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Jobs, Radiohead and the iPhone

September 30, 2007

Steve Jobs, I think it's fair to say, looks at Apple products as works of art, as little functional sculptures aimed at giving aesthetic pleasure as well as utilitarian benefit. That's why it pains him so deeply to have people hack into his machines and fiddle with their guts. When a customer "opens" an iPhone, the act doesn't just complicate Apple's business relationship with AT&T and the phone's other exclusive carriers; it stands as a personal affront to Jobs. It's an assault on the integrity of his artifact.

In many ways, I admire Jobs's stance. Much of Apple's success in creating products that people actually want to buy and use - and to be seen buying and using - can be traced to his, and his staff's, artist-like passion for the made thing. Jobs doesn't kow-tow to the "user"; he knows that democratization, when it comes to product development, is just a pretty term for mediocritization. But my admiration is tempered by the sense that Jobs is a megalomaniac who, while treating his own creations with obsessively loving care, seems to have little respect for the integrity of the creations of others, at least when that integrity conflicts with his own immediate business interests.

Consider Radiohead. You won't find the band's music in the iTunes store. Why? Because Radiohead refuses to allow its records to be sold piecemeal, by the track. Either you buy the whole album or you buy nothing. That runs counter to Jobs's fiat that all music on iTunes be unbundled and sold by the song as well as by the album.

You can applaud Radiohead's lonely stance, or you can, as Crunchgear recently did, dismiss the band as "a bunch of crybabies." Either way, you have to grant that Radiohead is the creator of its music and has the right to sell that music in whatever way it wants. And you have to admit that Radiohead's motivation in protecting what it sees as the integrity of its works is no different from Jobs's motivation in protecting what he sees as the integrity of his products.

Jobs's lack of concern for the desire of Radiohead, and other artists, to control how people experience their creations undermines his attack on the people who would alter the iPhone to serve their own purposes. If Jobs believes that buyers have the right to crack open "OK Computer" and fiddle with its contents, then doesn't the same go for those who would crack open his precious iPhone?


That is the best take I've seen yet. Accurately sympathetic yet, cutting through all the esoteric theories about consumer rights, getting straight a hypocrisy that is evident even in Apple's own projected view of the world.

It's funny how far Apple has come from the very earliest days of selling kits and then selling micros that came with available schematics, ROM listings, etc.

The "Woz" voice of self-education and self-empowerment just faded away, there.


Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 11:13 AM

If the Mac had been introduced today:
-- Third parties wouldn't be allowed to write software for it, except specifically authorized ones like Google
-- It would only work with AT&T DSL. Any other ISP would cause the box to freeze
-- There would be no Macs with slots and drive bays (instead of the single one we have now, the $2500+ Mac Pro)
-- Browsing the Fake Steve Jobs blog on one would trigger self-destruct

Posted by: Kendall Brookfeld [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 11:58 AM

You need to be careful, Nick. Saying anything that amounts to criticism of Jobs and Apple can get you into serious trouble. I have to look around every time I walk into an Apple Store after my attempt to unpick their anti-competitive behaviour on the BBC News site (see www.thebillblog.com for the gory details)...

Posted by: Bill Thompson [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 02:09 PM

I admire your explanation, but I have to disagree.

First, nothing proves that there isn't something at stake behind the bricking: AT&T, coding thing, an Easter Egg——you are assuming that it is Jobs' personal stance.

Secondly, two artists don't have to agree, especially about their ethics——I won't tell you that the opposite is very much true, but you've never seen two people hate each other until you've seen to artist do because of their work.

But the most surprising thin you say is that iTunes cannot sell full albums: don't they sell films, aduio-books? I'm both puzzle by how Jobs, whose musical education was with the Beattle's Abbey Road (a notorious example of an album whose combination is the work, as a whole), doesn't acknowledging such a simple demand, both technically feasible and easy to understand by anyone who listened once to Radiohead.

