Meeting Steve Jobs: Freedom vs. Simplicity

I only met Steve Jobs once, and not for very long.

In reporting an article about music copy protection for The New York Times, I attended a press conference in London at EMI. Steve Jobs, the CEO of EMI and members of band Blur attended.

As the press conference wound down, I had an interesting side-conversation with Jobs, which never made it into the article.

It was a fairly small event and Jobs stepped down from the stage afterwards to chat with myself and a couple of others.

We were talking about people, technology and music.

The conversation started around about DRM – systems that protect music from being copied – but Jobs eventually launched into the explanation of what he said drives Apple in meeting consumer’s needs.

“We must always balance simplicity and freedom,” he said. “If you give the consumers too much freedom, they are overwhelmed by choice and confusion. If you limit their freedom by too much simplicity, they feel constricted.”

To me, this explained the difference between the first iPod – which had one button and few options – versus the MP3 players by Creative Technologies. Arguably, Creative Technologies invented the market for MP3 players, but their system was rather complex. You had so many options that you felt like a programmer.

I think about Jobs’ concept each time I test a new Apple product.

You surrender freedom to Apple products, but if they deliver value you do not mind. They made it so simple to download music that people are willing to pay 0.99 cents per song rather than download them for free.

Driving this same logic further, could lead to the interesting conclusion in an essay by writer Umberto Eco: Apple is Catholic, while PC is protestant.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. Can you use DOS and be a Vande supporter? And more: Would Celine have written using Word, WordPerfect, or Wordstar? Would Descartes have programmed in Pascal?

Finally, one of the more popular among my blog postings related to Apple: Steve Jobs’ Moleskine.

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