Reality distortion fields

The French language exerts a tug even (especially?) on those who can barely speak it. “Pâté de foie gras” sounds so much nicer than “fatty liver paste”. “Ris de veau a la financière” sounds risible when you translate it into English. And, when I lived in Paris, I found the names of stops on the subway boards — “Seine-Saint-Denis”, “La Courneuve” — fascinating, even when I knew that these were impossibly ugly and crime-ridden banlieues (suburbs, but nicer-sounding).

I think the attraction of Apple is something like that.

Andy Hertzfeld (quoting fellow-Apple-employee Bud Tribble) documented the “reality distortion field” of Steve Jobs back in 1981. He was talking of the temporary effect that Jobs had on employees: Jobs had a way of persuading people even when every rational instinct would convince them that it made no sense.

Today, Jobs’ reality distortion field has taken over the world. He convinced all of us that a phone doesn’t need a keypad, and a computer doesn’t need a keyboard: a touchscreen would do for both. He was probably the only person ever to out-Onion The Onion, who imagined a keyboard-less Mac some years ago, but didn’t quite take it to the logical conclusion.

Am I a victim? No and yes. No, I’m hanging to my Nokia E63 with its trusty keypad, and my Dell computer running Linux. Yes, I did buy a (non-Apple) keyboardless computer. And I just got my wife a (non-Apple) keypadless phone. And she already has a Mac Mini and likes it.

The point is it doesn’t matter whether I’m typing this on an Apple device, or you’re reading it on an Apple device, or not. We’re all in Jobs’ reality distortion field: every competitor is imitating Apple, and nobody is really thinking different. I’m using Linux to type this, but Ubuntu has thrust a Mac-style “global taskbar” on the top of the screen, and a Mac-style “dock” on the left — and I’ve accepted both. I’m using Google Chrome to type this — the browser is not only inspired by Apple’s Safari, but actually uses the same core engine, Apple’s Webkit (which has its roots, one should say, in khtml from the Linux/Unix KDE project.)

The most striking example of Jobs’ reality distortion field, it seems to me, is his adoption of open-source technologies like Webkit/kthml — and, indeed, in BSD Unix itself. (To this day, Apple makes the Unix core of Mac OS X available under an open-source license, under the name Darwin.) Everyone in the mid-1990s understood that Unix, which dates to the early 1970s and split over the years into multiple flavours, was an extraordinarily stable, robust, and well-tested operating system for servers. Nobody except Steve Jobs would have thought of pushing it on to millions of desktops worldwide — and nobody else would have succeeded.

And, even here, he had a knack of picking a counter-intuitive, but arguably better, technology. He picked the open-source BSD Unix, though Linux had by far more mindshare at that point. Today Linux is as stable and reliable as any Unix-like system in history, but in the late 1990s this was debatable. Similarly, for webkit he picked the raw khtml over Mozilla’s much more stable and open-source gecko engine, on the grounds that the source code was cleaner; today, thanks to Safari and Google Chrome, webkit has overtaken Mozilla and is not too far behind Internet Explorer.

But why did it all work? Jobs (and, of course, the other capable people at Apple) may have chosen these technologies on technical grounds. But they did something else with those technologies. They made them sexy. Like the French language.

I read a definition somewhere long ago: “Beautiful = you want to look at it. Sexy = you want to touch it.” That accounts for the iPhone and the iPad.

Rest in peace, Steve Jobs. You had the courage to make the right choices. Or you had the force of will to make your choices turn out right. Or you had the good taste to seduce millions around the world. It all comes to the same thing. You changed the world.