Steve Jobs has made a career of grabbing the headlines of the technology press. It is only fitting and characteristic of him, then, that his announcement this week of his illness-related retirement as CEO of Apple capped and trumped what had till then already been a couple of weeks of epoch-marking IT news.
The stories Jobs’s retirement has pushed, at least temporarily, into the shade are anything but ephemeral.
Google’s surprise purchase of Motorola Mobility is a game changer for the smartphone technology market; it signals that Google is no longer content to be just an enabler of this technology through its open-source Android operating system, but is gearing up to put some of its awesome financial and engineering power into being a direct competitor in it.
In a development of similar importance but opposite impact, Hewlett Packard, once one of the behemoths of the computer hardware sector, announced it was pulling out of the smartphone and tablet market, and looking to sell or spin off its home-PC manufacturing business.
What we are seeing, as the world of mobile computing reshapes the traditional computer-sales market, is stodgy old-money companies going out to pasture and ambitious new-money hucksters like Google moving in to fill the void.
What we also see is Apple, a computer company that has been in the game almost as long as HP, still very much a major player in the traditional personal computer market, and a trend-setter in the new, mobile-computing market of tablets and smart phones.
That a company as old as Apple is still as youthful and spry as the new kids on the block is largely due to the drive and imagination that characterizes Steve Jobs
and his departure is likely to usher in a feebler, greying version of Apple.
That in itself may not be entirely a bad thing.
As I have said in columns before this, Apple’s dominance in the mobile internet computing market – though it is justified by the excellence of its engineering and marketing – is worrisome, given the company’s total-control-of-everything habit of mind (and a habit of mind of Steve Jobs himself).
Since the early ‘70s, the history of Apple, and of Steve Jobs, has been one of unlimited engineering brilliance followed by limited commercial success – a self-inflicted limitation caused by Apple’s and Jobs’s insistence on proprietary control over all aspects of their products, both in terms of hardware and software.
That approach pays off in the short term with benefits in simplicity and ease of use; but in the long term it leads to reduced innovation and competitiveness.
That happened in the mid-‘80s, when an in-house corporate revolution drove Jobs out of Apple and into a season in the techno-wilderness, where he developed the beautifully engineered but disastrously mis-marketed NeXT computer (the first real computer I ever owned, by the way).
In Jobs’ absence, Apple products became uninspired and uninspiring, and largely confined to niche markets like education and the print and recording media. It’s operating system also ossified, and fell behind developments in memory management and multi-tasking that were coming from Microsoft’s Windows.
When Apple bought the NeXT corporation in 1996, they were really buying Steve Jobs and his corps of hardware and software engineers. In effect, NeXT, though it was the little guy in the deal, took over Apple.
It was in the period of his re-arrival in Apple, I think, that Jobs reached his high point in innovative genius and marketing slyness.
He inherited a company with an uninteresting product line and an obsolete operating system. His solution was first to sex up the product line enough to distract the buying public from the fact that the operating system was a piece of crap. Hence the cute little iMac, which, in its first version, looked kind of like a three-month’s pregnant television.
With products like that he could hold on to market share while his engineers re-tooled up the NeXT operating system to the Mac platform to become OS X – which is now, without doubt ,the prettiest and most functional computer operating system available on any platform today.
Probably his most brilliant manoeuvre was the first iBook – a clam-shell-like laptop with a gimmicky carrying handle and, more importantly, a seamlessly integrated wireless internet capability, courtesy of the space-ship-shaped Mac Airport Wi-Fi.
Jobs and Apple did not invent the laptop or even the wireless router, but they brilliantly combined them into an attractive and easy-to-use product that set them way out in front in the dawning era of wireless, mobile computing.
As a personnel manager, Jobs has long been notoriously hard to please or get along with. As a corporate manager, he has at best had mixed success – ludicrously wrong-headed in his days as the NeXT corporation boss, right-visioned to the point of genius in his second term as boss man at Apple.
In several ways, the computing world may be a better place without Steve Jobs around; in other ways, it is probably going to be worse.
Either way, though, it is almost certainly going to be a duller place.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.