November 3, 2011
The Book of Jobs
Here’s to the crazy ones…Take a bite out of this dishy new bio on Apple’s avatar Steve Jobs
By Nancy Staab
Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs’s i-genius abides in his Apple legacy and in the latest unvarnished bio by Walter Isaacson. Here are the highlights
Let’s get this out of the way first. This is not an objective book review. I am besotted by Steven Jobs’s products, ground-breaking advertisements, design acumen, creativity, vision and daring. No warts-and-all biography, including this one, will dismantle his golden aura in my eyes. But…as this official bio Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon Schuster) makes clear, Jobs was not necessarily the nicest person on the block. He liked to cut people down with his withering critiques and stares; frequently and egregiously parked in handicap spaces (Apple employees put up “Park Different” signs on his car as a joke and a play on Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign); regularly neglected his wife Laurene and their three children; and also refused to acknowledge his first out-of-wedlock daughter Lisa until she was about ten. He was often deliberately untruthful (Job intimates called it his “reality distortion field”) and he was sometimes disloyal to his most stalwart Apple co-conspirators.
However, one has to acknowledge Jobs's visionary talents and the way in which he single-handedly not only created iconic products that wedded art and technology and fostered two great companies (Apple and Pixar), but transformed countless industries with one swipe of his genius. As Isaacson states, without hyperbole, in his introduction:
“This is a book about the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. You might even add a seventh, retail stores.”
Jobs personally recruited Isaacson, the author of formidable biographies on Einstein, Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin and former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, to pen the piece. And Jobs collaborated up until his death with the project, which was then rushed to press to capitalize on the heightened interest in Jobs generated by his untimely death at age 56 of pancreatic cancer. Jobs and his wife Laurene were adamant that the book should be honest and comprehensive, and not a whitewashed portrayal of Job’s complex personality. Isaacson did not disappoint. In the process of putting together this immensely, at times tediously detailed (in terms of some of the high-tech discussions and accounts of corporate backstabbing) book, Isaacson interviewed more than a hundred of Jobs’s friends, relatives, competitors, adversaries and colleagues. What emerges is a man deeply flawed but also deeply gifted, who was driven relentlessly by his pursuit of perfectionism to achieve almost super-human things. If you want to read about Jobs’s glowing talents and achievements up to the invention of the iPod and minus the negatives: check out The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy. It is a love letter to the iPod and an inspiration piece. But, Isaacson’s 571-paged bio is a richer picture of the man, himself, and there are many endearing and revealing tidbits in this fairly juicy read.
Jobs’s Formative Years
The book begins with Jobs’s rather idyllic childhood-- growing up in a tract house in the suburbs of what would be known as Silicon Valley as the coddled and adopted son of Clara and Paul Jobs. (Isaacson plays up the “specialness” of Jobs's adoption as a running motif in the book and argues that his parents instilled him with this belief early on. He says it’s an attitude that primed his great successes and “magical thinking.”)
We see Jobs accompanying his dad on junkyard trips to scavenge for parts for his dad’s side business of refurbishing and reselling used cars. Jobs later insistence that even the internal, unseen parts of a computer be works of art, was the result of his dad’s own insistence on craftsmanship.
Young Jobs also tinkered with Ham radios and Heathkits, and in one instance called up the CEO of Hewlett Packard for advice! He was later offered a summer internship at HP, where he encountered his very first 40 lb. desktop computer.
Naturally, Jobs was rebellious, free-spirited and willful from the start. Bored in school, he would come up with impish pranks like lighting minor explosives underneath a teacher’s chair, putting up erroneous “Bring your pet to school day” posters, switching all the combinations in the bicycle racks, or wiring his entire home with hidden speakers.
Flower Power Meets Processor Power
As a teenager in the groovy ‘60s he delved deep into Zen Buddhism (a preoccupation that would last his entire life, though his antic temperament was always at odds with the tenets of Zen calm); read widely from Plato and Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas and Herman Melville; and dropped his fair share of acid. The latter may seem a trivial experience, but not for Jobs, who referred to it throughout his life as a seminal experience. The drug was perhaps his first glimpse of the way he could transcend the normal restraints of life and achieve dreamy, visionary things. A teenage Jobs also developed a life-long love of music, which later fueled the iPod invention. Particularly, he was a fanatic about Bob Dylan and The Beatles. (Jobs also had a several-years affair with folk singer Joan Baez when he was 27 and she was 41.)
