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Summary:

A new biography of Steve Jobs quotes Bill Gates as saying that the Apple co-founder “never really understood much about technology.” While the Microsoft billionaire likely saw that as a put-down, technology is arguably the least important thing about Apple’s most successful products.

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There’s been an awful lot written about Steve Jobs in the wake of the Apple co-founder’s death, and that has only increased in the wake of the new biography from Walter Isaacson, which a number of media outlets have been running excerpts from. In addition to Jobs’ opinion about topics like Google, the book also includes some comments from famous tech-industry players about Jobs, and one of them is from Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates — a man who was Apple’s nemesis in many ways. Gates says he liked Jobs, but that the Apple CEO “never really understood much about technology.” The Microsoft billionaire no doubt saw that as a put-down, but looked at another way, it was one of Jobs’ biggest strengths.

Although the two men apparently gained a grudging respect for each other, they couldn’t really be any more different, both as people and as CEOs and founders of technology companies. Jobs, who famously spent time in India and was a practising Buddhist, apparently told Isaacson that Gates would have been a more interesting person “if he had dropped acid or gone off to an ashram when he was younger,” while Gates told the author that Jobs was “fundamentally odd” and “weirdly flawed as a human being.” The Microsoft founder also admitted that Jobs had an “amazing instinct for what works” — while Jobs said that Gates was “basically unimaginative and has never invented anything [but] just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

The part about ripping off other people’s ideas could also be applied to Apple, of course, at least in its early days, since much of the graphical user interface that made the company’s computers so recognizable and gained Apple designer Jef Raskin so much fame — the mouse, the desktop metaphor, the icons, file folders and pull-down menus — were based on ideas originally developed by Xerox at its Palo Alto Research Center division.

Technology is the least important thing about Apple products

But while Gates saying that Jobs “never really understood much about technology” was probably intended as a criticism, the truth is that in most cases the technology is the least important thing about Apple’s products, and probably wouldn’t appear anywhere on the list of the main reasons why devices like the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad are so appealing. Someone like Gates, who spent his youth programming and was involved in much of the code behind things like Windows, would like to believe that superior technology wins — but for most users of both software and hardware, design is what wins.

Jobs was a famous admirer of Dieter Rams, a designer for Braun who had a number of mottos and aphorisms about design — one of which was that “good design will make a product understandable.” That applies to a lot of Apple’s most famous products, which were so painstakingly designed to be usable, even when (like the original iPod shuffle) they didn’t even have a screen to tell you what was going on inside them. A video of a one-year-old child using an iPad and then trying to use the same gestures on a magazine (embedded below) went viral recently, and Daniel Donahoo at Wired pointed out that in addition to the message that much traditional media is “broken” from a usability point of view, it also reinforced just how instinctive much of Apple’s design and usability is.

When people talk about Apple’s design principles and philosophy, they often mention the unrelenting focus on simplicity (based in part on Rams’ motto: “Less, but better”). Jobs said that among the most important decisions in product design were what not to include and that this process involved “saying no to 1,000 things.” That’s a very difficult principle to adhere to at the best of times — but it’s especially hard if you are a technology geek and obsessed with all the ways in which your product is going to beat your competitors because of the cool features it has. That’s what causes the classic “feature creep” phenomenon, which often occurs when professional engineers get hold of a device.

It’s not about the features — it’s about usability

In a nutshell, that’s what accounts for much of the difference between Microsoft and Apple, or between Apple and just about everyone else — not the technology but the usability. Think about the early days of the MP3 player, before the iPod came out: I had an early device made by Archos that was a brilliant piece of technology, a laptop hard drive with a shell that turned it into a music player, and it held a then-staggering 6 gigabytes of music. It was also an ugly piece of crap in a lot of ways — it was huge and bulky and unfriendly to use, but I used it anyway. Until I saw an iPod.

Lots of people focus on how Apple’s design was similar to high-end furniture or other non-technological products, with its white or black exterior and clean lines, but the real killer appeal of the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad was how easy they are to use, and how integral that ease of use and design is to the product itself. Microsoft made plenty of MP3 players and tablets and the Zune and so on, many of which were fine from a technology point of view. But did anyone want to rush out and buy them? No. That’s not to say Apple hasn’t produced some great technology, from FireWire to the oleophobic coating on the iPhone screen — but the technology isn’t the most important part of those devices.

I’m sure when Bill Gates looks at the iPad or the iPhone, he thinks about all the features it doesn’t have, or all the things that it can’t do. But no one else thinks about those things — all they are interested in is what they can do, and how much fun it is doing them, and how appealing those devices are. And that is one of Steve Jobs’ biggest gifts to the world of technology and design.

