Paul Graham’s wrong on the value of a hacker culture (sadly)


I love Paul's essays, but he's way off-base in his latest analysis of Yahoo's rise and fall. I've no bone to pick with the historical section, but his conclusion that "in the software business, you can't afford not to have a hacker-centric culture" can be contradicted with a single word. Apple.

Apple is an amazing company, but Steve Jobs is the anti-hacker. Most of the values we love like openness and configurability fly in the face of his obsession with a transcendental  experience for ordinary users. Third-party developers are a necessary evil, to be kept tightly constrained lest they screw up that experience. Internally they have some of the most amazing developers I've ever met, the standard is astonishing, but the designers are in complete control. Hackers love to experiment in public. Apple is obsessed with putting on a seamlessly well-rehearsed performance, so failures have to happen in private or there's hell to pay.

I could go on and on listing Apple's sometimes rocky relationship with its open-source projects or its willingness to compete with its own third-party developers, but the bottom line is that Steve has built a culture where hacker values are marginalized but he still manages to both produce amazing products and make massive amounts of money. He does so by obsessing about the user experience above all else, and he'd have no qualms about out-sourcing the code development to China just like the manufacturing, if he could get the same quality of output. He doesn't have any more affection for programmers than for anyone else involved in the product and sees designers as a lot more central to the process.

The sad thing is that I'd love a 'hacker-centric culture' to be an essential requirement for large software companies. I lost far too much time at SciFoo when I discovered the Inventables stand in the Googleplex, and I'd be in heaven if all corporations catered to my obsessions like that. I just can't justify that argument with the evidence, and on the basis of this essay, neither can Paul.

One response

  1. While we’ve not for a long time seen something out of Apple as hacker-friendly as the Apple II (the Apple II Reference Manual, with its complete set of schematics and commented source for the ROM is one of my favourite books of all time), clearly there are, or have been until recently, serious hackers at Apple. I wouldn’t have minded at all myself working on the original Mac project, and the switch to BSD Unix as the base of MacOS X is without question something driven by hackers, even if they don’t give the sort of access to it hackers outside of Apple would like.
    I’ll admit that for those of us who purchase or write software for Apple products things have changed, and not in a good way, but I think that internally, at least up until recently, the hacker culture is or was still there inside Apple.
    How things will go from here we’ll see.

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