Friday, 18 May 2012

Going Bananas

It's been a tough week, in which each morning the sun has risen later and each evening it's set earlier.  Winter is upon us, and we're still establishing ourselves in this funny little town, with no local friends and near non-existent TV reception.  

A bright point in this has been reading the Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs, and it's really pretty interesting.  This is the book on which the new film is supposed to be based (not the film already in production with Ashton Kutcher in the lead role).

My impression from the book, in which the author assures the reader he had the unfettered permission of Jobs to research and write without fear or favour, is that most of the time you probably would have absolutely hated Steve Jobs, but every so often he said or thought something which fundamentally changed the way we approach technology and each other.  He made an indelible impression on our world.  He was obsessed with two things: beautiful design and ensuring that hardware and software existed in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic harmony.

To those reading this on a Mac, congratulations.  You are the beneficiaries of something rather rare and wonderful.  By contrast, I'm typing this on a rather elegantly designed Toshiba Satellite laptop, running Ubuntu 12.04, using Chrome as my browser - and none of these things was designed specifically to work with the other.  Imagine how seamless my experience would be if they were.  

The single stand-out story from the bio for me is when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, looked at the dozens of product lines and drew a 2 x 2 matrix depicting what the company should focus on, to the exclusion of all else.  The two rows were labelled "Pro" and "Consumer"; the two columns were labelled "desktop" and "portable".  Four product lines.  That's it.  There were screaming lay-offs but, from there, Jobs revitalised the company, quintupled the share price in one year, and enabled the delivery of everything that followed, including the iMac, iPod, the iTunes Store and all the rest.

Reading about the design philosophies and agonies endured to produce Apple's range has tickled my little tech obsession.  When I go tech shopping I get obsessed with tech porn.  I read all the catalogues, go surfing the web for specs and specials, and work out how the current offerings compare.  I've always dismissed the Apple offerings because they cost more and seemed to offer less.  The point that I had heretofore not appreciated was that the Apple products are all designed to integrate with an Apple computer as the tech hub, and as long as you accept that tyranny, everything is peachy. (Fruit puns, sorry).  Better than peachy, actually, and better than almost any other combination of products you can begin to imagine, because they were designed, from beginning to end, to be integrated.  

The functionality of an iPod, for example, is designed around what it's easier for iTunes to do.  Look at the most basic iPods - they depend on a computer running iTunes to set up the playlists, and you have a minimum of functionality on the player itself.  But this is precisely what Jobs intended, and it wasn't intended to make you cranky - it was intended to make using the player a task that didn't confound you, that centered, instead, on you enjoying listening to the music you love.  How many CEOs had that interest at heart when they created a consumer product?

Had I the opportunity to start again, I'd probably go bananas with Apple (sorry ...).  The book is that good.  Read it.  And then put your credit card in a plastic container full of water in the freezer.

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