And I can't imagine the music execs at iTunes haven't noticed. I guess Jobs has the bad temper that people say he has.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 02:38 PM

But the most surprising thin you say is that iTunes cannot sell full albums

It does sell full albums but also requires tracks to be sold separately.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 03:22 PM

At the risk of being charged with sycophancy, I would echo Tom Lord's comment on your post being the best he'd seen on this issue. An issue which had been deluged with a shrill cacophony of anti-Apple commentary.

I particularly agree with your comments equating " democratization" with " mediocratization ". After years of struggling with Windows boxes and all their attendant unpleasantnesses and general uselessness, I switched to Apple about two and a half years ago.

I appreciate Jobs' understanding that technology has to reach out and be attractive and useable to the whole population , and not just the hardcore hackerandgeekdom that holds sway on internet messageboards and so on.

And so he insists on producing products that transcend the " just about good enough if you're prepared to continuously update your anti-virus programmes " mentality.

He needs to be seen to be doing all he can to prevent unlocking and so on, to maintain the confidence of the mobile carriers. Just as he needed to be seen to play ball with the music companies over DRM.

I was a little disappointed with your equivocation over the Radiohead position. Are we absolutely sure that Jobs has categorically forbidden Radiohead from being able to just sell their ( awful ) music in album form only ?

Either way, I felt you were maybe clutching at straws a little to try and appear balanced in your appraisal, and thereby forestall the attacks from the rabid Jobs-haters ?

Nevertheless, a great article. I came across your blog recently, and have enjoyed reading it very much !

Posted by: John Clifton [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 03:58 PM

Many have observed that the integrity of excellent works depends as much on what the creator leaves out as on what he puts in. You wrote a wonderful piece a few months ago about the musical possibilities opened up by the 33 rmp record. iPod and iTunes have opened up their own possibilities -- and perhaps foreclosed some that the LP provided. I don't see how this has anything to do with hypocrisy, jealousy, or Jobs' need to upstage the likes of Thom Yorke. It's just change.

If anything, I'd argue that the stronger argument to be made is that the listening experience iPod and mp3s center on is closer in many ways to the spirit of 50's/60's rock and roll -- low fidelity, disposable mass culture listened to while doing something else -- than the magnum opi made possible by the LP (such as Exile on Main Street and the CD-era OK Computer) which were made to be worshipped on expensive equipment in the livingrooms of men (rarely women) who could and unfortunately often did hold forth at album length about the music. The very act of playing a magnum opus record on an expensive turntable gained a further religious aspect by virtue of the fact that to play it was to risk scratching it and thus violating its precious sonic fidelity. Whatever their musical virtues, a lot of Greatest Albums Ever Made weren't very rock-and-roll. Let's not mourn their passing too intensely.

Posted by: Sam Penrose [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 06:13 PM

itunes has "album only" tracks (tracks which can only be downloaded when you buy the whole album). Anyone know who decides which those are? Apple or the artist?

Posted by: dubdub [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 07:53 PM

Clifton, you're nuts. Radiohead is really quite good. They're smart and tight, comparatively quite minimalist (yet sophisticated) about electronics, and treat electronics as instrument. Maybe their particular works don't do it for you but I think they've nudged the art forward and someone following them will probably please you better.

Having twice flattered him, I thought we should muck up Nick's blog somehow,

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 08:35 PM

It's been odd to watch how personally Apple's hard-core customers have taken some of the decisions that have been made lately, i.e. ringtones, iPhone pricing changes, and the speed with which Apple has locked up the phone as it's been hacked.

It's pretty well documented that Apple and Radiohead can't come to terms for selling their music as album-only. It'll be interesting to see whether Amazon's new mp3 store will put pressure on Apple to do away from their blanket pricing scheme. That may, or may not, be a good thing.

