2011 was another year gone by – a year that saw one of the greatest losses in the technology industry with the passing of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc. Writing about someone you do not have a strong opinion on is hard enough; it gets much harder when it is an obituary. But when Facebook walls are plastered and Twitter feeds abound with messages of admiration, respect and genuine sadness for a man who wasn’t a movie star, a sportsman, a social worker, a saint or selfless by any means, it makes for compelling reason to learn more about him. From being an early adopter of the iPod Nano – being completely blown away by it and then later disillusioned by the fact that I had to shell out more than half its cost for a battery replacement, to being an extremely satisfied user of the Macbook Pro, I have had a mostly happy, mildly rocky relationship with Apple. But other than the ubiquitous graduation speech and product launch videos, I knew little about the man behind it all.
So, in the true spirit of this column and due to the incessant goading of my editor, I finally got around to watching Pirates of Silicon Valley, a film that chronicles the meteoric rise of two of the technology industry’s colossal giants – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. After the high of seeing The Social Network, watching Pirates, a made-for-television film from 1999 which tackles a similar subject, can be a bit underwhelming. The acting is a bit stilted at times, the characterisation of Bill Gates is a bit geekier than it needs to be and one cannot help but wonder what the results would have been, given a bigger budget and someone like David Fincher directing it. However, the film’s portrayal of Steve Jobs, played by actor Noah Wyle makes for great viewing. Jobs comes across as a supremely creative, bohemian, free spirited guy, whose awareness of his intelligence often manifests as arrogance, and someone out on a quest to marry art and technology.
The biggest take-away from the film was what the title of the movie alludes to – the fact that both Jobs and Gates get some of their core ideas from others. Whilst Jobs liberally borrows the essence of a Graphical User Interface (GUI) from Xerox and incorporates it into the Macintosh, Gates buys an operating system from Seattle Computer Products, which forms the basis for MS-DOS. Though both of them acquire these technologies legally, they take them to places where they might have never gone otherwise is remarkable. The fact remains that, while they are universally recognised as path breaking innovators with the original creators remaining relatively unknown, makes one question the real value of an idea. It is interesting that the way a seed of innovation is nurtured, grown, embellished, packaged and presented to become commercially successful seems to overshadow the fundamental idea itself.
Speaking of ideas and their transferred credit, I also have a minor gripe about how most accolades about Apple’s products are always solely attributed to Jobs, presumably because he was at the helm of affairs, seen as the face of the company and single-handedly responsible for its turnaround. For a company that is continuously delivering newer improved generation of a multitude of products, while it is to Jobs’ credit that he had a hand in every ingenuity and innovation Apple turned out, it is also appropriate to recognise the hard work of thousands of talented employees who strive to live up to the high standards that Apple is known to demand.
After setting out to write a positive piece on Jobs and having forayed somewhat into the negative, I have to acknowledge two of Jobs’ greatest achievements – the first being that he managed to completely align an entire company’s thinking and working with his vision of creating products that spearhead innovation in the technology industry. The second is how he managed to win the universal fan following of consumers, irrespective of whether they were Apple customers or not. I think the latter has a lot to do with the fact that the products he has directly helped create at Apple, and indirectly create outside it, having spurred competitors to follow suit, touched millions of people’s lives and done their bit to alleviate the monotony of everyday lives. A couple of years ago, Intel came out with a commercial which tried to glamorise geeky engineers by having the inventor of the USB walk out to a reception befitting a rock star. A minor controversy erupted later when it was revealed that the man in the advertisement was an actor and not the real engineer. Intel had to try something, for after all, Apple had the gold standard in the industry for a rockstar geek – an icon called Steve Jobs.
Kaushik is a hardware engineer at Nvidia Corp in Bangalore. He blogs intermittently at http://thekingofdreamers.blogspot.com