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Core Contentions

How the epic legal battle between Apple and Samsumg helped unravel the Steve Jobs myth

Author Mark McClusky


CHANCES ARE, YOU ALREADY KNOW the outcome of the 18-month, rock-’em-sock-’em lawsuit between Apple and Samsung. Apple had claimed that some of its rival’s products, including certain Galaxy smartphones, had ventured into the realm of patent infringement. In late August, a jury agreed, awarding Apple more than $1 billion in damages.

Apple v. Samsung held the tech world in thrall. This was high drama, like watching two of the biggest kids in school slug it out in the playground. An element of voyeurism was also involved: Apple is notoriously secretive about its operations, and there was a sort of thrill in seeing its executives being compelled to explain to the world how, for example, its brainstorming sessions are held around something as pedestrian as a kitchen table.

Such mundane details littered the testimony given during the trial. And while taken alone they don’t mean much, their relentless accumulation—particularly with regard to Apple’s design process—must have had the brand managers fingering their collars.

Over the past decade and a half, Apple has not exactly strained to dispel the notion that there is some kind of alchemy going on behind the doors of its Cupertino offices. Steve Jobs has been portrayed—more so since his death last year—as a geek prophet, a man who shot brilliant ideas from his fingertips. As might be expected, followers of the so-called Cult of Mac have all but deified the Great Leader, but even some otherwise sober observers have proven susceptible to the myth.

Walter Isaacson’s megaselling biography of Jobs, published last year, is not short on awkward details—the Apple founder, we learn, would occasionally soak his feet in the toilet (“a practice that was not as soothing for his colleagues”). But Isaacson does little to deflate the notion that there was something preternatural about Jobs’ abilities. “Was he smart?” he writes. “No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.”

When the going was good, testimony at the Samsung trial followed suit. One imagines that Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, was happy to outline his company’s approach to market research. “We don’t use any customer input in the new-product process,” he testified. “We never go and ask the customer, ‘What feature do you want in the next product?’ It’s not the customer’s job to know.” This line reinforces a trope about the genesis of the iPhone and iPad: that they were the result of inspiration rather than legwork.

Similarly, Apple designer Christopher Stringer, who showed up to court in a white suit and proclaimed that his job is to “imagine objects that don’t exist,” would have been applauded for staying on message. But then Stringer’s testimony led us back to that kitchen table, and the “brutally honest circle of debate” that transpired there.

Again, there’s nothing earthshaking about this characterization. Common sense tells us that Apple’s products, as with every product that has ever come to market, would have involved trial and error. Yet here we enter an epistemological gray area. It’s the difference between intuiting that an aging Hollywood actor has undergone cosmetic surgery and knowing exactly what the procedures were. Here we get close to the discomfort to which Apple was subjected during its legal rout of Samsung.

Nobody at Apple, surely, would have been eager to reveal descriptions—and worse, images—of its aborted prototypes. There’s something delightfully intrusive about examining these archetypal distortions: scrawny iPhones, blocky iPhones, weird-looking iPhones with curved glass and beveled edges. Then there’s the early version of the iPhone dubbed “Apple Proto 0956,” an unsightly aluminum slab that looks like the illegitimate child of a MacBook and Sony’s digital Walkman.

The pressure during the unveiling of these prototypes must have been immense. As Isaacson notes, Steve Jobs did not take a nice-try approach with designers who failed to live up to expectations: “A person was either a hero or a bozo, a product was either amazing or …” Here the author uses a colorful adjective suggestive of Jobs’ exacting standards.

So what we end up with after the suit is a picture of a company whose design procedures were more pedestrian than the myth makers would have us believe. We see a team of 15 designers sitting around a kitchen table, not disciples or demigods but error-prone employees working in the shadow of a demanding boss. These are the folks who built Apple into the world’s most valuable company—and that may be the most compelling story yet.

Wired special projects editor MARK MCCLUSKY would like to point out that he wrote this article in one sitting, no tinkering required.

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