Contrary to popular belief, Apple company was not named after The Beatles, whose own business company was named Apple Corps, but inspired by Jobs’s stint on an apple commune in his college years. He said that “apple” took the edge of the word “computer” and allowed his company to be listed ahead of Atari in the phone book. Oh yes, and, speaking of fruit, Jobs was also a life-long experimenter in kooky diets like the all-fruit fruitarian one, or the more mainstream vegan diet he followed throughout his life. As a college student, he spent time in India seeking for a guru--though his prescient spiritual guider wisely pointed him in the direction of business rather than spirituality. As Isaacson notes: In Southern California in the late 1960s, a “hacker subculture filled with wireheads, phreakers, cypberpunks, hobbyists and just plain geeks” coalesced with the hippie movement. In turn, that “fusion of flower power and processor power, enlightenment and technology, was embodied by Steve Jobs.”
Jobs attended the ultra-liberal Reed College in Oregon, but benefitted more from the college once he used his force of personality to convince the Dean of Students to give him the freedom to only pursue the courses that interested him and not the ones required. One of those courses would be calligraphy--an experiences that stuck with Jobs and played into his purist love for design and, later, the creation of elegant fonts for his Apple computer.
The most famous incident of his childhood, when a high school-aged Jobs met up with the slightly older but socially awkward techie Stephen Woznicak, is recounted in detail. History was made when the two tech rebels started up the rudiments of Apple Computer Company in the garage of Jobs’s family home in 1976. By 1980, when Jobs was 25, Apple was valued at $1.79 billion. However, throughout his career, Jobs always liked to identify himself with the outsiders, pirates, counter-culture and rebels, even as he came to represent the most valuable company on earth. Hence, the famous script for one of his Apple products, which Jobs helped pen. (It also serves well as Jobs’s own perfect eulogy):
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field
The book also outlines the definite sturm und drang of Jobs’s personality: the laser-like generosity of his focus or his withering put-downs or neglect. His binary mind seemed to work in extremes: everyone was either a “genius” or a “bozo” in Jobs’s eyes and this applied to both his career and his personal life. Jobs was both deeply romantic and coldly callous in his personal dealings. For example, after a tender marriage proposal to Laurene, he refused to bring up the subject again for weeks. As Issacson outlines: “Jobs had a way of focusing on someone with insane intensity for a while and then, abruptly turning away his gaze…He had the power to focus like a laser beam, and when it came across you, you basked in the light of his attention. When it moved to another point of focus, it was very dark for you.”
A former love of Jobs’s, an ethereal, spiritual beauty named Tina Redse said, according to the book, that she was “entranced by him but she was also baffled by how uncaring he could be. She would later recall how incredibly painful it was to be in love with someone so self-centered. Caring deeply about someone who seemed incapable of caring was a particular kind of hell that she wouldn’t wish on anyone.” And daughter Lisa backed this up by stating of Jobs: “the capacity for empathy is lacking.”
At the same time, Jobs could be captivating and the force field of his personality was almost irresistible. One Pixar employee likened him to a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher: “ I grew up Southern Baptist, and we had revival meetings with mesmerizing by corrupt preachers. Steve’s got it: the power of the tongue and the web of words that catches people up.”
Employees at Apple came to refer to the combination of his charisma and his will to force things to happen within constraints that don’t seem possible as his “reality distortion field.” –as Isaacson desbribes it-- “a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.”
It’s this same force that drove employees to proudly wear t-shirts that said “Working 90 hours per week and loving it.” It also, as Isaacson points out, “enabled Jobs to inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a fraction of the resources of Xerox of IBM…You did the impossible because you didn’t realize it was impossible.”
Jobs's dad had taught him that the back of a chest of drawers has to be crafted as beautifully as the front even though it was set against a wall and no body would see the back side. This was a design lesson not lost on young Jobs. When it came time to furnish his own, remarkably unassuming pads, Jobs was so particular about his furnishings that his homes remained largely unfurnished. Later, Jobs would haunt the aisles of gleaming department stores like Macy’s seeking (and finding) design inspiration for his products in the sinuous curves of appliances like the Cuisinart. Aesthetic experience, the tactile feel and look of a product was always of utmost importance. Keep in mind that Jobs was the one to create the first candy-colored computers and iPods. He advocated elegant fonts and named them after world-class cities like London and Monaco.
He later became a proponent of simple clean modernism for the masses and the spare functionality of the Bauhaus movement—the “less is more” school of thought.--whittling down the design of the iPod until only an elegant track wheel and screen remained. The pure white object and its white earphones soon became iconic. Indeed, so streamlined was the covetable object that it even lacked an on/off switch. Later even the screen was deemed superfluous.
