I was the first person I knew to own an iPod. It was a third generation, 10GB model my dad got me for Christmas in 2003. While I was at first skeptical of the device (upon opening it I first thought it was a PDA), I loaded my entire CD collection onto it and it instantly became my best friend. All 535 tracks of my music library in the palm of my hand? A shuffle button to simulate my own commercial-free radio station? I can buy a Doors album for $10 online instead of $18 at the mall? Small white earbuds that get incessantly tangled and fall out of my abnormally-large ear canal? As a massive music buff (for my age and time), I felt like Legolas if he had been given an AR-15 and told to throw his bow away.
So for three years I bounced around high school and my social life with a pocketful of sunshine and Pink Floyd, first realizing the isolated wonder of creating your own happiness separate from other people. That was until I fell down a flight of stairs (my awkward phase began when I was 12 and should be ending any day now) while I had the iPod in my pocket. I found myself lying under a construction vehicle staring at the broken miracle as it kept resetting itself, giving me a sad-face error screen and making a treacherously rhythmic clicking noise. That rare acoustic version of “Darts of Pleasure” by Franz Ferdinand? Gone. The only unedited version of The Doors’ “The End” to include Jim Morrison screaming fuck over and over for a solid two minutes (which I am still yet to replicate)? Adios. The burned album made by my friends really atrocious screamo band? Lost to the history of a million shattered ones and zeroes.
I tell the story of my first iPod for a special reason. One year ago, the nation mourned the death of Apple co-founder and mom-jeans enthusiast Steve Jobs. If all you had heard about Steve Jobs was his obituaries in the media, you would have believed he was Thomas Edison, Jonas Saulk, and Bill Clinton all rolled into one turtlenecked package. In reality, his chief accomplishment was one of marketing and business models. The legendary product unboxings combined with the ensnaring bubble of Apple products and software you found yourself in if you bought a Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad kept the company not just afloat but perhaps the most successful corporation in US history. But is he really deserving of the status we usually give to the great innovators of the modern era? Did he actually invent anything more than shiny toys?
We’ll start with the idea he invented the computer mouse, an integral piece of ease-of-use history. While the Mac II with its single-button mouse did create a large boom for home computers, Jobs actually obtained the idea from visiting a Xerox lab in the late 1970s. Xerox’s version was clunky, blockish, had three buttons, and had a production cost of $300. Jobs famously took their design to Silicon Valley designer Dean Hovey and demanded it be simpler and cheaper, eventually coming together on a $15 model. This is a popular tale in technology folklore, one that leads the listener to believe quick-witted Jobs stole for his own gain (though Xerox allowed him to use the basic design in return for investment in the young Apple, Inc). However, just before and since his death, there have been several rewrites of this story that sum Jobs up as a genius and an innovator. After all, Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile. He just made them cheaper and easier to use. In fact, the gloried halls of American innovation are filled not with the first but with the best. Facebook was certainly not the first social network, or even the first social network to have a massive audience. But even if Facebook eventually fails, it will be remembered for being the herald of the social media age in the same way Steve Jobs is being remembered as recreating the way we confront digital devices. Or as comic artist Scott Meyer put it, “[Jobs] is the kid who copies off your test, then gets a better grade than you.”
Apple’s lengthy history of near-plagiarism (let’s include the Apple-Braun comparisons currently making their way through the tubes) would not be so bad if they were not consistently and fervently fighting the same nature of innovation Jobs helped to birth. The most publicized example is the $1 billion lawsuit Apple won this past summer against competitor Samsung (Samsung has responded with TV ads mocking the slow updates and product reveals as well as the lemming-like Apple fan base). But a more telling example of Jobs’ amnesia is his reaction to the Android OS from Google. By offering Android on far more phones and carriers at cheaper prices, Google was able to take nearly double the chunk of the smartphone market compared to Jobs’ baby, the iPhone. In the best-selling official biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the CEO goes on a tirade against Google. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs roared, “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product.” While Android did certainly borrow many ideas from iOS, the iOS borrowed itself from phone operating systems put out for years before the iPhone by Palm and Blackberry. They had touchscreens, apps, data plans, you name it. So while I cannot fault Jobs alone for innovating/stealing to create a successful product, it does seem rather odd that this great hero of our time seemed to have no respect for the atmosphere which he not only helped to foster but could be said to be the major factor in his success.
Outside of the more wonkish tech issues, he also pales in moral comparison to tech giants like Bill Gates, who has given more to charity than any single person in history. He turned down the opportunity to sign a pledge helmed by Warren Buffett that would encourage the world’s richest people to donate half their wealth to charity (one signed by Gates and Mark Zuckerberg). Shortly after being reinstated as Apple CEO in 1997, he banned corporate philanthropy reportedly with the belief expanding Apple was better for the world than giving to or working with nonprofits. Jobs more than likely did give personally to charity as most of the super-wealthy do to even out tax rates. But he failed on a drastic level to be much more than the stereotypical money-hoarding capitalist.
Aside from the theft of ideas and complete lack of philanthropy, he was also just an asshole. Take for example his odd relationship with Barack Obama. Jobs refused to meet with Obama until he received a personal invitation, didn’t feel David Axelrod offered enough “deference” to him, and when Obama asked at a top meeting of Silicon Valley leaders what it would take to make iPhones in the US, Jobs gave a blunt answer with little room for negotiation: “those jobs aren’t coming back.” In fact, Jobs criticized the President for making it so easy to outsource manufacturing overseas even though nearly all Apple products are made in the notorious Foxconn factories in China.
I am not attempting to make Steve Jobs out into a never-ending source of evil. However, the seemingly unanimous consent which calls him one of the great men of our time is just as bad and wrong-headed. I loved that iPod, I love the films of Pixar (where Jobs was CEO), and I love my HTC phone which borrows a ton from iPhones. But in death we have a tendency to glorify public figures past who they really were. Shortly before he died, Kurt Cobain was waning in popularity and made public his resentment towards his own fans. Yet all we hear of him was the tortured messiah of grunge rock who ruled the world for three years. As a matter of history it is important to not just stick our heads in the sand of inspirational quotes and black-and-white montages and realize people are far more complex than we allow them to be.