  1. Well done.

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  2. Oh please, not that video where the girl doesn’t know how to read a magazine and doesn’t know how to use an iPad, bullshit video for a very good article.

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    1. I know it has been everywhere, and it is a little over-done, but I do think it shows how Apple successfully took advantage of the touch and other motions that we are instinctively used to. Why did no one try that kind of touch interface before the iPad?

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      1. My phone has had touch technology for a very long time. Jobs skill was in marketing. I remember looking something up in a meeting and having the older people there being amazed I could do such a thing as they thought the I-phone was the only thing that could do it. Le sigh….

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      2. Well, they did. Unfortunately for them, the folks that *did* do all that first (including Microsoft), with the same kinds of media, multi-touch gestures, etc. were doing it with coffee table sized devices that were really expensive. Apple bought Fingerworks and got their work into small devices… for the win.

        Which brings up an interesting point that I’m waiting for someone to write about. What is it about Microsoft that keeps all their supremely awesome work from ever making it to market? Hell, I still want to see their old Courier (circa 2009) on shelves. Instead we get boring, low-risk stuff like the Zune, which invariably stink of “me too!”

        Sometimes I wonder how a brilliant thing like the Kinect escaped the outer walls of Microsoft. Then, with time, I realized they’re just going to let it wither and die by refusing to leverage it. It’s crazytown over there.

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      3. Malcolm_McLean Sunday, October 23, 2011

        The revolutionary touch screen, with the ability to increase size with a ‘pinch’ the rearrangement of photographs etc – that the iPhone and now the iPad took advantage of was an invention of Jeff Han or Cornell University.

        Check out the first demonstration of this new screen at TED in 2oo6.

        http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_han_demos_his_breakthrough_touchscreen.html

        I think Jobs and Gates both had the ability to recognize developments that other companies had made – and either buy that company or license it’s technology.

        What Jobs and his team was able to visualize is the combination of technology and services.

        The iPod would not have been anywhere close to it’s success if iTunes did not exist.

        The memory that made mp3 players and the iPod is licensed from Fraunhof Inst. in Germany who invented it, and licenses the technology even today.

        Xerox’s vast research and development team invented the mouse and the basic concept behind icons and entered into a deal with Apple to use these new developments.

        Steve’s first computer with The Woz, was bought and assembled from bits and pieces from electronic stores and used the similar packaging from Atari.

        So for Jobs to say Gates stole everything is an extreme exaggeration when he himself obviously had the point of view that ‘recognizing someone else’s idea, is as good as having it yourself’ so long as you got it to market in an understandble way.

        It’s a pity that Apple products are made in China!

        Google has the same mentality – apart from their original search algorithums that make them 90% of all their money from advertising – they have been on a spending spree to buy technology from companies that have developed new idea’s – suck as Keyhole – that is now Google Earth!

        Of course the development of Android is spectacular – and is now used in more handsets than any other software.

        Don’t forget that all Apple services like iTunes, are designed to be only used on Apple products!

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    2. Leon – You’re clearly missing the big picture here if you think the video is BS or is about a toddler. Replace that toddler with someone (of any age) that suffers from Autism for example and you’ll realize just how valuable simple interactive usability is. An autistic person would be able to use the iPad and communicate in ways they never could have before.

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  3. I have a feeling that Steve Jobs has read this article, he would have considered the author an idiot (in his no nonsense way).

    Can you spot the logical fallacy in the line of reasoning?

    1. Technology-rich products that are not usable don’t become hits
    2. Apple’s products that were extremely user-friendly became hits
    3. Therefore technology doesn’t matter

    Steve understood how to use technology (and often demanding cutting-edge technology) to create usable products do more than products before them. He was smart enough to not let technology get in front of being usable, but that is a far cry from saying technology didn’t matter as this naive author suggests. See the distinction?

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    1. Absolutely correct

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    2. Thanks for the comment — the headline was meant to get at the central point of the post, which is that technology matters, but it is not the most important thing about Apple products, nor is it why they are successful. Obviously it still matters — just not as much.

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      1. You’re right, and history is littered with examples of your point. Of course it’s only true with certain things and for certain people, where utility isn’t paramount. You know… like cellphones and mp3 players.

        “In the Beginning was the command line” by Neal Stephenson is a short history of computing that spends a considerable amount of time discussing exactly this topic.

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      2. Technology and usability are not necessarily different. They are not chalk and cheese. Creating a great user experience requires great technology. Am no apple fanboy, but I’d challenge anyone to point out another company/device that has done a better job in user-experience technology in recent times than Apple has.

