The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Sue Halpern has written the first interesting assessment of Steve Jobs I’ve seen, in the form of a book review of Isaacson’s biography. It happens to be very negative. She says little about his now-well-known bad treatment of coworkers, friends and family (“a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator”) and focusses on the effects of Apple Computer, which are obviously much greater.

She makes one very bad point. He should not call himself an artist, she argues:

There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

“In the end, products”? “Gadgets”? Are books gadgets? I cannot imagine a future without books. Nor one without cellphones and laptops. If they are lovely and work well, so much the better for all of us.  Moreover, cellphones and laptops, much more than other necessities (food, clothes, housing, transportation, medicine) help us express ourselves — our hidden inner selves — in so many ways. (Like art and books, but better.) Mark Fraunfelder made a similar point (obliquely).

“Products” and “gadgets” is Halpern’s conventional anti-consumerism. She goes on to make two equally conventional but much better points:

According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

Apple had (and has) the power to improve working conditions at Foxconn. I completely agree: this was (and is) an enormous missed opportunity, for which Steve Jobs is completely responsible. No doubt he said that Apple products empower individuals (and they do) — well, how about empowering Foxconn workers?

Halpern’s final point is about recycling:

Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Yeah. Apple could (and can) lead the world in making their products easy to recycle. They haven’t. Entirely Steve Jobs’ fault. As Halpern says, this really matters.

Steve Jobs spent his working life (a) exploiting the commercial potential of new products (home computer, etc.) in large part by (b) caring obsessively, much more than others in his rarefied position, such as Bill Gates, about how they made him feel. Apple made products that Steve Jobs enjoyed. Fine. The problem is what Steve Jobs enjoyed. My take on him is a lot can be explained by (a) he cared little what others thought of him and (b) he lived in a tiny, uncomplicated intellectual world — as illustrated by his remarks about Foxconn and his Stanford graduation speech. Nabokov might say he had the emotional development of a child and the curiosity of an adult.

He left behind a company that reflects the shallowness of what he cared about. Those who take over Apple Computer are likely to be less shallow than he was — most people are. I predict the company will begin to care more about working conditions, ease of recycling, and other things beyond immediate user experience.

17 Responses to “The Legacy of Steve Jobs”

  1. Glen Raphael Says:

    Have you been to a Chinese factory? I have and the criticisms of Foxconn seem wildly overblown to me. People who go to China wanting to see suffering they can take umbrage at may find a way to do so, but it’s not justified. For instance, consider the ambiguity in this line from the article:

    “walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night”

    That statement is trivially true about the factory but has a false implication about the people. Foxconn has *shifts*, so the people routinely working “early in the morning” usually *aren’t the same people* as the ones routinely working “till late at night”.

    Foxconn has *half a million employees* at their Shenzhen facility so it’d be quite surprising if they *didn’t* see at least a dozen suicides a year – the suicide *rate* there was still quite low. Ditto for industrial accidents, use of bad chemicals, etcetera – a proper sense of scale diminishes all of them. Bad things happen sometimes; companies do what they can to mitigate and prevent, but overall that job does make life much better for the chinese workers…or the job wouldn’t be in such high demand that they could staff such big factories! I submit that the people who choose voluntarily to work at these places probably know better whether the working conditions are *what they want* than do western reporters who are seeking whatever hard-luck stories they can find among a population the size of Wyoming.

    Jobs was almost certainly right in saying that “for a factory, it’s pretty nice.” Foxconn sounds better than the chinese factories I worked with a decade ago, which themselves were clearly much better places to work than the alternatives available to those workers.

