Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My eulogy for Steve Jobs

I have been pondering over the many undoubted achievements of Steve Jobs but would have to stop short of any hagiographic treatment that he is now getting. The kind of media frenzy that is going on is absolutely unquestioned. I don't hear many contrary points of view. Was he perfect? I doubt it. While Steve Jobs has left the world a bit better than ever, do we have to put him up on a pedestal? I think not.

Despite the sleekness and the universal appeal of his products, I have to say I have never owned one except for the lowly Apple Touch (an iPhone-, something between an iPod and an iPhone). Frankly, I found no great value in this particular product and I suspect this experience may have put me off Apple for ever. For example, I could never get it to work with WiFi at home. Setting the WEP/WPA pass-phrase was always an extremely frustrating exercise for me because my password was often a complex pass-phrase and not a dumb password. I finally got it right when I purchased a rubberized stylus. Did that show great usability?

Since I haven't used other Apple products since then, I cannot say how much of Apple technology I might have missed out on over the years but I do know that my freedom of choice is intact!!

I developed a wireless tablet (Mobilis) way back in 2004, several years before the famed iPad. We also developed the Simputer, a wireless PDA, way back in 1999-2000 time-frame. We developed these products around the Linux operating system. From that deep personal experience I learned more than a few lessons.

One important lesson is that product development is not always about technology, but how you market a product that separates the men from the boys. On that count, I guess I am still a curious 59-year old boy, and happy to be so!!

The other important lesson is that the consumer experience must be designed in at the foundation level of product conceptualization.

On both counts, my conclusion would be that the current iPad is a great consumer product, state-of-the-art as far as usability is concerned but well behind the technology-curve.

I would certainly give Steve full marks for developing great products and I have respect for his meticulous and relentless focus on perfection. Summary: great, elegant products with great usability features, but with severe constraints on your personal freedom.

The third lesson I learned from the Simputer and Mobilis experience is that while open-source software gives a designer the power to leverage into his product, it also passes on that power to the end-user. This is a transitive relationship which enables the product to evolve in the hands of the designer and the user. What would the user do with that enabling power is not for me to say. What would I do with freedom anyway? Is that a question that merits an answer?

I have always valued my personal freedom, and enjoyed the freedom to do whatever I want with a product once I have bought it. Whether I load incompatible applications and trash the warranty is entirely up to me.

Don't we all add our own add-ons when we purchase a set of wheels or buy a new condo? Could I get such freedom from an Apple product?

While elegance and sleekness of design are highly desirable attributes in a product, I prefer the personal freedom to do what I want with the product on which I put down my hard earned money. Is that freedom available to me with an Apple product? I have so many Android choices available to me if I want to buy a smart-phone or a wireless tablet.

As a technology-savvy person, I have no fear when I load software from different sources or something I may have developed. That is the power of the open-source. I know "open-source" is a matter of religion for many and is definitely not for the faint-of-heart. But then, freedom is also not for the faint-of-heart. Freedom has to be fought for at every step with eternal vigilance.

Isn't Apple some sort of religion too?

The obvious question I could be asked is, "how is the average user constrained in his or her freedom by purchasing an Apple product?". The counter argument I would pose to you would be another set of questions, "Why do you want to be clubbed with the average user? Why not strike out on you own and experiment. Let the product evolve and be personalized for you by you, if possible. Isn't this the freedom you exercise in your social and political decisions? If so, why get constrained when you buy a product?"

Richard Stallman couldn't have put it any better. Here is an extract from a new item I recently read somewhere:

One of Jobs' greatest critics wouldn't even honour his business achievements. Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman eulogised Jobs as "the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom."

"We all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing," said the high-tech renegade and father of the free software movement.

"Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective."

I don't particularly care for Steve's riding roughshod over his employees and business associates but I am concerned if as a paying user I am told there are things I cannot do with my product.

So, by all means, let us eulogize Steve Jobs as a great business leader, a great human-being and a great inventor to be respected for his contributions, but let us carefully weigh the pros and cons of freedom versus constraints.

Freedom should reign supreme!!