        Few people have pushed the envelope of user-experience technology the way Apple has. This includes the touch wheel on the first iPod to the unbelievably thin Macbook Air, to the paradigm breaking iPad. User experience goes way beyond the icons and menus..the physical design of the product, the packaging, the manuals..every aspect of Apple products stands out. And in each of these aspects, the tech limits have been pushed.

        That said, there is a lot of geeky stuff that Apple products intentionally leave out. This is the simplicity principle at work, but let’s not confuse simplicity as absence of technology. And in a similar vein, let’s not confuse technology as geeky clutter.

        One last point – One can wonder if the simplicity mantra has more to it than what appears. Leaving out a USB connector on iPad can be seen as a simplicity measure – but it also can be seen as a business driver. No one would ever fault Stve Jobs on his marketing acumen. Technology, simplicity, design, user-experience…all these and more, for Apple, lead to business. And why not?

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  4. When Bill Gates looks at an iPad, I would argue he can appreciate the things it does well and recognizes that what makes it a great product is it’s simplicity. Rather than look at it for its short comings.

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    1. Yes and no Matt. Check his opinion on iPad here http://youtu.be/0GxLS7PqEbM. He indeed “thinks about all the features it doesn’t have”.

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  5. To Apple fans, blowing money on overhyped, overpriced Apple trinkets to show off, doesn’t matter- they’re wealthy. When Bill Gates looks at the iPad or the iPhone 4Stupid, he thinks about poor in the third world suffering from malaria.

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  6. This guy gave a lot of ‘gifts’ to the world of design and his cult of followers. He also got billions in return from them.

    Is that really a gift?

    A gift is say…donating your wealth to helping the world’s poorest people. Oh wait, that’s not Jobs who did that.

    Jobs actually insulted Gates for his philanthropy. Maybe God doesn’t work in mysterious ways after all!

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    1. Actually most of Jobs personal wealth was via Pixar.

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  7. this idiotic eulogizing has got to stop. people are going nuts with absurd post-facto rationalizations about the “hidden genius” in anything apple. i agree with another poster here – the inclusion of that video is ridiculous. thousands of illiterate americans know how to watch tv…does that mean the book is also nothing more than a broken television because it can’t service their limited intellects?

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    1. Yes it does. The whole world has been moving to video or occasionally text augmented video for the last 80 years.

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  8. Bijoy Goswami Friday, October 21, 2011

    And let’s not forget Doug Engelbart’s seminal demo in 1968 that presaged the Alto!

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  9. One cannot compare oranges and apples, pun coincidentally made! :). Microsoft and Apple are both hugely successful companies that pursue different business strategies. Apple focus on perfecting the user experience products of higher cost and quality because it is able to demand a higher premium to a target market that can afford it. Microsoft produces a products to appeal to masses at a lower cost, price point, or margin. So, while Apple may enjoy premium margins but lower market share, Microsoft products (excluding Windows Phone, where they missed the boat) enjoy lower margins but much, much higher market share.

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    1. Microsoft works form the enterprise down to the consumer.
      Apple works form the consumer side. . . and that’s really all–there really isn’t a enterprise side to apple at all.

      Thus. . .

      Microsoft builds product for people they expect know how to use a computing device.
      Apple builds product for people that are clueless about using a computing device.

      yeah, that about sums it up.

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  10. Matt, there is perhaps one semantic, but rather important edit I would make to your article. What you are describing here as technology is really engineering. On the contrary, Steve Jobs was THE master technologist. Design is a key part of creating good technology. Technology is the what, Engineering is the how. Steve Jobs was remarkable at understanding the what, and design is critical here.

    Technology is anything that we use to solve a problem. Good technology is designed specifically with a problem in mind. Steve ensured that Apple products kept that problem at the core of their product design and this resulted in extremely usable products.

    Many bloggers (not including you in this generalization) list specs of devices. This is a practice promoted by the manufacturers themselves as a way to market their products, but technology is not judged in history by individual features or specifications. Instead they are judged by their proficiency at solving a problem.

    So please refrain from removing the importance of technology from Jobs’ memory. Jobs should be remembered as one of the greatest technologists in modern times. He kept technology (problem solving) at the core of every product he delivered. He recognized that the engineering required to deliver that technology is a supporting role, not a driving role. The problem at hand should be in the driving seat of any technological endeavor, and Jobs recognized that more than most.

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    1. Well said… bravo

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    2. That’s a great point, Warren — I totally agree. Superlative technology takes into account design and usability, and is much more than just a bunch of features slapped onto a device. Thanks for the comment.

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