    Halpern’s final point about recycling is just wrong. Apple’s products are all lead-free and mercury free already; they constantly work to shrink the packaging, reduce waste, and make products using fewer toxic substances. Every Apple product intro harps on this. (more here: http://www.apple.com/environment/ )

    The Isaacson biography wasn’t very good. It was shallow; he didn’t ask tough questions and often failed to follow up on key points. Given the level of access Isaacson had, it was a wasted opportunity. The best critical review of the book that I’m aware of was in John Siracusa’s audio podcast Hypercritical – these two episodes:

    Episode 42: The Wrong Guy: http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/42
    Episode 43: The Scorpion and the Frog: http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/43

  2. David Says:

    The management of Apple has one legitimate concern – to increase profits. That is the sole reason why shareholders invest in a company. If the board and management are successful in maximizing the return on shareholder equity, then they will be successful.

    All other concerns, such as those you mention, are only relevant to the extent they support greater profits. Bettering employee working conditions, or making socially acceptable products, or any other non-profit oriented concern, is a side-show. These may be related to increasing return on investment (although the data isn’t clear), but certainly shouldn’t be the primary concern of any company’s management.

  3. Robin Barooah Says:

    I don’t know enough about the factory conditions to comment, although I did see “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” which paints an extremely grim picture of the reality of Foxconn.

    However, it seems to me that the claims about recycling and the related innuendo about what jobs cared about are simply not supported by facts.

    Apple actually does lead the world in recyclability of consumer products. Aluminium and Glass are two of the easiest to recycle materials available, and Steve Jobs was outspokenly aware of this when they started to use them.

    Apple is ahead of everyone else in removing the “Lead, Cadmium and Mercury” from their products. See this piece by Steve Jobs himself : http://www.apple.com/hotnews/agreenerapple/ – It’s worth noting that they have now completely eliminated mercury use as he said they would.

    They have also led the world in reducing packaging waste, fuel in transportation, and power consumption by their devices.

    They have a worldwide recycling program which will accept no only their own products but PCs and Phones from other manufacturers, either at their stores or by prepaid mail. They even pay reasonably for what is returned. 66% of their product by weight is now recycled, and it’s their goal to improve on this.

    But I think that a key point that is often overlooked is that Apple does care about durability. Apple products retain their value far better than PCs, I think to a great extent because if they are reasonably looked after they remain both fashionable and in physically good condition in a way that the petroleum based plastics used by their competitors do not. This means that there is a much healthier market for used equipment – so the path to the landfill (or more likely the path back to Apple for recycling) is actually a lot longer than with the competition.

    You can also see this at work with their phones. It’s an easy accusation to claim that Apple only cares about getting people to upgrade each year. But the reality is that a used iPhone 4 still locked to AT&T could be sold secondhand for more than $400. And Apple themselves are still selling models are over 2.5 years old. The most expensive new iPhone today is visibly indistinguishable from an 18 month old phone that they for $99, and they continue to release software upgrades for all of these products. Compare that to their competitors who are shipping new flagship devices every few months and are abandoning them for upgrades after less than a year. The point here is that there is strong demand for old Apple products, not just new ones.

    It’s seems to me that Apple is leading by a long way on durability, reuse, and recycling. And that is by careful design.

    It’s also in their interest to do this because they are in the minority position when it come to sales share in both PCs and smartphones. By designing their products be useful for longer, they magnify the installed base for their operating system and hence present a more attractive proposition for software developers.

    The claim that it’s all about getting people to upgrade to the latest version doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. They obviously do care about selling as many units as possible, but it matters strategically to Apple that each unit gets a long useful life and isn’t just quickly discarded.

  4. Glen Raphael Says:

    This Wired article on Foxconn is pretty good:
    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/02/ff_joelinchina/all/1

    Though it does miss the simple mathematical point that if Foxconn workers face a *lower* risk of suicide than other workers in China – which seems likely from the evidence we have on hand – then buying products produced there is on-net *saving* worker lives in China.

  5. by Says:

    I understand that his Foxconn remarks are insensitive and show his narrowly focused mind, but how did his Stanford speech show that to you as well?

  6. Jazi zilber Says:

    Steve jobs was extremely focused.

    He improved products.

    He may have been able to leverage his company to endless world salvagiing ideals.

    Would he had done so, we would have never had his wonderful products.
    This is a simple tradeoff. And i wish that everyone creating useful things will be as focused.

