Is Apple Park’s Ring the Last Folly of Steve Jobs?


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Before you know it, Apple will be all moved in to its new $5 billion headquarters. Steven Levy got a sneak-peek tour of the company’s massive, solar-powered, perfectionist “Ring,” and shares it in Wired.

The spaceship has its own “breathing” system to circulate outside air for its 12,000 workers. White glass canopy fins rim its sides (they make the whole thing look like a giant vent for the planet to release fumes). Four-story, 440,000-lb. glass doors powered by underground engines open onto the enormous lunchroom. Open work-pods designed to foster collaboration fill the interior. Outside, open space planted with 9000 trees aims to facilitate long, idea-generating ambles. Gigantic steel “base isolators” should keep the whole place working through a quake.

The structure shouts “hubris” to anyone peering at it from the outside. But inside, as Levy observes, it’s an oasis that could fulfill Steve Jobs’ dying wish — to give Apple employees a work-park that inspires creativity: “The Ring looks like an ominous icon, an expression of corporate power, and a what-the-fuck oddity among the malls, highways, and more mundane office parks of suburban Silicon Valley. But peering out the windows and onto the vast hilly expanse of the courtyard, all of that peels away. It feels … peaceful, even amid the clatter and rumble of construction. It turns out that when you turn a skyscraper on its side, all of its bullying power dissipates into a humble serenity.”

Critics have noted the absence of childcare facilities, the isolation from city life (what would Jane Jacobs say?), the inflexibility of the design, and the message of exclusion to non-Apple employees — and even those Apple workers who don’t make the cut for a seat in the Ring. History suggests that monumental office projects aren’t how companies produce great new ideas; they’re where corporations go to die.

Levy provides tons of remarkable details but end up asking important questions: “Is Apple Park the arcadia outlined by Jobs in his public farewell, or is it an anal-retentive nightmare of indulgence gone wild?… Didn’t Apple create its marvelous Apple II in a bedroom and its ground­breaking Macintosh in a low-slung office park building?”

Amazon Keeps Winning by Opening Itself to Competitors

Last week we told you about Flexe, the warehouse-space broker that is building a fulfillment alternative to Amazon. It’s a fascinating effort. But, as Zack Kanter reminds us in TechCrunch, there’s one big problem: It’s hard to go up against Amazon offering more “open” versions of its services, because Amazon itself is so consistently good at opening up its own services.

Here is how Kanter puts it, with more precision: “Each piece of Amazon is being built with a service-oriented architecture, and Amazon is using that architecture to successively turn every single piece of the company into a separate platform — and thus opening each piece to outside competition.”

We tend to understand that this is how Amazon Web Services works, but Kanter argues that Amazon mirrors the same approach in each of its business units — Fulfillment By Amazon is his chief example. The company opens up its system to outsiders, but also continues to be one of its own biggest customers, providing a super-efficient feedback and optimization loop.

As the retail business begins to make seismic adjustments in response to the maturation of online shopping, it will keep trying to copy Amazon. Each time, Kanter suggests, it will find that Amazon was there first, does a better job, and will be happy to provide service. How do you compete with that?

Why Does So Much of Our Tech Cut People Out?

Tech keeps getting better at cutting people out of the picture. Services that “remove the need to deal with humans directly” are efficient and make life easier for introverts. But what, asks David Byrne, are we losing along the way?

“I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if that pattern means there are other possible roads we could be going down, and that the way we’re going is not in fact inevitable, but is (possibly unconsciously) chosen….Our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun — they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation and we are less complete as people or as a society.”

As we marvel at self-driving cars and on-demand delivery services, we should also keep Byrne’s questions in mind. As he argues, when new tech bypasses people, it’s a design pattern, not a law of physics.

Deep Inside Your Bank’s Software Beats a Heart of COBOL

COBOL, the mainframe-era programming language, is still in wide use, particularly in the banking world. That’s a problem, because fewer and fewer people know COBOL, and those who do are dying all the time (David Cassel in The New Stack).

Many of today’s developers hate working with the old code. But schools are still teaching COBOL, since the companies that rely on it show no signs of migrating away. The old programs are buried under so many newer layers of code that nobody wants to risk seeing what would happen if you tried to excise them.

Today’s programs are tomorrow’s legacy systems. So before you kids snicker, remember that, 40 years from now, you may be called out of retirement to fix the Javascript and Swift you’re writing now.

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