Steve's magic: The irony behind Apple's success

By Andrew Potter

The internet chatterbots still weren't finished complaining about the underwhelming iPhone 4S Apple's first major product launch under new CEO Tim Cook when it was announced that his predecessor, Steve Jobs, had died on October 5.

It wasn't a surprise. Jobs had been fighting pancreatic cancer since 2004, and he stepped down as CEO of Apple on August 24 for health reasons, just weeks after his company surpassed Exxon Mobil to become the most valuable corporation in the world. Yet for all his success as a business executive, Jobs' most enduring legacy is not as a corporate mogul, but as a cultural visionary.

From the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad, Apple products have installed themselves in the battle gear of the contemporary creative class, serving as a virtual synonym for networked independence and stylish non-conformity. Steve Jobs is perhaps the most successful brand manager in history. However, he did it, paradoxically, by embracing the precise corporate values to which the Apple brand identity is ostensibly opposed.

Think back to the famous "1984" commercial that trumpet-blasted the arrival of the Macintosh computer. Before legions of drone-like workers arranged in orderly rows, Big Brother appears on a giant viewscreen, addressing the crowd:
Today, we celebrate the glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on Earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

Everything in the ad is black and white, except for a blond woman wearing bright red shorts, who runs toward the viewscreen pursed by riot police. She screams, then throws an enormous sledgehammer through the screen, which explodes in a flash of light. A pitch for the new Macintosh computer scrolls into view. Thanks to the Apple Computer Corporation, we are assured, the year 1984 will not be like the book 1984. The spot was directed by Ridley Scott, and was honored by Advertising Age as the best commercial of the decade.

While the 1984 ad ran only once, during Super Bowl XVIII, it nailed Apple's ideological colors to the mast. Ever since, the brand has stood as the definitive statement of the rebel sell: the individualized resistance to political authoritarianism and cultural conformity through the adoption of non-standard consumer goods.

Here's a pop quiz: what company is being represented as "Big Brother" in the 1984 ad? Most people, when you ask them, answer Microsoft. Except the real target of the ad is actually IBM, a company that was already on the cusp of obsolescence by the time the Macintosh appeared. Since then, a succession of companies has cycled through the typical lifespan from spunky young startup to lumbering corporate behemoth– Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook– and each time, they have found themselves criticized for all manner of monopolistic and even Orwellian activities.

But it is worth emphasizing that the existence of standards in the computer industry is, by and large, the consequence of choices that people have voluntarily made. Network effects, where a device, application, or operating system gets increasingly useful as more and more people adopt it, are extremely powerful, and merely underscore the fact that not all uniformity is a bad thing.

Yet there is one thing that the 1984 commercial glosses over, which is the fact that there is no "Information Purification Directive" in our society. Or at least there wasn't until Steve Jobs came along. More than any other company in the industry, Apple exerts a tremendous amount of control over its customers' user experience. From the tethering of the iPod to a specific iTunes account to the way Apple jealously guards applications (and hence, content) for the iPhone, the Apple ecosystem has become its own "garden of pure ideology."

And therein lies the paradox of Apple under Steve Jobs, and the key to his company's unbelievable success. For the past quarter century, Apple has retained its credibility as the flagship brand of techno-cultural cool, even as it treats its customers with a darkly paternalistic attitude that some have dubbed "iFascism."

How does Apple get away with it? One answer is to say, as many have, that under Steve Jobs, the Apple user community has become something near to a cult, with its infantilized members tolerating all manner of indignities in the blind service of the leader's vision. But that misses the central point, which is that Apple products make their users feel freer than they do when they are using other operating systems, other computers, or other devices. As The Economist pointed out in an editorial a few years ago, the most salient feature of Apple products is that they work.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This, then, is the deeply ironic magic that Steve Jobs has conjured: through rigid centralization of design and strict control over the user experience, Apple has enabled a deeper freedom for its customers– the freedom that comes from a technology that enhances the scope of choice and opportunity in our lives,while layering itself, simply, almost invisibly, upon the operating system of our world.
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Andrew Potter is the author of "The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves," out now in paperback from McLelland & Stewart. This essay first appeared in the Ottowa Citizen.
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9 comments

What I truly loved about Steve Jobs was his- I'm just an ordinary guy demeanor; he was not trumped up, he had an air of humility, and for me he was to technology, what the Dalai Lama is to spirituality - not perfect just a single human being who sought to serve humanity.
Thank you Steve for all you did .

I would recommend that anyone who really wants to know Steve Jobs read this: Jobs' 2005 commencement address to Stanford --hawes spencer, hook editor

very astute point. the control apple exhibited over its platform allowed users freedom to create at high levels. PC fans loved the low level freedom that mixing and matching components from multiple vendors provided, instead of focusing on the higher level benefit they would unleash in their work or personal technical creativity. most americans buy on price for almost anything, hence apple's small marketshare.

Steve Jobs was a dreamer and a smooth talker, Steve Wozniak was the real genius behind Apple. Steve Jobs would have been nothing without Steve Wozniak. I however do not believe the company would have been as successful without both of them.

no offense, but wozniak had little effect after about 1982, even he admits that. nothing that jobs did at pixar, or next or Apple v2 had anyhting to do with wozniak

I spent this glorious October day walking through the libraries of UVA.

On every table, in every library, it was not the students I noticed but the sunlit silver squares hiding their faces, and in the center of each silver square a bright white not completely perfect apple all aglow.

The speech at Stanford from the link above is truly amazing. What an amazing beginning - what an amazing ending.

I wonder now, in the year 2011 instead of 2005, if he were to give this speech today - it might read something like this " Love the job you have and be the best you can be " excellence rewards itself.

I recommend to everyone that they think about what they can do to better themselves, not about what Steve Jobs did in his lifetime. He is but one example.

Unfortunately if he were to start today, the Government might have detered him from doing anything that would provide jobs, money and a livelihood to anyone without taxing the crap out of his company.

If the Governemnt of today is so darn brilliant, then why don't they invent anything? I know, I know, NASA does just that, well, they did.........

I love how people just adore rewriting history. The corporate tax rate was higher when Jobs and his partner started out, not lower. In spite of which within a short period of time they were doing quite well. Not only that, Jobs was quite good at selling his 600$ dollar phones while his Chinese factory workers were committing suicide from lowpay and stressful working conditions.

But some people want to rewrite history and tlak about the good old days until they are working like the Chinese. Sad that the HArryDs don;t realize that it won;t be them in Jobs position. They'll be the Chinese workers committing suicide.