Steve Jobs: the genius rebel who saw the world – computers included – differently from the rest of us.
Steve Jobs once cheated his Apple co-founder out of bonus money and then, when it was disclosed a decade later, denied having done so.
As a CEO, he routinely ignored concerns over additional manufacturing expenses in order to deliver sleeker designs and wow his customers.
Jobs accumulated enormous wealth as he fought for millions of stock options but never hired security guards, often lacked basic furniture, and refused to live in a gated neighborhood.
He embraced the teachings of Zen Buddhism yet was never at peace, berating allies and employees with cruel remarks almost until his dying day.
These are just a few of the contradictions and idiosyncrasies included in Walter Isaacson’s splendid biography, Steve Jobs, a nuanced, balanced portrait that is sure to become mandatory reading for anyone with an interest in big business and popular culture. Over the course of roughly 30 years, Jobs transformed the way people create and consume entertainment and information while conjuring a cult of personality as the turtleneck-wearing oracle from Apple.
Jobs died last month at the age of 56, triggering a reaction that might have been expected for a rock star. Fans set up impromptu memorials, held vigils and cried while clutching candles and, yes, iPhones.
Jobs, of course, was a rock star to many rock stars (Bono among them), not to mention tech geeks, business leaders, politicians (Bill Clinton was a friend), movie stars (Tom Hanks), and millions of consumers he never met but nonetheless seduced. During his relentless career, Jobs transformed a slew of industries, starting with personal computers (the original Macintosh) and later morphing into movie animation (Pixar), music (the iPod), shopping (the stylish Apple stores that changed the way tech products are sold), smartphones and, most recently, tablet computers (the iPad).
Jobs handpicked Isaacson as his biographer after a recurrence of cancer. It was, like so many of his moves, brilliant. Isaacson first declined Jobs’ request, but later relented. The author of best-selling biographies of Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein, Isaacson received extensive access to Jobs, conducting 40 interviews with him during the past two years and also gaining access to friends, family, current and former business partners, and rivals such as Microsoft founder and fellow billionaire Bill Gates. Most important, Isaacson retained complete editorial control.
Despite that, his introduction to the book could leave prospective readers with the wrong impression. Isaacson acknowledges being charmed by Jobs, possible foreshadowing for a fawning portrait. Instead, the book is anything but hagiography, to the benefit of all involved. As Jobs tells Isaacson in their final interview, conducted earlier this year as the Apple chairman lay dying, “I know there will be a lot in your book I won’t like.”
That there is, mostly in the form of rudeness, verbal cruelty, and neglect. As the mother of his first child says, “He was an enlightened being who was cruel. That’s a strange combination.”
He was also a genius, as Isaacson makes clear through anecdotes, interviews, and clear-eyed analysis of Jobs’ life and career.
Given up for adoption by his Syrian father and American mother, Jobs grew up middle class in northern California. He displayed intelligence and defiance from an early age, traits that stretched into adulthood. Rules never applied to Jobs, which explains why his cars never had license plates, his personal hygiene was atrocious, and he often padded through high-level corporate meetings in bare feet.
Paul and Clara Jobs adopted Steve upon birth. Even after learning he had been adopted, Jobs considered Paul and Clara his true parents and never acknowledged or contacted his biological father even after learning his identity as an adult.
Paul Jobs was an inveterate tinkerer who restored cars and sold them as a side job. Though electronics captured Steve’s imagination from a young age, a sense of craftsmanship in everything Paul Jobs did also caught his eye.
“He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see,” Jobs said of his father, recalling a trait that any Apple engineer or designer could appreciate (and sometimes lament). Bevels, rounded edges, and all of the other perfectionist touches included in Apple products started with Jobs watching his father build fences, cabinets, and cars.
Jobs, like Gates, dropped out of college and never earned a degree. After dabbling in psychedelic drugs, communal life, and veganism at Reed College, Jobs decided he had no interest in pursuing a traditional course load.
In typical fashion, he talked his way into an unusual arrangement, negotiating with the school to audit classes of interest and skip the rest. One of those classes he sampled, calligraphy, later contributed to the way that the Macintosh would spur a desktop publishing revolution with its array of fonts, impeccable spacing, and attention to every detail of typography.
Emotionally, Jobs was immature and bratty almost without fail. Temperamental artist would be a euphemistic description in his case.
In the rest of his life, Jobs ran well ahead of the pack. As a fourth-grader, he tested at a 10th-grade level.
Even after dropping out of Reed and wandering through India on a spiritual quest, Jobs still managed to found Apple and take it public in December 1980, a move that made him worth a quarter of a billion dollars at age 25.
Beyond wealth, he attained celebrity. For a while, he dated protest singer Joan Baez, who was not only smart and attractive but carried the distinction of being the former lover of Bob Dylan, who was a lifelong hero to Jobs.
