I am not a soft engineer and so cannot speak with authority on the global significance of late Steve Jobs’ contributions to information technology. But, I do use the computer for a lot of my research activities, as also for writing the first electronic book on agriculture in the world on important tree crops of the developing world, followed by another on the world’s two most important spices black pepper and cardamom and the most recent planned one on medicinal spice plants.
And I am working with the most advanced Microsoft system, and I know how tiresome, mentally and physically, it can get at times, sitting in front of the monitor for something like 15-16 hours a day, with just half an hour break for lunch or dinner, compiling such a vast body of scientific information onto the electronic pages.
What I wish to write about in this article is the frenzy one sees in the world today about Steve Jobs, and his unfortunate, though anticipated by himself, death in October. Some of his global admirers almost want “sainthood” bestowed on him! As he said, he considered every day of his life, after he was diagnosed for a malignant and incurable tumour in his pancreas, as the last day of his life and so worked with devilish frenzy.
Take these examples. A young boy in China sold one of his kidneys in order to afford to buy an I-pod, one of Jobs’ supposedly “miraculous” products. His biography by Walter Isaac son is selling like hot cakes in China. At close to Rs 800 a piece, here in India, almost every “IT techie” or ” IT coolie” (as someone very respected and knowledgeable here in India referred to our IT engineers working in the US – please note, the term is not mine) would grab a copy of the book.
I have often reflected about life and what it does to people. Sometimes “greatness” gets thrust upon oneself, birth being the common route – “born with a silver or golden spoon”, as the case may be. Sometimes “greatness” is achieved, and only those who achieve it know what it takes to “achieve”. In a number of cases, however much one tries to achieve greatness, one is swept down by the winds of hostile history. A common factor in all these cases, more often than not, is that the public at large sees only what it is told to believe. Here in India today, the media plays a pivotal role in the “making” or “breaking” of someone, depending on whether it “likes” or “dislikes” the individual involved.
Only when the person is no more, real skeletons fall out of the cupboard! It might interest the reader here to note that, when Walter Isaac son set about writing the biography of Steve Jobs, the latter was quite indifferent at first. But a point came when Jobs insisted on knowing every bit of detail in the planned book, so posterity would know what Jobs had done. Six months before he passed away, Jobs said at one of his public meetings “Remember, there is only one Steve Jobs”. What a gigantic ego! So, let us take a look at what Jobs had done. Here I go.
Jobs’ most important contribution was to adapt technology to human needs, make it abundantly simple, rather than the normally path of technology companies trying to educate people to use their products via a two inch thick tome the “user manual”. Take the case of the desktop computer. Without spending so many hours to educate myself, I could not have started using the most advanced Microsoft system to enable me to write the electronic book I am now writing. If one critically examines all the desktop computers available in the market today, all are basically the same in technical construction, not adding any significant or unique pride in their ownership, because there is nothing new or very unique about the new model.
But in the field of IT technology, Jobs brought a unique “individual touch” to the product he designed. He did this through Jony Ive, head of the design section of Apple. Jony Ive was almost ready to quit Apple in the mid-1980s when Steve Jobs persuaded him not to quit. Jony Ive was inspired by a German designer who had worked for the famous German electronics company Braun, whose driving principle in design was “Less but Better”. This is what Jony Ive and Steve Jobs tried to accomplish together. Would Jobs have been able to replicate the same individuality in, say, an industry like automobiles or fashion designing? No. He would have ended up being “one” among the very best, but, never the “only one”.
To go further in critically looking at Jobs’ contributions to IT, one has to understand what was happening in mid- 1990s when internet simply did not exist. In 1993, John Sculley, a top employee of Apple (the company Steve Jobs and his high school friend Steve Wozniack founded in the 1970s in a car garage) brought out the “Newton”, which formed the core idea for the development of the subsequent I-phone and I- pad, the I-series, which is now is the craze of the world.
Unfortunately, today no one remembers John Sculley, and all credit goes only to Steve Jobs. Talking about “Newton”, John Sculley had said in the 1990s when it was just launched, that “people need to communicate quickly in highly informal network-based organizations”. That Newton did not live to fulfill its promise was because there was no technology to support it mainly because, internet was not invented at that time. Were it so, it would have been John Sculley who would have ruled the world of IT innovation, and not Steve Jobs.
It is a great pity that neither Steve Jobs nor anyone in Apple has acknowledged the revolutionary role Newton played in the production of I-pads and I- phones (“I” devices) that we have now come to accept as simply Steve Jobs creations! That is the irony of life, of great inventions and discoveries.
Today in the world of science, quite often the reward of a Nobel Prize may not reach the simple technician working in a team from whose brain the best idea might have originated. The prize always goes to the team “Leader”. Steve Jobs was that kind of a “Leader”, driven by a maniac desire to rule and win – no matter how much he trampled on the minds of people around him.
The clearest proof of this is seen in the outburst of John Sculley’s wife, who said in 1993 when Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO), “When I look into the eyes of most people, I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone”.
What insightful words coming from a lady whose husband created the unique Newton, but who failed to live up to the glory of inventing such a unique piece of technology!! That was Steve Jobs. Working in the 1980s as a Professor in the world-renowned Justus von Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, where the chemistry department had more than 25 Nobel Prize winners over the years, I used to be wonder struck by the brilliance of some technicians. But, the “Leader” always usurped the idea of the lowly technician!
The material success of Steve Jobs was a ruthless combination of the “burning desire to be number one in the world”. Many have wondered how, behind a company that makes products which mean so much to people around the world, there was someone as mean as Steve Jobs.
Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts on others, or will fully bypassed them. I have often thought that sometimes you need to be brutally honest to get where you want to be. And Steve Jobs was honest to the core, in that sense. He wanted to make the best product in the world, wanted to be the number one in the world in his chosen field, and wanted the world to remember even after he left it.
And, of course, wanted all the money that poured out of it. If not, why would he take the production unit to the suburb of Shanghai in China, where dawn-to-dusk, lowly paid Chinese workers whose individual dignity was trampled down, sweated it out to make all the I-devices? He didn’t want the production unit to be located in the USA.
Perhaps it is because of that burning passion for an “afterlife” (he was never sure whether God existed or not – it was always 50:50 for him!) that he never wanted an “On-Off” switch in his products. The urge to live on, at least in his consciousness, after the body is gone… Seems closest to what Krishna told Arjuna in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita!
– K P Prabhakaran Nair (The author is a an international agricultural scientist.)