Books: When the Apple of the world's eye was poisoned

Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S Malone Aurum pounds 18.99

What would have been good for Apple Computer would have been good for the world. Had Apple succeeded, the computer on every desktop would have faced its user with the most outstanding design of the 20th century's final quarter, the Macintosh graphical interface. Instead, 19 out of 20 such machines use the Windows operating system, obliging the world to settle for second best.

This has long been clear, if only to the remaining Mac faithful. Michael S Malone's new disaster blockbuster - a desktop rather than a laptop, at 600 pages - suggests another way in which Apple's loss was the world's. The company's failure has also forced modern mythology to do without its natural first choice as leading villain. Bill Gates, the boss of Microsoft and the proprietor of the software that beat Apple's, has assumed the role of ogre for the digital age. His bogeyman status derives from his monopoly power and the fact that none of us can yet be sure of what that power implies. Yet as a personality, he is a poor piece of casting. Gates is reported to have a cruel tongue and a fearsome temper, but that hardly lives up to the role. From Malone's account, the man who deserved the part of folk Lucifer was Steve Jobs, Apple's genius and nemesis combined.

Malone devotes many words to his description of Jobs's character, but cannot find a single good one to go among them. The scene is set by the murky images of Jobs in the 1970s; barefoot, stoned, and sinister. He is depicted as one of those disturbing figures who haunted the counter- culture of the day, where individuals who in straight daylight would have been identified as sociopaths could pass as embryonic gurus. With an indifference to personal hygiene that he packaged as part of an Eastern philosophy, Steve Jobs really was the Great Unwashed. Later on, when Apple had made the personal computer the key to a lifestyle and the core of a belief system, Jobs' hippie aura became charisma. Malone notes that Jobs was treated like a rock star by Apple devotees. He does not draw out the implication of so much of his grisly story; that Jobs actually is a rock star, and Apple is a mutant offshoot of the music industry operating under the delusion that it is in the computer business.

Like any good rock'n'roll morality tale, the Apple saga begins with youths in the garage surrounded by electric leads. Jobs was the lead singer; Steve Wozniak was the guy who wrote the songs and got ripped off. They had a new, young idea, and little real sense of what they were doing. Jobs, however, had an eye for the bigger picture that was invisible to Woz, who spent most of his time slaving over a hot soldering iron. The plot is exquisitely poised for the villain's comeuppance by the incident in which Jobs sells a game designed by Woz to Atari, and gives Woz $350 as his half-share of the payment - hiding from his friend that they had been awarded not $700, but $7,000. Woz only learned the truth 10 years later, reading a biography of Apple on a plane. Like many other Apple men facing moments of truth, he burst into tears.

By then, Apple had entered the permanent crisis that has been its life ever since, even in the heyday of the desktop publishing revolution that allowed it to escape the 1980s on a roll. Like other rock bands, it reacted in a juvenile fashion to success, splashing out on sports cars and aeroplanes, then ran into trouble following up the hit debut album. Wozniak's career was a model of rock'n'roll decline: a tendency to play the fool instead of working, increasing signs that he had used up his talent, a series of unsuccessful comebacks, and a plane crash. Pranging his private aircraft on take-off, he suffered a poetic injury for a computer engineer: his memory was damaged. Wozniak also handed over vast chunks of his fortune to sharks in the real rock industry, funding a series of money-draining concerts. Eventually he found fulfilment back in the garage, teaching and inspiring children to use computers.

Apple itself was rock'n'roll to the core. While cultivating an image of enlightenment, its god was Narcissus. There was a fundamental lack of discipline, reflected both in erratic operational practices and in the apparent dearth of standards governing the relationship between the company and its staff. While the ranks were free to wear t-shirts with slogans satirising the board, Jobs was free to humiliate entire project groups without any consideration for the destructive effect upon company morale, let alone the feelings of individuals. At the executive level, the result was a stream of inevitable departures that could generally be attributed, in the familiar rock euphemism, to creative and personal differences.

All this was happening in the supersonic world of the computer industry, with companies plummeting in flames all around. Steve Jobs's most important move to avoid a similar fate was the appointment - the seduction, Malone calls it - of John Sculley, a suit from Pepsi-Cola. Malone characterises the Sculley era as one of inappropriate corporatism, in which Apple was made boring but not viable. Jobs himself was forced to give up most of his power after the crisis began in 1985, but never stopped haunting the company. Eventually, he was brought back, to delirious acclaim from the Macolytes.

Even now, and as ever, his role in Apple is ambiguous. He is clearly the leader, while retaining his commitment to Pixar, the animation studio which recently enjoyed success with A Bug's Life. And the future of the company remains tantalisingly unsettled too. No doubt Malone had been confident of a satisfyingly sorry ending to his Schadenfreudefest. Everybody else thought the only thing left to add to the obituary was the date. Then last year came the cheeky little iMac, which sold like Viagra on discount and has already become a design icon. Malone is forced to dismiss this as a false dawn, all style and no substance.

A million customers must be saying something, though. Consumers avoid conspicuously troubled companies, yet they flocked to a product whose selling points were styling and ease of use. However it treated its staff, Apple made its name by giving ordinary people computers they could actually love. The iMac is a new twist on that old trick. Ultimately, though, the secret of the Mac is in the interface rather than the box. Malone neglects this, choosing to depict Mac devotion as a delusion produced by the company's mythmaking. Yet there is something about the Mac look and feel which keeps a hold on millions of users, despite the similarity of Windows. A study which elucidated just what that something comprises would help answer one of the most important questions of modern industrial design: is there room for anything but Windows on the desktops of the world?

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