The Sofa has a Purpose – Steve Jobs

Has anyone read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs? I haven’t, but just by reading about it in bits and pieces on various blogs and websites I feel like I have all the salient points covered. More than direct quotes from the now best-selling book about the Apple co-founder, the insights and analysis given by commentators or the reviewers of the book seem to offer a more diverse account of what Mr.Jobs’ life and legacy looked like from the outsider’s perspective. By outsider, I mean people who were outside the circle of people who had direct access to Mr. Jobs’ mind.

The most recent review I read about the book was on The New Yorker magazine – free, online version, of course. It was a review from Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote Blink and Tipping Point, and takes a typical Gladwell-ian departure from the beaten path to paint a different picture of what Stave Jobs’ real genius was.

The most common attribute given to Mr.Jobs, when alive and upon his death, is ‘visionary’. He was able to see things far out into the future and was able to predict, often accurately, how an idea or a technology can grow and evolve. Many call him a creator and inventor, but Mr. Gladwell offers a different take. He compares him to Richard Roberts, the British man who created the automatic spinning mule. I looked up Wikipedia – a spinning mule is a mechanical device that could spin cotton and other fibers, a device which essentially revolutionized the fabric manufacturing business back in the seventies. Although Samuel Crompton, another Brit, was the one who invented the original spinning mule, the real impact of the machine did not land until Roberts came along and added his tweak – automating the machine so that entire factory floors can be run without human labor – which resulted in the first and true mass-production and industrialization of clothing. Mr.Gladwell posits, Steve Jobs was like Roberts, in that he did not invent things, he just made them magically better.

I was at a standup show a while back, where comedian Bill Burr dissed Steve Jobs for taking all credit for creating all the Apple products. This was just weeks after Mr.Jobs’ death and Mr.Burr’s point was that Jobs did not come up with all the ideas and the products that came out of Apple and that a lot of the high praise that was pouring in for him was undeserved. Of course, there was mild boos from the crowd – unsurprisingly, since most of them were holding an iPhone – but I remember thinking that Mr.Burr was very much right about that. Steve Jobs did not come up with the MegaSafe power cords on the Macs or the exquisite form-factor of the iPhone but what he did come up with was the key to the gate through which Apple products rolled out. He locked up the gate and until he liked what was shown to him by his engineers he wouldn’t open the gate. Like Gladwell says in his review, he tweaked things endlessly, and often without mercy or doubt, until there was nothing left but perfection as seen from Jobs’ eyes.

The biography has many anecdotes from Steve Jobs, including how he thought all the existing music players “sucked” before releasing the iPod, how awful he thought existing cell-phones were before coming out with the iPhone and how the iPad’s origin came from an engineer from Microsoft.

As Jobs tells Isaacson:
This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers…This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”

Even more amusing and, somewhat personally comforting, was how it took eight years for Steve Jobs to get all the furniture in his house. I was honestly delighted and felt a bit assured when the book quotes Jobs’ asking ‘What is the purpose of a Sofa?’ He understood that an object, any object, has impact on everything surrounding it, including and especially humans, and it was important to make that object as impacting as one could think of. If it does not have an impact, then it has no purpose to exist. He was not going to invent the sofa, but, if he was going to use it, then he was going to make it infinitely better.

It takes a great deal of conviction and trust in one’s own taste to be that demanding. True, it can be a cause for much frustration and anguish, for himself and others, especially others – you should read about what he put through his doctors while on cancer treatment, complaining about the medical equipment design – but in the end the same thing that causes emotional toil also provides emotional rewards. That is the trade-off Steve Jobs made when it came to tweaking things around him. He was not going to settle for something less than what he thinks to be perfect, be it the title bar border of the Mac OS X window or the newly designed, soon-to-be built multi-billion dollar Apple headquarters in Cupertino. He was going to tweak them as if it was the last thing he ever did. Compared to the creative inventor story, I like this one better.

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2 thoughts on “The Sofa has a Purpose – Steve Jobs

    1. you could also sleep on it, just lay around for a bit, have children jumping on it, have yourself jumping on it when no one is watching, use it as a poor surface for ironing and, if lucky, get on to second base.

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