Steven Jobs' Totalitarian Vision

Steven Jobs' Totalitarian Vision

Steven Jobs' Totalitarian Vision

Aug. 15 1997 3:30 AM

Steven Jobs' Totalitarian Vision

How Apple marched in mindless lockstep to self-destruction.

"We started out to get a computer in the hands of everyday people," Steven Jobs, co-founder and putative savior of Apple Computer, tells us in Time this week. What Jobs left out of that sentence, though, is a word that has wrecked Apple in the past and could wreck it in the future. The word is "our" or, to be more accurate, "my," as in: "We started out to get my computer in the hands of everyday people."

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Jobs was never interested in having everyone own personal computers. He was interested only in having everyone own Apples. And this is, of course, the great irony behind Apple's apparently imperishable image as the corporation of the counterculture, an image that has been the source of some of American journalism's more preposterous pronouncements. It was all about freedom, sure--the freedom to have a Macintosh on your desk.

As everyone knows by now, Jobs always portrayed Apple in general, and the Mac in particular, as avatars of a new populist revolution, as tools of democratization. In this sense, the 1984 Super Bowl ad featuring an athletic woman hurling a hammer and destroying Big Brother was not so much some invention of Chiat/Day's imagination as it was the visual expression of everything Jobs had been saying since Apple began. What you couldn't tell from the ad, though, was that in Jobs' imagination, what would replace Big Brother was not the anarchic space of the market, with people buying computers from 20 or 30 different manufacturers. It was instead the comforting spectacle of millions upon millions of Mac users, all imagining they were pursuing "personal creativity and individual self-expression"--and all buying that creativity only from Apple.

What's really interesting about Jobs' imperial ambition, though, is that the very immensity of its scope doomed Apple to marginality. The problem was not that Jobs wanted Apple to have a hand in every corner of the personal-computing market. That's what Bill Gates has always wanted, after all, and that desire has made Microsoft into one of the world's most profitable companies. The problem, rather, was that Jobs wanted Apple to be every corner of the personal-computing market. He wanted to make the computers and the systems that ran them--and to be the only company that did so. And that meant that, almost from the beginning, Apple was confused about its mission. In the simplest terms, it was a hardware company that thought it was a software company--or vice versa.

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T he difference between making hardware and making software is analogous to the difference between making razors and making razor blades. You may make more money on each razor--but your margins will be a lot higher on the blades, and you will sell a lot more of them. Now, it's possible to make razors profitably. Compaq is an $18-billion company, and Dell Computer is Wall Street's new darling, and all they make is razors. But it's a tougher business. Price pressures are constant. It's hard to distinguish yourself from the crowd, though Apple's name would have helped its case. And most important of all, there's no romance in it. No one really talks about how much better a Compaq is than a Gateway. Computers that cost about the same seem to run about the same.

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Microsoft, on the other hand, sells only blades. Word, Money, Excel, even Windows: All these are blades. And Microsoft sells those blades to whoever wants them. Gates doesn't care what kind of machine you run his software on. He just wants you to run his software.

This, of course, is the other path Apple could have taken. It was actually the path Gates recommended in a now-famous 1985 memo that suggested that Apple license the Macintosh operating system--with its graphical interface and windows--to three to five other manufacturers who would build compatible computers. In 1985, the Mac OS was dramatically superior to DOS, which was the operating system for all IBM compatibles. Going strongly into software, then, would have capitalized on what people really loved about Apple, which was not the Mac itself, but the interface. Had Apple allowed Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, perhaps even IBM to build hardware running the Mac OS, it might very well have seen its software become the industry standard.

Instead, Apple chose to go it alone--in part because it would have been hard to watch other companies selling $2,000 clones of the Macs that Apple imagined it could have been selling instead. That was a mistake of short-term thinking, though it was an understandable one. The preposterously high margins Apple was able to earn in the early-to-mid 1980s, when it was selling Apple IIs to dealers for three times cost and earning 72-percent gross profits on Macs, undoubtedly blinded the company to the fact that consumers would not ignore price forever. Those short-term considerations might have been overridden, though, except for one thing: Jobs' insistence that Apple be the sole standard-bearer of the digital revolution. Jobs didn't want to make just blades. Jobs wanted to make the razor, the blades, and the packaging. And if he'd had his way, Apple would have forged the stainless steel, too. (According to one account, Jobs once "fantasized about a factory in which the raw materials that came in would be not semiconductors but sand." Insert the appropriate "castles built on ..." metaphor here.)

Jobs' quest for complete control also meant that he didn't want his machines to be able to talk to other companies' machines. In fact, this hostility to compatibility permeated even the company's attitude toward itself. When the Mac was introduced, hundreds of thousands of people owned Apple IIs. But the Mac was incompatible with its predecessor. You couldn't upgrade; you had to abandon. Apple made it hard even for Macintosh and Lisa, its entry into the business market, to work together, though both were designed at the same time. It's as if, for Jobs, the basic criterion for an "insanely great" product was its radical difference, which is to say its isolation, from everything else.

What's truly striking, though, is that Jobs has never really let this idea go. After he left Apple, he founded NeXT and tried to go the hardware-software route again, until he had to sell the hardware unit to Canon and the software to, yes, Apple. Upon returning to Apple, he began criticizing almost immediately the company's 1995 decision to finally allow a limited number of companies to manufacture Mac clones, calling these firms "leeches." Somehow I doubt that Bill Gates thinks of Dell as parasitic because its computers run only on Windows. In this respect, bringing Steve Jobs back to save Apple is like bringing Gen. George McClellan out of retirement to save the Union Army.

The remarkable fact is that, at this very moment, Apple Computer is a larger company than Microsoft. The difference is that Microsoft earned $3 billion more last year than Apple did. Every computer Apple makes costs a lot to make. Every additional copy of Windows 95 costs Microsoft ... oh, just about nothing. That could have been Apple's world, and it isn't because the company imagined it could be all things. If only Apple had decided to be The Way and let someone else be The Light.