Jobs’ true legacy: It’s hip to have squares (or rectangles)

Steve Jobs wasn’t our Edison; he was our PT Barnum. And that’s better.

The commenters seem to be flocking, as commenters will, around a relatively few historical comparisons
tonight as Steve Jobs passes into history. Let’s ignore the truly overwrought – the comparisons to Einstein or Turing, not to mention the CBS newscastress who talked about “a fire going out in the universe,” which serves only to remind us that Happy Hour starts three hours earlier on the East Coast. But Thomas Edison – ah, let us speak of Thomas Edison. I think they’re right. I hope they’re wrong. And I have a better idea.

Thomas Edison was, of course, the bringer of good and game-changing things to light, including light itself. Objectively speaking that’s a ridiculous overstatement, seeing as what we really mean is that he brought contained-and-thus-safer incandescent lighting devices into wide use, but we don’t quibble with that any more than your average 12-year-old doubts that Steve Jobs invented the MP3 player.

Overstatement – then or now – isn’t of course simply a bragging-rights issue; it’s a business model. Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison weren’t just in the business of creating light or sound (devices); they were building business ecosystems based on closed systems demarcated by proprietary intellectual property. Edison would have seethed at the existence of iTunes, considering how much effort he put into trying to take control of the businesses of both music recording and moviemaking (as well as little sidelines like the electrical grid).

So when you think of Edison, think of closed systems, and ask yourself what happens when you decide you’d like to use an iPod but not iTunes. Certainly Steve Jobs often had the same IP-all-the-things! glint in his eye. But I do not think closed systems last, any more than the National Phonograph Company lasted as the sole purveyor of recorded music in this world. Closed systems fall to open standards. This is the way of the world, and if Steve Jobs’ legacy were no more than Apple’s currently closed systems, I’d be sorry for it.

But Steve Jobs wasn’t the computer industry’s Edison, or if he was it won’t matter in five or 10 or 20 years. We’ll have another. Steve Jobs’s true contribution was to succeed where Edison’s endless patent battles and squabbles failed.

Nope. Jobs invented the civilian tech fanboi. And THAT – not anything you can or ever could buy in the Apple store — is his true and better legacy.

That iPhone you’re reading this on? That pretty tablet on which you’re tapping, that so-slender Air in your bag? The massive music collection you snap to your shoulder strap during your workout? Don’t matter. Those would have been invented sooner or later. (Hell, Gene Roddenberry came up with half of that stuff before Steve Jobs had the keys to his parents’ garage.) But Apple – Steve Jobs – made it first safe for nerds to emotionally identify with their devices, then hip for the rest of the world to do so, then all but unthinkable to not have that emotional identification. (And yes, some take it too far; any tech journalist will tell you that Apple fanbois have reflected very poorly on the brand over the years. That was and is our cross to bear, though tech journalists reading this are forgiven for hoping that about 250 of the worst offenders decide to fling themselves lemming-like off cliffs tonight in their despair.)

“Smaller” and “sleeker” and “more” and such aren’t innovations; they’re comparative adjectives, not nouns. Providing the greater tech industry with a comparative and competitive kick in the ass shouldn’t be mistaken for innovation, and Nikolai Tesla could tell you that in any case the greatest tech innovations in the world don’t mean anything if no one adopts them. Steve Jobs’ genius lay in salesmanship, in endless confidence that not only did he know better than consumers what it is they wanted to buy, but that he knew who they wanted to be after they bought it. Gene Roddenberry may have envisioned the iPad, but it took Steve Jobs to make you think that buying an amalgamation of plastic and silicon and electrical pulses would make a billion people feel like dancing like lunatics to a Fratellis song. (Or, mirabile dictu, listening to anything by Feist.) The mobile phone had existed for decades before the iPhone, but I’m hard-pressed to remember feeling about those early StarTACs the way we feel now about our various handsets. It’s not the intimacy of putting them up to our ears and whatnot, as so many have suggested; it’s the sense Jobs gave us that doing so made a statement about who each user fundamentally is.

The closest analogous figure, and I’ve seen this suggested a few times over the last few hours, is PT Barnum, and I don’t mean in the “sucker born every minute” sense. (Though I’d make an exception for that portion of the population that believes that the level-one tech-support staffers behind the Genius Bars are actual geniuses.) Barnum is the man largely responsible for making the American theater a respectable pastime for mainstream, middle-class folk seeking entertainment. He didn’t invent the American theater; he didn’t invent the circus or the freak show or the advertising that drove those products; he simply made them respectable, and then made them appealing, and then made them pervasive. From him springs the multitude…including Edison’s tight-assed attempts to keep later innovations all to himself, and including Jobs’ life’s work as well.

The Universe provides a specific consolation when the Great Tapestry of Bastard CEOs drops a stitch: Another, even more festive blast of bastardy. Steve Jobs was many things, including (as has been richly documented) a true bastard when the spirit took him. Tonight Larry Ellison has fulfilled karma’s call, taking time at the OpenWorld conference today to pick a fight with Salesforce’s Marc Benioff that included a comparison of the latter’s wares to a Roach Motel. I LOLed, and I’m glad that there are still enough bastardy gazillionaire CEOs out there to keep tech interesting. If you prefer your bastards smaller and more derivative – the IP-all-the-things model as per Edison, as it were – we’ve got Innovatio, the latest in a series of patent trolls who probably liken themselves to Apple innovating on Xerox PARC’s mouse idea rather than (more correctly) to the patrons of an actual Roach Motel.

But giving civilians an emotional stake in quotidian technology purchases? There can be, and there was, only one. Thank you, Mr. Jobs.

Jobs’ true legacy: It’s hip to have squares (or rectangles)