October 2011 has witnessed the passing of two godfathers of tech: Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs. The former invented the C programming language, which has become probably the most ubiquitous programming language ever. It was used to create the UNIX operating system, on which Mac OS X and all modern Linux variations are based. Without it, computing would not be the same today.
And yet it was the latter godfather’s demise that was met with an unprecedented public outpouring of grief and tributing, prompting hailings from such illustrous figures as Bill Gates, the Google founders, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Ballmer. In one visualisation of tweets under the hashtag #thankyousteve made to form a portrait of Steve Jobs, one fan going by the pseudonym “Trendeh” proclaims: “I love my iPod more than I love life, and that wouldn’t have happened without you. RIP.”
The former Apple CEO and founder clearly was more then a big name in the tech business: He created immensely iconic products that became status symbols, products that became something far beyond mere tools. From lecture theatres to nightclubs, from editing suites to Starbucks, almost nothing in western people’s lives has been left untouched by the faint glow of the iconic half-eaten apple. Apple revolutionised everything from music production and distribution to user interface design. And all through these years of success, Steve Jobs remained the figurehead, single-mindedly unveiling the Next Big Thing year after year with near-infallibility, inspiring tech gurus everywhere with his charm and vision.
But Apple also had a sinister side to it. In 2010, the Chinese company producing Apple’s iPhone and iPad products Foxconn witnessed a wave of suicides from despairing workers, hurling themselves off the factory buildings. A Chinese undercover investigation team told The Daily Telegraph that the reason for the suicides lay “inside the factory” and were not caused by personal or social problems. Some workers told the Telegraph that their hands continued to twitch at night after a long day’s shift.
While Apple has addressed these issues and now engages in rigorous auditing of suppliers, other criticisms are just as potent: Despite their popularity in alternative culture, some call Apple products an example of consumerism incarnate, of an almost cult-like worship towards inessential and ultimately superfluous goods , a beacon brand elevated to acclaim beyond any reasonable degree. Why should Steve Jobs be lauded for what amounts to a life achievement of overpriced, overbranded and overhyped gadgetry?
The problem is that people mistake Apple for something that it’s not. It is neither a saviour nor a demonic force, neither an artististic collective nor just another technology firm. It is a prime example of free-market capitalism. It created an iconic brand and sold it. It created products that generated demand, and with its brand created demand for its products. It has one of the highest share prices on Wall Street, and has immensely profitable ever since Steve Jobs’ return.
What the founder and CEO did was not just present products or run a firm fairly smoothly. He had the talent to know what people wanted, the audacity to push it through, a great eye for design and a clear idea of where Apple needed to go to. He wasn’t afraid of taking risks, as evidenced by his NeXT adventure, and his ability to recognise big ideas was uncanny, as shown by his acquiring of Pixar and his determination for the Apple Lisa computer to introduce a wider audience to graphical user interfaces. He embodied all the qualities an outstanding businessman should have.
He was not a flawless man; he claimed impotence in court, in order to avoid having to raise his unwanted child. He was by all accounts abrasive and unpleasant in his younger years. But nobody is perfect, and his talent eventually overshadowed all his personal flaws so much that he became the figure of global significance he was the day he died. Whatever you think of Apple or Steve Jobs, it is impossible to deny this man’s talent and impact.