The larger point is whether a company as large as Apple can continue to be run with the obsessive control that Jobs appears to exercise over the products. That quest for perfection is a double-edged sword: it results in products with a quality that is often magical, but as they enter markets where customer's expectations are well-developed, Jobs may need to cede some control.

Posted by: Timothy Swan [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 08:58 PM

For a band that's released singles in the past, I have a hard time taking their stance seriously.

Well, at least they don't have a greatest hits album.

Posted by: Steve Sabol [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 09:04 PM

As much as it's tempting to view Jobs the personality and Apple the corporation as one and the same, there are some very business-oriented reasons to keep the iPhone locked down:

1. Apple gets a monopoly on software.

2. AT&T's contract may require it for whatever irrational reason they have.

3. As the current "iBrick" situation has shown, tech support gets much more difficult when they allow 3rd-party software. And since most people won't use 3rd-party software even if it's allowed, it becomes a matter of 5% of the customers using 80% of the support resources.

4. Most users won't understand the distinction between 3rd-party software problems and iPhone problems, and the iPhone's reputation for being beautiful / stable / usable is at risk. (Think of the reputation PalmOS has at this point.)

All of these can be overcome if 3rd-party software is well-regulated by Apple, and I believe that will be forthcoming. But I think Apple is more of a business and less of a Jobsian art movement than most of us suspect.

Posted by: Michael Moncur [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 09:27 PM

Coincidentally, Radiohead this evening announced their new album, In Rainbows, and is allowing people to preorder the download version through the band's web site at any price the buyer wants. Now there's a pricing scheme that I doubt iTunes is going to embrace.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2007 10:01 PM

> It does sell full albums
My bad: I meant "without the separate files"

Interesting take on "album only tracks".

About RadioHead being bad; it is not really relevant to Apple exec's: what counts is that it is a big "mover" (makes disk move from shelves to shopping carts, virutal or not) especially amoung core iTunes users. Most artists with similar figures has been "featured", or promoted in a way by Apple: it certainly is not a mistake.

> Now there's a pricing scheme that I doubt iTunes is going to embrace

Well, eMusic has been playing that tune for a while (fixed mountly fee, actually, but it's the same idea that marginal price is low): wait until Apple sets up a "gift program" (buy one, get onr free for a friend), wait for the revenue of the mainstream artists to become less then the revenue by indie groups. Apple has tried to shake the industry, it has proven the most successful large player and it is is they interest to "move" not tracks, but their expensive hard drives: who expects the 16Go in an iPod to be filled with iTunes tracks?

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 2, 2007 11:28 PM

I do disagree with you that the Radiohead/iPhone comparision makes Jobs seem hypocritical - one is about the USP of the iTunes store - that you can buy single tracks off albums, and one seems to be more about not making rogue apps crash 'iPhone'.

I think that Jobs sees the iPhone as a closed/sealed consumer electronics device - rather like the original iPod et al.

However the people who complain about this, see the iPhone as a 'platform' like Windows or OS X and therefore feel that Apple is short-changing them by not allowing them to install apps, hack the GUI etc. - in short all you'd be able to do with a traditional PC platform.

The problem is here, that the iPhone was never introduced as a platform, so for people to complain re. this is somewhat disingenuous.

In the end, I'm sure that the iPhone - sorry 'iPhone' no 'the' - will be opened up and a SDK provided but only once Apple are sure that curious users won't be able to trash their phones because of putting a poorly written app on it, or making sure that malicious apps won't suddenly be able to ring $3 per minute numbers without your knowledge etc.

However, I agree with you that Jobs would probably react with horror at the sort of apps that someone like Scoble is likely to litter their iPhone with!

As for Radiohead and distribution on iTunes - well they're swimming against the tide as the industry is moving away from the notion since the late 60s that the album is the definitive statement back to the singles/single track market.

Up to Radiohead I suppose - but I'd say that they're not immune to the universal law which decrees that 2-3 tracks on albums must be stunningly average...

Posted by: Simon [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 3, 2007 08:02 AM

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