The bite in the Apple: Steve Jobs’s legacy, 10 years on
If Apple Inc were a person, it would be a filthy-rich 45-year-old man facing a mid-life crisis, under regulatory scrutiny in various parts of the world. But he would also be a creative genius, someone who knows how to build breathtakingly beautiful (and durable) smartphones, computers and other devices.
Scratch the surface, though, and the middle-aged man has become predictable, boring even. Ironically, Apple Inc has arrived at the future that its founder Steve Jobs pointed it towards, but it continues to struggle with his legacy, a decade after his death.
Most narratives have it that Apple is what it is because it builds products and offers services that place users at the centre. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jobs didn’t care what people thought. “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want,” he famously said, as he poured all his passion into building a company of a kind the world hadn’t seen before, and an entity where his diktat overrode everything else.
Born to an unwed mother and an immigrant Muslim teaching assistant from Syria, he was given up for adoption and raised by the very diligent and middle-class Paul and Clara Jobs. They did not hide Steve’s story from him. Instead, they did all they could to make the child feel special. He was “the chosen one”, they told him. It soon became clear that he was special, vastly superior intellectually to the average child.
This combination of being told he was special while growing to be leagues ahead of the rest of his class, and developing a fierce ambition driven at least in part by the scars of abandonment, would result in the explosive mix that was Steve Jobs: a man who could do extraordinary things, spot talent like few others could, drive it like few others would, and create a future no one else had imagined.
It took a Jobs to cut through the clutter and spot the geeky Steve Wozniak. Together, they spoke a language few others could comprehend. One of their first creations was a contraption called the Blue Box. They got to work on it in September 1971, an era when long-distance calls still cost a bomb and geeks across the US were trying to work out how to bypass phone companies. After reading technical journals, they gathered what they needed from local hardware stores and created this device that could read the signals AT&T used to place long-distance calls by riding on their network (which had cost a few billion dollars to create).
While each box cost $40 to make, Jobs figured there was a market for it. They created 100 such boxes and sold them for $150 each, to other geeks, in a limited run, to avoid getting into trouble with the law. The profits they earned here would be used to found Apple. “If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple. I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learnt how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production,” Jobs would later tell his biographer Walter Isaacson.
Jobs and Wozniak’s friendship was a symbiotic one. Wozniak could think up things like the Blue Box, make them and get them to work. How to make money out of them was where Jobs came in. After the Blue Box, they started to tinker with computers and built the first Macintosh. This time, though, they didn’t agree on the sales tactics.
Much against Wozniak’s wishes, the computer that eventually hit the markets in 1984 and was introduced to the world as the Macintosh was tremendously overpriced. Worse, in a contravention of the techie / hacker’s code, it had no slots that other hobby hackers could plug into, and it took special tools to open the plastic case. It was a closed system that ultimately didn’t reflect Wozniak at all. But it tied in with Jobs’s personality perfectly. “…his desire for complete control of whatever he makes derives directly from his personality and the fact that he was abandoned at birth,” Isaacson would say in Jobs’s biography (published in 2011).
The market loved the Macintosh. Part of this had to do with Jobs being a master storyteller. And he was already weaving the narrative of his supposed obsession with perfection. The truth, as always, lies closer to the middle. Jobs appreciated the arts and sought beauty out. But from the start, he insisted people pay an obscenely high premium. Not just customers but employees, collaborators, even loved ones.
He abandoned his girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, after she got pregnant in 1977. Through most of his life he refused to acknowledge their daughter Lisa, despite paternity tests that confirmed she was his child. Wozniak remembers him as a man who changed, after their early success, from a geek into someone obsessed with fame and money.
What Jobs was, indisputably, was a visionary. He predicted that people would store data and consume music, films, the news, and all kinds of content in an altogether different way if the options were created.
When he presented the iPod to the world in 2001, the music industry was rattled, and with good reason. It hasn’t been the same since. In 2007, Jobs unveiled the iPhone. It could stream music, browse the internet, send email, and worked without a stylus.
Even as engineers at Apple were working to create better versions of the iPhone, Jobs was launching paid services such as iCloud to store data, Apple Music, Apple Movies and Apple News, among others. The App Store let people purchase software to power their Apple devices. These offerings, now collectively called Apple Services, are so successful that users spent $41.5 billion on them in the first half of 2021 alone. Analysts estimate that Apple Services will bring in $89 billion for Apple Inc by 2025, outstripping what the company earns from sales of the iPhone.
Which is an interesting pivot. Apple Inc is no longer a computer company. It is a software services giant. And the App Store ecosystem is as tightly closed as the first Macintosh was, with Apple also keeping a massive 30% of what developers earn on the platform. Regulatory bodies do not like such tightly controlled environments because Apple can choose who gets in and on what terms. Governments around the world are debating if such practices must be curbed and are locked in battles with Apple Inc. Jobs isn’t around to fight them (he died on October 5, 2011, of a rare form of pancreatic cancer), but he might have enjoyed it.
He did love to pick a fight. Even as a child, he challenged his Sunday School teacher to prove the existence of God. The teacher couldn’t. He walked out.