sky Rangers at Mattel engineered an OS for the Intellivision so that they could put as much game logic on the carts and leave the graphics on the unit).

Apple had a very solid marketshare with the Apple IIe and IIc. My school, when TI threw in the towel, went with Apple. All the kids I knew had Apples, a couple had C64's, and there was only one kid besides me with a PCjr. Apple had hoped to use early branding in the schools to help reinforce their market. With the creation of the Macintosh, they became the talked about company. A comic called Shatter was done entirely with the Mac.

So what went wrong? Well, M$ came along. Apples have always been expensive. IBM clones were comparatively cheap, especially thanks to the Intel chips that they used. M$ customized an OS to Intels and began pushing it for handling graphics and such. Windows was born, and people could start having machines that did things as pretty as the Mac for a discount price.

M$ began leveraging the trusting nature of tech companies to create their own monopoly. Windows could originally install over DOS. M$ soon changed it so that it would only work with M$-DOS, Novell's DR-DOS and IBM's PC-DOS would make it hork. The development of OS/2 with IBM was used to push the market to Windows NT and destroy IBM's market independence. Apple sued, claiming Windows ripped off their OS framework. But with M$ selling to company heads instead of CTO's who knew bullshit when they saw it (ask any of them about Office 97 saving in Office 95 doc format), they soon had enough money that their legal team turned into teflon.

Apple continued to struggle to survive. They didn't go under because M$ wouldn't let them. M$ had already dodged being broken up as a monopoly, and as long as Apple was around, they could say it was true, never mind that Apple had less than 5% of the market. Apple settled their lawsuit with M$. I would say this was Jobs' greatest misstep.

See, so many companies wanted to offer something besides an M$ machine so they wouldn't be beholden to the monopoly. They could make machines that were fully Mac compatible but would be cheaper. Apple would still get the money they would have gotten from selling their own machines, and their market share would increase. But Apple refused such deals, saying they had to maintain the quality of their product line. Sniff hard, and you'll detect the scent of a company that wanted to stay out of the stores. And the only logical explanation was the settlement with M$. M$ was allowing them to survive as long as they weren't a competitive threat. Apple sold their souls instead of going after a public that wanted something else (a need that wouldn't be filled until Linux came along, more on this later).

As a result, Apple had to come up with ways to sell computers without competing with the company that ripped them off. They had to find a new OS. Sun was interested in buying them at one point. They tried creating a video game console, but like all Apple products, it carried a huge price tag (the Pippin was released in 1995 and cost $600 out of the gate) that chased consumers off.

Further illustrating Apple's problems were software engineering messes. When M$ created a build of Internet Exploder for the Mac, Jobs introduced it at an Apple keynote address, noting that IE was the most viable browser on the market. The audience openly laughed. While it's true IE wasn't the most advanced (that honor went to Netscape), the fact is Apple's own browser was poorly engineered, prone to crashing, and could not properly render pages in the M$ dominated world. Apple continues to have problems engineering software, especially their OS. When 10.5 (Snow Leopard) debuted, the OS suffered from what are called "race conditions." A race condition is when the computer tries to read data before its finished writing it to the disk, kind of like trying to read a book you haven't finished writing. That's a rookie mistake -- even M$ doesn't have THAT problem. Coders who noticed security flaws were ignored unless they made a huge public stink. It didn't help that Macs were goofy with technology. They phased out floppies for unreliable zip drives. Their OS would not let the DVD burners make data DVD's, only movie DVD's. Going with firewire while everyone was still wrapping their heads around USB. Things like that.

Apple's biggest problem was that it was great at creating innovative ideas but lousy at executing them. Their corporate culture was notoriously undisciplined. The computers were expensive. Even their faithful users would get hacked off, first with the jump from OS9 to 10, rendering their software collections almost useless without "Classic Mode", but then the switch from the far superior PowerPC chips to inefficient Intels, which required a complete rewrite of the code base and sending software engineers scrambling. (Most programs can be written architecture independent, only between 5 and 10% of current software requires CPU specific instructions. Most designers are just lazy, taking free tools from companies like M$ that lock them in. No one professional really wants to put the effort into it, then complain there aren't any alternatives. Fuck knuckles.)

Apple basically became the option for people like my dad who were tired of M$ and their security bullshit but thought Linux was too difficult. Apple basically held 10% of the market, while people willing to try started testing Linux. Apple would still be a marginal player if it weren't for one little device -- the iPod.

Apple is good at taking existing products and making them user friendly (well, for the most part. The computer shop I frequent has a box of twenty Apple "puck" mice for a buck each. They haven't sold one since I started going there). And you know what? It works. People are willing to pay for the quality, and that's fine. But it gave Apple the opening they could never get in PC's. The market for digital music exploded, leaving M$ behind. Apple was still a technology company, but their computers were becoming less and less important.

With the explosion of netbooks, Apple was asked if they were coming out with one. They said no, the Macbook Air (a.k.a. "I Can't Believe It's Not Firewired!") was more powerful than any netbook and smaller and lighter. That, however, was a dodge. They were cooking up the iPad, which would redefine the computer market. The appeal of netbooks was that they were small and cheap. They were truly mobile. M$ saw regular PC sales, which drives Windoze sales, stalling out, and sought to co-opt the market. When netbooks first debuted, it was 50-50 between Linux and Windows. Dropping the price of WinXP licenses to $7 each, they eventually claimed 70% of the market, and by then, manufacturers weren't interested in Linux anymore. M$'s victory in mobile computing was shortlived, however. The iPad started kicking ass. Once again, it was pricey (you could get a netbook with better specs for half the price), but people loved the design and showing it off. And because Intel CPU's are too inefficient, Windows would never be able to invade the tablet market.

The iPad actually turned out to be Open Source's best friend. Things like Adobe Flash need Intel CPU's to run, the code using CPU instructions. Adobe was refusing to make a Flash version for the iPad. With so many users now surfing the net with the ARM-enabled iPad, web sites had to switch to regular standard Internet code if they wanted to keep people coming to their sites. Linux works best with standardization. So the choice turned out to help break M$ Internet standards and open up the web to more people.

Jobs isn't completely gone, he's still chairman of the Apple board. If you want to know more about the insanity of Apple corporate culture, a good starting point is On The Firing Line by Gil Amelio, chronicling his 500 days there.

In many ways, Apple was like a smaller version of M$. Proprietary operating system, patent portfolio they leveraged as an anti-competitive weapon, and such. It's just that, unlike M$, Apple blundered into doing things that were ultimately good for everyone as well as themselves, such as opening up the web better than Firefox ever could.

In doing things for themselves, they did some things good for everyone.

Apple wasn't a company. Apple was a human being.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 27th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
That was very educational :D
And the best last line ever. :)

Well met, my friend~
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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