The book also indicates that Jobs yearned to shake up education. Isaacson writes that when Bill Gates visited the ailing Jobs at his house this year, the two discussed why computers had failed to significantly improve education—and how digital, interactive learning materials could be tailored to individual students. That could lead to more fruitful teacher-student interactions, Gates observed, because educators could offer more detailed assessments and feedback. Jobs seems to have seen educational publishers the way he once saw Hollywood and the music industry—as dinosaurs needing him to save them from extinction. Even before Gates came by his house, Jobs and Rupert Murdoch had shared ideas about how to transform the textbook industry. Jobs wanted to make expensive textbooks obsolete and liberate students from having to carry heavy backpacks. Alas, textbook publishing remains unreformed—for now.
TV gives Apple another knot to untangle. Like Google and other Silicon Valley companies, Apple has tried and so far failed to do much to improve television, an industry that remains governed by arcane and closed business models. Jobs told Isaacson this year that he finally had an answer: an “integrated television set that is completely easy to use.” It would be synchronized with iCloud, so people could view nearly any content on their big living room screens, and they would no longer have to struggle with bizarre remote controls. “I finally cracked it,” he told the author. But Apple has yet to announce anything.
Even as we try to discern what Jobs wanted Apple to pursue without him, it’s hard to read Steve Jobs without seeing ways that the company, and in turn the consumer electronics industry, might benefit from a less obsessive CEO. Isaacson recounts the story of how Jobs refused to let Adobe’s Flash software run on the iPhone and the iPad because he thought Flash performed poorly. Yet Jobs went even further than that: he also banned software developers from using an Adobe “cross-platform compiler”—a tool that would let developers write applications once and have them work on multiple devices, whether they ran Flash or not.
Isaacson sees a virtue in that edict, because it forced developers to work harder to create programs that were truly tailored to Apple devices and took full advantage of what those devices made possible. “On that he was right,” Isaacson writes. “Losing the ability to differentiate Apple’s platforms—allowing them to become commoditized like HP and Dell machines—would have meant death for the company.”
On that Isaacson is wrong. It’s a big overstatement. Isaacson himself notes that Apple eventually rescinded restrictions on cross-platform compilers. And for good reason: the ban wasn’t really necessary. Apple’s control of its hardware design gives it many ways to outshine competing devices. The company doesn’t necessarily suffer if Web pages, for instance, show up as beautifully on rival tablets as they do on the iPad, as long as the overall experience of using the iPad is superior.
Jobs himself advocated an open and universal Web standard, HTML5, as a replacement for Flash. Apple’s beef with Adobe was a bit personal—Jobs felt the company had lost its way after founder John Warnock left, and he didn’t think Warnock’s successors showed Apple enough deference. Without Jobs and his personal tastes and grudges, which tended to cast the world in black and white, expect Apple to be a bit more nuanced in how it plays with other companies.