THE BLOG
10/10/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

Let's Get Real About Steve Jobs

I was sitting in a bar on Ludlow Street last Wednesday evening. The barmaid came over to ask: "Did you hear that Steve Jobs died?" She had tears in her eyes.

She couldn't have been older than 25. For someone of my generation, it is odd that the passing of a hugely successful corporation man could evoke such youthful sadness. Such men don't usually touch the lives or the culture of young people on the Lower East Side.

Jobs is an exception. People of all classes and backgrounds are pouring out their grief and their gratitude to him, the alleged world-changing visionary. The Wall Street Journal splashed, across six columns, "STEVEN PAUL JOBS 1955-2011," a front-page obit befitting an American president. Facebook profiles from around the world are draped in mourning. Walter Mossberg, the technology writer, said on NPR, "Without him, we wouldn't have the personal computer" -- easily the most absurd statement I've heard in the past year. The obituaries all seem to agree that Jobs was a cultural revolutionary on an historic scale. His famous statement "I want to put a dent in the universe" is making the electronic rounds.

People. Let's get real.

I have no wish to speak ill of the dead, and I'm sad that Jobs is dead, and that he died relatively young. But I'm not at all sure that what he did was so world-changing. Nor, in the realms in which Jobs' work truly did change things -- consumer design, marketing, and entertainment delivery -- that it was so benign.

Contrary to popular understanding, Jobs was not an inventor. He did not invent the personal computer. He did not invent the mouse. He did not invent the Graphical User Interface, nor the MP3 player, nor the smartphone. What he did was to put these things into shiny packages that spoke of simplicity, quality workmanship, and the best materials. He expertly targeted consumers' aspirational sense of identity, and gave them something that expressed the good taste and durability of their souls. This is where he was truly brilliant: In discovering and exploiting the psychological links between object and desire, and using them to move tens of millions of units.

Were his products really that good, though, as technology? The emphasis on design was actually a problem here, because in every case in which Jobs was forced to choose between form and function, form always won. Consider the DVD slot loader that all Macs now have. It sure looks cool. But it limits the user to a single physical size of disk, and it has no manual ejection mechanism. The arrogance of this last point is something any first-year engineering student would understand: "It will never jam, so we don't have to plan for that."

Jobs once instructed his programmers to make the interface so attractive that users would want to "lick the buttons." Is this a positive or a negative for those who are actually concerned with the work output, rather than with the aesthetic experience of the tool?

In the 1970s Jobs was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, where he learned how to redesign stock circuit boards for his own purposes. None of that for Apple customers. Belying his famous "1984" and "Think Different" ad campaigns ("Here's to the rebels, the misfits...") Jobs' ideas on how people were to interact with his machines were entirely authoritarian. He was far more Frederick Taylor than Emma Goldman. Jobs was big on "forcing" user habits, which is why his first Mac had no cursor arrow keys -- he knew better than his customers that they should always use the mouse to navigate the screen. Apple products are totally locked down. You need a proprietary screwdriver to open the box.

And that battery in the iPhone? It can't be changed by the phone's users. They have to bring their units to a professional when the battery runs low. This contempt for the customer, as much as any of the serious usability issues of the iPhone, is one reason that I will never own one.

Jobs' need for control extended to his business practices, sometimes with disastrous results. One of the reasons that Apple lost out so badly to Microsoft in the battle for OS market share was Apple's refusal to license its OS to hardware manufacturers, the way Microsoft does. Apple did finally license it in 1995, a decade after Jobs had been forced out as CEO, but Jobs ended the program after he returned in 1996. The Apple OS' share is growing today, but is still only about 10% of the US market and much less worldwide. Business users run on Windows. In the business realm, Apple has yet to create a credible database or internet server.

Look at Apple's famous App Store, now a hallmark of the iPhone's success. Jobs originally refused to allow any third-party programmers to sell their wares there. It was only after hackers figured out how to get their apps into iPhones that Apple finally -- and reluctantly -- embraced the obvious: the programmers were a huge source of revenue, not the enemy at all.

The corporate culture of Apple is secretive and was unusually dependent on Jobs' personal guidance. When it became clear that his illness was terminal, the Apple leadership began to take careful notes on Jobs' handling of all decisions, preparing them as a source of revealed wisdom that can survive its founder. The Book of Steve is taught at Apple University, whose operations are heavily shielded from public inquiry. This is not a corporation. It's a cult.

But didn't Jobs enrich all of our lives with revolutionary products like the iPhone and iPad, enabling us all to learn more, communicate better? Tell it to the legions of teachers who, every day, have to pull those white earbuds out of their students' heads. I am not convinced that having 10,000 songs on a beautiful Walkman is good for individuals or has made us better as a society. I wonder whether the modern disposability of music means that, more and more, we fail to form emotional relationships with it, to have lasting favorite songs.

The iPad is a powerful work tool for a small group of focused professionals. For the rest of us, it's a brain-rotting entertainment platform. It is one more portal through which a homogenized public culture of images -- many of them generated by the former Jobs venture, Pixar Studios -- can seep; a culture that denigrates text, reading, and discriminating habits of research and analysis.

Most distressing is the idea that being digital and connected is a good in itself -- that the quality of the content hardly matters, and that merely exposing people to cultural content is the same thing as learning. Witness Lowndes County, AL (and many others) in which the public school district has squandered a federal education grant on providing free iPads to all students and teachers. This is a profound misunderstanding of the concept of teaching. Apple, in the historical forefront of the "wired classroom" movement, is greatly responsible for this lazy delusion.

In the end, one can respect Jobs' marketing and design genius without granting that he made the world a better place.

This post has been modified from its original published version.