At 23, Jobs fathered a child, Lisa, with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan. He mostly ignored Lisa, with late but lasting regrets.
“I didn’t want to be a father, so I wasn’t,” Jobs said.
It is hard to remember, but there was a time when computers were intimidating instead of coveted. They were also confounding, shaped like clunky boxes with lousy screens and fonts, no graphics and an irritating, blinking cursor.
Jobs changed all of that with the Macintosh, then helped start the company on a downward spiral before being ousted in the mid-1980s.
From flops to smash hits, Isaacson offers a breezy but detailed account of what Jobs achieved – and the prideful, arrogant mistakes that led first to his ouster and then to his amazing Apple encore beginning in 1997.
Braun appliances and Cuisinarts – examples of the Bauhaus aesthetic of simple, clean design Jobs adored – inspired much of what came to be the classic Apple motif. Constant revision and demands to simplify the experience for the user became mantras, completing an extraordinary push that took computers from baffling to wistful and fun.
After launching the Mac and becoming a multimillionaire many times over in his 20s, Jobs wandered through his 30s before he added an incredible burst of creative wizardry during his 40s.
The latter period began with Pixar, a company he fell into but nurtured after buying it from George Lucas. In 1995, after the company had dabbled in computerized animated short features as well as hardware and software, Pixar released “Toy Story,” the start of a string of successes that would eventually make the company a trusted brand name as big as Disney. It also made Jobs even richer and allowed him to leverage a sale to Disney while Pixar retained creative control of its movies.
Two years after bringing Buzz Lightyear into the world, Jobs engineered the ultimate comeback and convinced Apple to bring him back into the fold. After initial hesitancy, Jobs became first interim CEO and then the company’s permanent leader.
When Jobs returned, market share had plunged to 4 percent, but, soon enough, Apple would develop a string of hits that made it the most valuable – and beloved – technology company in the world.
Again and again, Isaacson shows how Jobs took constant risks (board members, for example, thought the idea of opening Apple retail stores was awful and analysts agreed), demanded perfection, and narrowed the focus to several projects to ensure top-notch design.
By 2010, Apple stores alone accounted for $10 billion in annual sales, with no end in sight.
Friends and rivals spoke of Jobs' “reality distortion,” an ability to will things to happen, or not. In a similar vein, Jobs often ignored things he didn’t want to believe or consider. Isaacson suggests that this trait could have played a role in the recurrence of the cancer with which he was diagnosed eight years before his death.
Jobs waited a crucial nine months before submitting to surgery to remove tumors, but, by the time he did so, the cancer had spread.
The pain of bouts with cancer during the final years of Jobs' life was exacerbated by a lifelong penchant for extreme diets and fasting. From his teens on, Jobs would eat one or two foods for weeks on end and then abruptly give them up in favor of another fad diet. He believed vegetarianism prevented body odor and made bathing mostly unnecessary, a belief colleagues knew to be wrong based on extensive first-hand evidence to the contrary.
Few things excited Jobs as much as his work. In 1991, he married and, despite frequent absences, forged a successful family life, a credit to his patient but strong wife, Laurene Powell.
Some of the juiciest tidbits can be found in Isaacson’s accounts of the Jobs-Gates rivalry, a competition summed up as a battle between open and closed tech strategies.
Microsoft made software for multiple computers and platforms, from personal computers to Macs. Functional was fine for Gates. This philosophy disgusted Jobs, who once said Microsoft lacked aesthetic sensibilities (“they just have no taste”) and disparaged Gates as “basically unimaginative.”
Gates offered a backhanded compliment of his own. Jobs, he said, “really never knew much about technology, but he had an amazing instinct for what works.”
Jobs, defying his Zen beliefs, sought complete control in a closed system that revolved around Apple keeping tight grips on the hardware and software of its products, a seamless combination that guaranteed consistency – and greater sales. (Apple makes it impossible for buyers to even look inside its products, sealing them with custom made screws and parts to ensure inscrutability.) Creating the iTunes store for online music purchases and making it compatible only with the iPod ensured huge sales for both while also reinforcing the notion of the Mac as the hub for all of these digital wonders. More recently, another Jobs notion, the iCloud, has again tied multiple Apple products together.
To be sure, Jobs didn’t invent many of these products, or invent them alone, anyway. (His name is on hundreds of patents with others from Apple.) He did nurture them with constant critiques and revisions and he used sheer willpower to deliver better and better products people never knew they needed. In characteristic fashion, he scoffed at the idea of asking consumers what they wanted. As he put it after the Mac debuted in 1984, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?”
Jobs can be summed up in his own advertising slogan: Think different. He did, and Isaacson is to be commended for explaining the genius of Jobs in fascinating fashion, launching a discussion that could reach infinity and beyond.
Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for the Monitor.