  7. Jazi zilber Says:

    Jobs comment on the chinease working conditions seems deeper for me.

    You only judge job quality relative to the other jobs available to people in the area.

    If the people would have been working 7 days 14 hours a week otherwise in the sun with no kind of food available, then Jobs comments on the nice facility with restaurant is very well pointed.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    All other concerns, such as those you mention, are only relevant to the extent they support greater profits. Bettering employee working conditions, or making socially acceptable products, or any other non-profit oriented concern, is a side-show. These may be related to increasing return on investment (although the data isn’t clear), but certainly shouldn’t be the primary concern of any company’s management.

    As many many other people, such as Elizabeth Warren, have said, companies like Apple work within a context supplied by the rest of us. They use roads paid for by the rest of us. They use an education system paid for by the rest of us. Etc., etc. They should recognize that and give something back. That’s how groups work — reciprocity. Quite apart from that Steve Jobs was no profit maximizer. It is perfectly possible to be a successful company without obsessing about profit.

  9. Robin Barooah Says:

    “They use an education system paid for by the rest of us. Etc., etc. They should recognize that and give something back.”

    Companies ‘like Apple” do give a lot of things back – they develop new technologies and push the state of the art forward. They give us the choice to have computers in our pockets that we can actually use. They create new categories of work (e.g. programming apps), and transform and democratize existing ones (e.g. filmmaking, music, photography). I dare say they’ve contributed something to modern science too.

    The problem is that there aren’t many companies ‘like Apple’.

  10. Glen Raphael Says:

    Apple had (and has) the power to improve working conditions at Foxconn. I completely agree: this was (and is) an enormous missed opportunity, for which Steve Jobs is completely responsible. No doubt he said that Apple products empower individuals (and they do) — well, how about empowering Foxconn workers?

    Wait, how do we know Apple missed this opportunity? How haven’t they been empowering Foxconn workers? What would it take to convince you they have been generally improving conditions at Foxconn and other suppliers?

    Apple has an extensive (and impressive) auditing program in place; some progress reports can be found here: http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/

    It seems like “long hours” is stil a significant issue. Apple’s official standard is that a normal work week should be no longer than 60 hours and should include at least one day of rest per week. When they first started auditing in 2006, only 18% of their suppliers met that standard. As of the 2011 report (based on audits in 2010) the share meeting that standard was…32%. On the one hand that’s a long way from a solved problem, but on the other hand: 32 is a lot more than 18. :-)

    What metrics do you think Apple should be tracking and pushing to improve with their suppliers that they aren’t already doing? Reading the 2011 report it seemed to me like they’ve hit the high points already and then some.

    One thing I found interesting is that these jobs are apparently so valuable to employees that the employees are willing to pay huge kickbacks to middlemen in order to get them. Apple considers any fees of this sort larger than a month’s salary a serious offense (because people borrow money to pay those fees, Apple considers the pre-committed portion of their work involuntary labor) and it’s been an ongoing issue.

    The fact that employees are willing to pay more than a month’s salary to get these jobs tells me the workers are in all likelihood seriously overpaid and/or have unusually good working conditions relative to the other jobs available in the region. Which I guess we already knew, but still: wow.

  11. Zach Says:

    @David

    Beyond what Seth said, corporate management has many different “legitimate concerns”. They are representing the shareholders, most of whom have interests extending beyond profits. Some people invest in companies because they like the product. I have encountered anecdotal evidence of people investing in Apple for this reason, the Green Bay Packers largely function on this model and many small companies raise initial funding based on this (see Kickstarter). Institutional investor such as academic endowment funds often choose to invest based in large part on the corporate practices regarding environmental concerns and human rights. Profit is a main concern, but not the main concern and certainly not the only one.

    As Robin said, in many ways Apple is quite the model citizen in these regards. A lot of what I’ve read suggests that management focused on a narrow definition of profit (the time-frame over which decisions are made is critical) is responsible for most corporate failure. In particular, Apple’s near-death experience had at its root a loss of focus beyond short-term profit motives.

