Friday, October 7, 2011

VOR’s Turn: Steve Job’s Achievements Are Even More Remarkable If We Consider The Power & Bone-headedness of Who & What He Was Up Against.

Image representing Steve Jobs as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

My grandmother never learned to drive. When she had a farm for a while in Brittas Bay, County Wicklow, Ireland – primarily for her grandchildren’s benefit -  the fields were plowed with the aid of two magnificent shire horses. One was white and one was black, and Nolan, the head man. spent a great deal of time cleaning their brasses. Whether or not that contributed to the farm’s profitability is a point open to debate.

She had a Roll’s Royce, but gave it to the local parish priest.

My mother was one of the worst drivers I have yet experienced. One advanced jerkily and at high risk. At one stage she obliterated a bus queue in Donnybook, Ireland, followed by a store front. And all of this within mere yards of the local police station.

Quite why she was ever allowed to drive again after that massacre, I don’t know, but she was charismatic, well connected, and could be extremely charming. And Ireland – especially in those days – was possessed of a tolerant culture. It helped if one owned a Big House and had a brother-in law who was a senior policeman. Uncle Michael, as it happened, was a Chief Superintendent and had two counties, Waterford and Kilkenny, under his control.  And I have reason to believe he rather fancied my mother, who was a widow at the time. And young, attractive and sexual.

I grew up without a TV in two very large houses – sequentially, you will be relieved to read. The first was largely unheated. The second was equipped with a highly efficient system of storage heaters which my mother had removed because she thought they looked like like coffins. To her, the aesthetics of an object were more important than its functionality. She was a writer, painter and socialite who essentially lived off inherited wealth. She hated technology and lived in a way that rendered it largely irrelevant. We had a radio, but it was kept in the kitchen “for the servants.”

She did possess a typewriter, but mostly wrote by hand in large, clear, rather childish hand-writing. We did possess a washing-machine but that was kept in a dank room in the basement, and only used by the servants. It was just as well we had it because my mother had twelve children (I  was the eldest). We did not have a dryer but we had land and clothes lines, and doing laundry kept the servants out of mischief. They tended to get pregnant if not kept busy. In truth, they tended to get pregnant anyway. Condoms were illegal in Ireland in those days.

I mention all this to make the point that I grew up in a technology deprived environment in what was, at the time, a technology deprived country (Ireland) so computers came as something of a shock.

In the Seventies, I founded and operated a company, Addmaster UK, that sold adding machines and calculators using direct marketing techniques. It was entirely data driven and ended up with 134,000 customers by the time I left, but was operated using manually operated systems which I devised from first principals; and which were surprisingly effective. However, that was largely thanks to my extraordinarily talented General Manager, Collin White, so it was about that time that I started thinking about computers.

What I found was that they were primarily accounts driven, were remarkably expensive to modify, and were operated by people who seemed to live in a world of their own.

It was frustrating, because I could see the potential of computers, but couldn’t get computer types to share my vision. They tended to act like High Priests and were more concerned with dogma than flexibility. Software was proprietary and expensive. In short, if you didn’t agree with the way they did things, you were wrong. In fact, at a different time, I had the feeling that the Inquisition would have picked me up and burned me at the stake.

The rigidity and  arrogance of the computer industry in those days is hard to overstate. Its members knew that they made and marketed astonishingly powerful devices, but they were determined that their customers would operate their way – and pay through the nose for the privilege. IBM was worst in this respect, but even upstarts like DEC were not much better. They were both corporate and cultist in just about equal measure.

Against such a background, Steve Job’s achievements are all the more impressive. He was pushing against extraordinarily powerful opposition and, essentially was preaching heresy. It is remarkable that he wasn’t swatted away. He was truly a David up against a whole bunch of Goliaths.

What attracted me to Apple was that it’s approach matched my mental model of what a computer should do. I was looking for ease of use, multi-tasking, massive power, WHISYWIG and ease of printing from the beginning. It seemed to me ridiculous to operate any other way. I also thought that the operating system could be kept separate from the data, and that the all important data should be removable. I was unaware of the internet in those early days. Nonetheless, my thinking was way ahead of the current culture. Indeed, it was visionary.

To have a vision isn’t enough. You have got to be able to execute. This is where Steve Jobs moved into a league of his own. And he did this across a whole range of products and technologies; and made the world a better place into the bargain.

Steve Jobs had many strengths but one of his greatest was the combination of vision, pursuit of excellence, and technological awareness combined with his refusal to compromise.

Obduracy based upon ignorance, which seems to be the guiding mantra of the Republican Party right now, is another matter entirely.















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