A few words on Steve Jobs

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I found myself strangely affected by the news that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence. I don’t know the guy. I just buy his stuff. We never found time for a personal chat during my brief stint as an Apple Store employee.

So why did the news make me so melancholy, even to this minute?

It might have something to do with the fact that it was his commencement speech at Stanford that planted the seed in my mind that life is beautifully and tragically ephemeral. I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, but over the past few years, this mindset has really shifted me to strive to live a life of purpose.

It only occurs to me now that, just as he saw a vision of the future at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, he saw another 8 years ago with touch/gesture-based computing, and he’s been absolutely driven to see it take hold. It’s happening now, and it’s irreversibly changing the way people interact with computers. The iPad isn’t some gadget, it’s a puzzle piece in Jobs’s vision of literally altering the future of humanity.

Is it egotistical for him to believe that if he didn’t bring about these visions of computing, from personal, to graphical, to touch, that they would never have existed (or would have been horribly mangled)? Yes, definitely. Is it true? Almost assuredly.

When Jobs and Gates were asked about legacy a few years back, Steve brushed off the question. I thought it was odd, but I get it now.

The term “legacy” tends to be associated with the question, “How will I be remembered?” Alfred Nobel didn’t want to be known as a merchant of death, and he did indeed radically change his legacy. Bill Gates turned his focus 180 degrees, from taking money from rich Westerners to raising the standard of living for the world’s poorest 10%.

Steve Jobs has no time for that. For him, the idea of legacy is probably a distraction, because he goes into work every day with the intention of changing the world, not the way he’ll be talked about after he’s gone.

Jobs says that he once had to choose between an “important” business meeting and a date with the woman that would someday become his wife. His thought was that if it were his last day on earth, he’d choose seeing her. So he did.

What would I do if today were my last? Would I be doing the same things with my family? Is there enough of my own mission in my work that I’d still be there? If not, why? What am I going to do about it?

It’s important to note that Jobs doesn’t say “live each day like it’s your last.” He just poses the question and says that when he has too many consecutive days where he doesn’t like the answer, it’s time to change something.

If you haven’t watched his speech, please do. He implored those students (and by extension, me, and you) to not spend your days living someone else’s life, because there’s so precious little of our own.

I’m grateful for the lesson, and hopeful that Steve will recover fully and to continue to embody it.

How Apple will fix the iPhone 4 with software

I posted this to Twitter, but it felt like now was a good time to give the image a better home. Seriously, fixing this issue cannot be done via software.

Like magic, I move my hand just a bit during a conversation, and my phone calls vanish! I must always be on guard against my tendency to try to grip my slippery phone, or buy a bulky, overly expensive, and difficult-to-obtain case.

And a case would not fix the face-dialing issue that has gone completely unrecognized by Apple. It happens to me on 2 out of 3 calls: I’ll dial a number, switch to speakerphone, or just hang up on my call.

Gruber may not believe we exist, but there are those of us that cannot make or receive calls properly. I may hate the clunkiness of Android phones, but (face-dialing aside) the iPhone 4 drops calls with alarming regularity. That’s embarrassing on business calls, and chuck-your-phone-through-a-window maddening when on a dial-in conference call. I’d be sad to downgrade to my (still unsold) 3GS, but it’s honestly tempting.

We’ll see what Friday brings.

Why you’ll never see Apple’s “Kin” moment

Much has been made of the death of the Microsoft Kin, and I think the contrast between the aborted Kin launch and the runaway success of the iPhone 4 is an important lesson for anyone who runs a business.

Engadget posted this extraordinary piece about the politics that killed the Kin. It’s such a damning (and drop-dead-accurate) piece on Microsoft that there’s not much to add but to contrast them with Apple.

The people at Microsoft are scary smart and extremely well funded. So why does the much smaller Apple make launching products look easy?

Apple doesn’t tolerate departmental infighting.

Their structure doesn’t allow it. Have you ever worked for a startup? These companies are too small and tightly woven that any project requires the support and buy-in from the whole team. Every single project is all-in, from the CEO to tech support. Steve Jobs recently said that Apple is the biggest startup in the world, and they’re structured just that way. The top managers meet at length, every week, to make sure there aren’t any inter-departmental snafus, and that everyone is on the same page.

John Gruber can tease Roz Ho for blowing the Danger acquisition, but it was doomed from the start. Microsoft is organizationally incapable of producing a first-class product. While Apple is run like a startup, Microsoft is run like a government.

One department can OK something, and another department can overrule it later. Trying to get approval across the management layers at Microsoft is like trying to send a message via carrier pigeon. This is the number one reason things don’t get done at Microsoft, and it happens more often than not.

Apple doesn’t hammer square pegs into round holes.

Largely due to these communication issues, Microsoft will allow a project to go a long way on its own, and then try to cram existing Windows software in later.

Danger was the first to market with a consumer-focused “smartphone”, and they did a hell of a job with the Hiptop. They actually set the bar that Apple had to exceed with the iPhone. So if you or I were running Microsoft, we’d have tried to integrate their UI, existing software, and brainpower to make the best possible product.

Microsoft doesn’t roll that way. Their vision is Windows running on every electronic device, and I feel sorry for Roz Ho and her team for believing the person that told them they could have any leeway with that policy. (The Xbox is a notable, and uniquely successful, exception).

Setting aside the fact that their “Windows everywhere” strategy is fundamentally flawed, their acquisition strategy is broken. Apple’s style is to acquire “talent and technology”, according to Jobs. Microsoft’s is to jettison both post-acquisition.

Most importantly, Apple isn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board.

“Throw things to the wall and see what sticks” is not a viable corporate strategy. Apple famously says that they’re most proud of the products they don’t release.  They shelved their “Safari Pad” tablet for years so they could focus on the iPhone, and canceled the “Asteroid” hardware GarageBand interface outright (if it ever existed).

Most of us will never see Apple’s shelved products, but even if they leak, one thing is certain: it’s never too late to put the brakes on a lackluster project.

So what the hell was the benefit of Microsoft releasing the Kin while it was half-baked? Why not kill (or at least shelve) the project? I’ve said it before: Microsoft is just a wreck.

The worst of it is that Microsoft’s moneymaking engine has so much momentum that they can’t see that they’re headed for disaster. I don’t know if it’s fixable, but they’ll have to fire Ballmer to even have a chance at a turnaround.