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Good Taste

People date the return of Apple to many different dates, but to me, it started when Steve Jobs wasn’t even CEO. It was when Steve Jobs was the CEO of NeXT, and Gil Amelio brought him back on. That was the turnaround: it starts there.

It was when Apple’s OS, always vulnerable to the charge of being a ‘toy’ OS, threw in the towel and replaced their OS with one based on the FreeBSD OS. After that, you knew they meant it when they said they were serious about having the best OS on the planet.

Steve Jobs, at the time, was in exile; this was the deal that brought him back into the Apple fold, since the OS came from NeXT, and Jobs was the CEO of NeXT.

Of the many comments that Jobs and Bill Gates made about each other, most of them are treated as useless trash-talking. There was one, however, that I would say contained more than a grain of truth. It’s linked below, in this interview – maybe the most meaningful comment Jobs ever made about Windows.

My abbreviated transcription:

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste… And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way. In the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their products.

To me, it’s a rare heartfelt moment where Jobs makes a direct and thoughtful comment about his main competitor, delivered without any obfuscation or qualification; he’s saying what he truly believes here, based on his own experience. This is Jobs unplugged.

It’s been treated like it’s some kind of cheap shot, some little bit of meanness that Jobs should have edited out, but it’s nothing of the sort; at the time, Apple was far behind in Microsoft’s rearview mirror, and Jobs wasn’t kicking a downed OS as much as he was making an observation about the dominant one. If anything, at the time, it was put forth as evidence of Jobs as a dreamer, an also-ran, someone who didn’t truly understand business culture or what it took to be no. 1; back then, it was commonly argued that taste didn’t matter, culture didn’t matter, being no. 1 was what mattered. Gates was no. 1. Job wasn’t.

And yet, in the end, despite, what seemed like insurmountable odds (and the total lack of confidence of the business community), Jobs won.

This comment is key to understanding why, a direct quote from the man who masterminded that ascent. This is his explanation for it; this is how he himself saw it. It’s no small aside; reading into it, it’s his conceptual frame for what made Apple special, what Apple emphasized above its competitors. And, lest we forget, in the consumer electronics space (not just computers), Jobs didn’t just win, he didn’t just triumph – he defined today’s norm. We’re all design-conscious consumers now.

It’s easy to overlook now, but a large part of the explosion in technology that happened since 2000 dates from the weakening of the Micrsoft stranglehold. And a large part of why things boomed after that date has to do with exactly that – the introduction of culture, of taste, of color and shape and form and creative inventiveness in a field that, design-wise, had largely stagnated.

It was Jobs insight to see that those weren’t minor qualities, the icing on the cake; with enough skill, those could be the cake – the whole meal. A beautiful object where function was almost an afterthought, a consummate design created and executed, with craftsmanship, to impress. That idea, that model, had been lost in consumer electronics, until Jobs made it popular again. Not just so-so design, not just design with a nice little accent here and there, but top-flight design, museum-quality design, design that was supposedly too ‘nice’ for the average consumer: the high end. At low prices, for that quality.

Jobs brought that back, and for that, I have nothing but praise.

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