Apple and jail made cool

When Steve Jobs passed away early last month, there was a remarkable outpouring of grief along with countless articles that sliced and diced the man, his history, his achievements, and his impact on the world. The majority of these articles were laudatory focusing as they did on his remarkable drive and demand for perfection and for what you might call his “uncompromising” management style.

The reality is that it will take a long time to objectively place Jobs’ achievements in context … that’s simply how the art of history works.

Even so, while most of the commentary on Jobs was positive there were a few notable exceptions and one of these in particular stood out: The obituary written by Richard M. Stallman, software freedom activist, computer programmer, and iconoclast.

Stallman is the creator of the GNU Project without which Linux would not exist, founder of the Free Software Foundation, and, arguably, the man who single-handedly created the free software movement much to the enduring irritation of many big software vendors including Microsoft.

The L.A. Times described Stallman’s commentary as a “eulogy” which was, according to most dictionaries, definitely not the case (Collins defines the word as “1. a formal speech or piece of writing praising a person or thing, esp a person who has recently died / 2. high praise or commendation” which, as we shall see, was not the case).

What Stallman wrote was “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died … we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing. / 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.”

In a follow-up, Stallman expanded his argument: “The important thing about Jobs is what he directed Apple to do to those who are still living: to make general-purpose computers with digital handcuffs more controlling and unjust than ever before … Jobs saw how to make these computers stylish and smooth. That would normally be positive, but not in this case, since it has the paradoxical effect of making their controlling nature seem acceptable.”

In various discussions with friends in the computer world I’ve been struck by how many of them share Stallman’s sentiments although how the Stallman’s comments are interpreted can be interesting (someone pointed out that Dave Winer contends “when Stallman says that Jobs made computers that put users in a tightly controlled box (‘jail made cool’), he is being respectful” which I don’t think was the case at all when it’s followed by “designed to sever fools from their freedom”).

What is really behind this dislike is, I think, what has been there for years, a huge nerd dislike of the Apple zeitgeist; the structure, the unashamed profit-making, and the desire to control their market. And the nerds are right, all those attributes exist but imagine a world without Apple. Which company would have stood up and dominated? Microsoft? Sony? Dell? Would that have been better?

For all the criticism we can heap upon Apple and, by extension, on Steve Jobs, the Jail Made Cool was something that matters immensely in defining how we think of end user computing.

I’d never argue that OS X, iOS, and the Apple market are without faults and problems but I contend that what Apple and Jobs did was to set the bar for usability much higher than Microsoft or any other company has ever done. Microsoft might have made computers usable but Apple has made them both usable and beautiful. If that’s what handcuffs look like, I’m to be a fool.

Gibbs is not fooled in Ventura, Calif. Your take to [email protected].

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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