Corporations are like people, but they’re not

US law enshrines the idea that a corporation is an entity, an individual but the legislators obviously didn’t really think this one through when it was enshrined in statute at the end of the 19th century.

And that’s why it should surprise no-one at all that Apple’s Steve Jobs snarled at Google and even used some horrid semi-swear roads at the very notion that it “wasn’t evil”.

And Google, let’s face it, is no better. Every corporation has its own culture and they vary from the benign to the downright malignant. Sometimes, like Intel, they have been rather malignant but these days are all sweetness and light.

It often depends on the CEO of the company – if he or she has a particular axe to grind, it trickles down throughout the hierarchy. When Andy Grove was heading Intel he coined the phrase “only the paranoid survive” – and when he ruled the roost, that mantra galvanized the entire company. Getting information from the company from outside was nigh impossible, and anecdotes told to me by people who worked for Intel confirmed that. One guy I knew had been to school with his buddy, lived in the same street as him, their kids went to the same school but when he dared to go work for AMD, he told me he was instructed never to socialize with his friend again. Of course he ignored that missive.

And after Steve Jobs left Apple the first time, he went and started his own company called NeXT. At a press conference at the world famous London Palladium theater in the West End, Jobs brooked few questions from his journalistic audience and those he did answer revealed him to be a very self confident, some might say arrogant individual, convinced of his own rightness and the virtue of his machine. Apple bought NeXT.  Apple seeks to portray itself to outsiders as a trendy chic company but that’s just image and marketing fluff. It’s a money making engine driven and micro-managed by a man that after recovering from a liver transplant still won’t give up.

Microsoft presents itself as a model of innovation but it is entirely fair to say that a very large percentage of the software it’s ever produced has been derivative. That includes Microsoft Windows itself – the graphical user interface idea was far from new when Microsoft launched it. It’s never come out, to the best of my memory, with any software application that hadn’t already done before.  Innovation is a word that covers up a money making engine, driven by hard headed marketing and sales people that know how to spin a convincing yarn.

IBM has the reputation of being a moderate company. Founded by Quakers it presents itself to the world as a cultured giant, interested in the welfare of all humanity. But in reality it too is a money making engine and has been convicted in the past of antitrust activities, just like Microsoft. My favorite anecdote at Big Blue is about the old mainframe days. When people wanted to upgrade their memory, a special engineer from IBM was called in to do the trick. He had to be in the glass house on his own, and that’s because rather than install extra memory, he just turned a screwdriver and set the memory that was already there to go.

And so to Google. Sometimes I feel that mission statements betray exactly the opposite traits to those that they express. I’m not saying Google is evil – it’s a money machine too, and has shaken up the news and publishing sectors in what some might describe as a cynical and one pointed way.

And that’s my point. Corporations are not like individual human beings. They’re not good, they’re not evil, they don’t fall in love, they don’t burst into tears and they don’t give you a hug when you need one.  That’s what needs to be borne in mind when Steve Jobs lashes into Google, or any other company for that matter. It’s him that’s human, not Apple.