The Right Kind of Tyrant
From the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of NR


Rob Long

Apple computers are nice. They say “Hi.” Your grim, beige Unix-based terminal at work, or your heavy black Dell at home, don’t say “Hi.” They say “ILLEGAL MODE IN KERNEL 1009A5 RESTART” or whatever. 

Apple computers are also irritatingly smug, if that’s possible. Well, not the computers themselves — although the early Mac that said “Hi” did seem, somehow, pleased with itself — but the users. Lord help us! Mac users won’t shut up about their machines. They’re tireless missionaries of the Church of Steve: how much better Macs are than Windows-based computers, how much faster and less susceptible to viruses, how much better looking, how much cooler, which is what it really comes down to. In movies and on television, when characters sit down to work on a computer — and even when one is just there, in the background — it’s almost always a Mac. In the painfully fashionable coffee shop around the corner from my house in Venice Beach, the hipsters all tap their fingers onto some kind of Apple product. Some will be typing on a MacBook Air; some will be poking out text messages on an iPhone; some will be editing music or video on a MacBook Pro; some will be flipping the pages on an eBook on the iPad; and some will manage, somehow, to be doing three of these things at the same time.

And if there’s a Dell user in the pack somewhere, you’ll spot it instantly, like someone wearing a tuxedo with brown shoes.

When I say “hipsters,” of course, I’m speaking very broadly. I’m writing this essay on a MacBook Pro, which syncs automatically to my Dropbox storage file in the cloud, so if I choose to finish proofreading it at the local coffee shop I can do it easily, either on my impossibly slender MacBook Air, or my shiny Verizon-enabled iPad. When my editor calls, wondering where the piece is, his name will flash up on my iPhone, which will allow me to ignore it and get back to the important stuff, like making a new iTunes playlist and scooting farther away from the person using the HP. 

In other words, I am one of those irritating Apple fanatics. If it makes you feel any better, no one is more irritated by this than I am. But given the tiniest opening, I’ll bore you senseless with my devotion to my Phone, my Pad, my Air, my Book. I’ll ignore your glazing eyes, your watch-checking, your backing away, and I’ll just keep going: The machines are better designed and better made, have better software, and are easier to use. The MacBook Pro has revolutionized all media. The iPad is saving the newspaper business. The iPhone has liberated the world. 

Well, not the whole world. Not Cupertino. Although that might change. Steve Jobs, the Tyrant of Cupertino, announced that he is stepping down as Apple’s CEO. A long battle with a form of pancreatic cancer has made it impossible for him to operate at the level of intensity that he’s famous for. His successor, Tim Cook, has assured customers and shareholders that Steve’s relentless perfectionism is embedded deep into the corporate culture. Apple, he insists, will remain Apple.

But when you start using weasel words like “corporate culture,” you’re already tipping your hand. When Cupertino quaked under Tyrant Steve, no one needed to worry about the culture of the place. The culture was simple to understand: fear and unforgiving standards. It wasn’t an easy place to work, but that was part of the appeal: Apple’s engineers and designers didn’t love coming to work despite Steve’s insane temper and unpredictable rants, they loved coming to work because of those things. Because they knew Steve was trying to do great things, trying to revolutionize an entire market, trying to put incredible technology into a beautiful package and into the hands of ordinary people. 

And that’s impossible to do without being “demanding.”

— Rob Long is a contributing editor of National Review and a contributor to Ricochet. This article appeared in the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of National Review.