Essay: The Church of Steve Jobs
by Score Bard
2004-01-10 0:08

TwinsFanDan thinks the IPod deal between Apple and Hewlett-Packard is a work of genius.

Once, when I was a card-carrying member of the Church of Steve Jobs, I would have agreed with him. Good design above all else!

Not anymore. I have worked for companies that worshipped at the altar of Good Design, and we were handed our heads by Microsoft and Oracle. I have come to realize that my faith in Good Design deities like Steve Jobs was not unlike believing in the baseball philosophies of Joe Morgan:

Bunt! Steal! Hit sac flies! And design software with maximum elegance!

Statistics have shown that bunting and stealing are not good predictors of success in baseball. Similarly, if you sit down and look at the facts, you’ll see that aesthetic quality is not a very good predictor of success in high-tech. You may think you’re playing “the beautiful game”, but you’re actually using a losing strategy.

Why? I think it’s because the only people who really understand high-tech products are the people who make them. The buyers are not usually engineers; they just want to use the product. So how do they decide which products to buy?

Insurance. What buyers are really paying for is insurance. This is particularly true inside corporations, where the big bucks are. Buyers want insurance that this product they don’t really understand will work. Insurance that they will be able to get help if it doesn’t. Insurance that their competition won’t have better technology than they do. Insurance that they won’t get fired or lose that promotion because they made the wrong choice.

If you look at high-tech not as a technology industry, but as a technology insurance industry, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. The winners, the losers, and the behavior of both.

At no point in their histories have the core products of either Microsoft or Oracle been the best on the market. Microsoft has never had the best operating system. Oracle has never had the best relational database. But they both understand that making the best product is not the game. The game is insurance. And both of them have been WAY better than their competitors at providing it. Bill Gates and Larry Ellison had Billy Beane beat by twenty years.

So I’m much more skeptical about Apple these days than I used to be. I think their best chance to succeed is to move as much as possible into the entertainment industry. There, as at Pixar, Jobs’ talent for creating products with high aesthetic quality can be more relevant to the economic success of the company. Perhaps this HP deal moves them a step in that direction. Or perhaps, it’s like this quote about the recent Carlos Guillen trade from Seattle to Detroit: “a basically meaningless trade between directionless franchises that won’t have any real impact on the future of either.”

It’s not easy for me to say all this. I love Apple’s products. And I’ve always hated both Microsoft and Oracle, partly because I competed against them, but mostly for the sheer inelegance of their products. It’s sad to go through your career like I did, thinking you’re doing great work, and wake up one day realizing it was all humbug, and you’re nothing but another Alex Sanchez, running around stealing bases to little effect.

Come to think of it, that’s probably why I’m still unemployed. How do you get motivated to work when you suddenly realize the one thing you’re really good at, the one thing you really care about, is not really contributing to the success of your organization?

But I see now the errors of my ways! I understand the follies of my faith! I have forsaken my false gods, and cast out the demons that haunted me! I am a new man! Hire me! I repent! I repent!

Update: TwinsFanDan responds.

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