  12. Seth Roberts Says:

    How haven’t they been empowering Foxconn workers? What would it take to convince you they have been generally improving conditions at Foxconn and other suppliers?

    If I were in charge of Apple, I (and other top execs) would meet with Foxconn workers and ask them how to empower them — that is, give them more control over their working conditions. I disagree with the impose-western-working-conditions approach. Which I called the “audit” approach and which is what Apple now does. I think the workers know a lot better what working conditions they want than whoever came up with the checklist for the audit. I don’t mean the Western checklist approach is useless — I have no idea. I am sure however that it is less worthwhile than listening to the workers themselves about what they want. I believe that Apple hasn’t done what I recommend (listening to Foxconn workers at great length).

    The evidence that would convince me that Apple is doing a good job here would be to read about how they have stopped trying to fulfill Western preconceptions about what a good workplace is and have done what they can to achieve the workers’ ideas about what a good workplace is.

    Many times throughout history the top (here, Apple management) and the bottom (here, the workers) have gotten together to force the middle (here, Foxconn management) to treat the bottom better. The Ten Commandments, for example.

  13. Glen Raphael Says:

    The way they do the audits does include interviewing workers (including giving the workers info so they can call back later and blow the whistle if things change) and asking what the biggest concerns are as well as getting feedback on specific issues. An example of a thing workers complain about unprompted is having to wait in long lines. Lines for the bus to work, lines at the cafeteria, or lines to get through security.

    I think the reason Apple has such trouble reducing long hours is that if you ask the workers themselves, long hours aren’t actually a problem. So long as they can get paid for their overtime hours, the workers tend to want to do as much work as possible. Some years ago there was a news item about a riot at a factory (not one related to Apple) that started because the factory owners cut down on overtime!

    I doubt any worker ever complained that the exit doors at the cafeteria open inward and/or require two hands to open…that’d be an example of the sort of thing Apple includes in their checklists after consulting with relevant independent experts.

    If Apple stopped trying to fulfill Western preconceptions and let the workers themselves decide we’d probably see a lot more underaged workers than the one-in-ten-thousand we see now. Which I don’t view as a problem, but Apple would get a lot of flack (more than they already do) if they just turned a blind eye to the occasional 15-year-old who gets a fake ID so they can work at the factory. (Apple has already cut off one supplier that didn’t care about this issue.)

    Seriously, read the 2011 Progress Report – you’ll be a lot more informed than your other sources on this subject. (And more informed than I was in my intial post at the beginning of this thread.) Here’s the link:

    http://images.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/pdf/Apple_SR_2011_Progress_Report.pdf

  14. Steve Says:

    I bought the first iteration of the Mac mini, buying into the line that Macs are durable, that you are saved from the endless merry-go-round of software upgrading and escalating system demands that often makes Windows PCs unusable after a few years.

    Now, years later, yes the hardware still purrs along, but Apple no longer offers a browser that is fully functional in that old OS. Nor does anyone else offer such a browser. Also, there is now no way of upgrading the OS so that it will run a functional browser. So, depending on what I am working on, the computer is of limited usefulness.

    Yet the Windows notebook I’d bought four months later, running XP, is still up to date. I don’t clog it with unnecessary software and run it fairly lean, and it runs fine. Microsoft still updates XP and it, and other developers, still offer completely up-to-date browsers.

    Maybe the machine has retained its value as Robin claims, but that’s no use to me if I simply want to be able to do online research for work or do my banking online and can’t. The only advice Mac dealers can give me is to upgrade the machine!

    But the machine sure is pretty.

  15. Robin Barooah Says:

    STEVE: Have you tried OmniWeb?

    http://www.omnigroup.com/products/omniweb/

    It is listed as supporting OSX Tiger, and is a Universal binary that runs on PowerPC. I’ve used it for research and it works fine with my online bank accounts.

  16. Robin Barooah Says:

    STEVE: also this: http://www.floodgap.com/software/tenfourfox/

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