“1,000 songs in your pocket” was his iPod motto. Apple products were reduced to the elegantly elemental and at the same time were made so intuitively easy to understand that a child could operate them. No detail was too small. For example, Jobs was extremely particular about the ephemeral, throw-away packaging of his products—even patenting the Apple packaging. He thought the wrapping of an Apple product should be special and the unwrapping a ritualistic, theatrical experience. In 1997 as the newly restored CEO of Apple, Jobs brought in young, Brit, rock star designer Johnny Ive (the other face behind iPod) and the two have defined Apple’s design DNA ever since. Their first collaboration was the iMac, which Steven Levy of Newsweek described as “ A piece of hardware that blends sci-fi shimmer with the kitsch whimsy of a cocktail umbrella.”
Always with an eye for talent, Jobs tapped Target VP of Merchandising Ron Johnson to help reinvent the retail store. The first Apple store debuted in Tyson’s Corner, VA, in 2001, but perhaps the most famous store is the brilliant glass cube that bowed on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2006. From the genius service bars to the glass staircases and gray-blue Pietra Serena sandstone floors imported from Italy, the stores projected sleek clean design, no-fuss service and created amazing buzz for the brand.
However, design always was wedded to function, never mere surface “veneer” in Jobs’s world, as he once explained to Fortune magazine. Along the way Jobs befriended the young artist Maya Lin, whose minimal Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial of etched names on stone had catapulted her to fame. Lin once said of Jobs: “ His design sensibility is sleek but not slick, and it’s playful. He embraced minimalism , which came from his Zen devotion to simplicity, but he avoided allowing that to make his products cold.”
It is this same marriage of creativity and artistic elegance with high-tech functionalism that Isaacson establishes as the cornerstone of Jobs’s genius. Some of his mottos: “Be insanely great” and “Never compromise.” As for market research, Jobs scoffed “customers don’t know what they want until we show them.” In another instance, Jobs spoke about his own magical blending of art and technology:
“Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and sciences. I like that intersection. There’s something magical about that place. There are a lot of people innovating, and that’s not the main distinction of my career. The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation.”
Closed System Control and the Bill Gates Rivalry
Of course, one cannot wade too far into a book about Jobs without discussing his chief competitor Bill Gates—the two opposing but twin stars of the computer revolution. Early collaborations between the companies soon lead to arch rivaly. Jobs's battle cry came with the 1984 introduction of the McIntosh computer and the Orwellian 1984 advertisement directed by Ridley Scott and seen round the world. This was the first of many theatrical product launches orchestrated by showman Jobs. Both Gates and Jobs were college drop-outs born in the same year, 1955, but that’s where the similarities end. As Isaacson sets it up:
“Gates was good at computer coding, unlike Jobs, and his mind was more practical, disciplined, and abundant in analytical processing power. Jobs was more intuitive and romantic and had a greater instinct for making technology usable, design delightful and interfaces friendly. He had a passion for perfection, which made him fiercely demanding and he managed by charisma and scattershot intensity. Gates was more methodical; he held tightly scheduled product review meeting where he would cut to the heart of issues with lapidary skill.”
According to one Apple employee “Each one thought he was smarter than the other one, but Steve generally treated Bill as someone who was slightly inferior, especially in matters of taste and style. Bill looked down on Steve because he couldn’t actually program ….whereas, Steve once stated of Gates, ‘He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.’” When Microsoft’s Windows, a shameless copy of more elegant Apple products, proved dominant in the market, Jobs realized a universal lesson: innovation and brilliant design don't always win the war. Frustrated, he stated: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste. I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture to their product.” Indeed, when Jobs released his iMacs in several juicy colors, Gates, missing the point, carped, “The one thing Apple’s providing now is leadership in colors” and pointing to a Windows-based PC that he had jokingly painted red, stated “It won’t take long for us to catch up with that, I don’t think.” However, when Gates and Microsoft were blindsided by iTunes, Gates was forced to admit: “Steve Jobs’s ability to focus in on a few things that count, get people who get user interface right, and market things as revolutionary, are amazing things.”
The other fundamental difference between Gates and Jobs was their different attitudes towards the control and licensing of their products. Jobs remained in favor of a closed system: an entirely seamless, closed-garden, perfect Apple-run universe of integrated hardware and software, where if you wanted to enjoy the benefits of Apple programs, operating systems and later iTunes stores or apps, you had to buy the Apple product. It was an issue of absolute creative control for Jobs. Whereas, Gates advocated licensing Microsoft programs out for use on non-Microsoft machines etc. and letting things work in the free market. The jury is still out on which system allows for the best results.
Ousted from Apple, the Prodigal Son Returns
As in all great hero stories, the protagonist at some time must endure a fall from grace. That came with Steve's departure from his own Apple company in 1985 after much corporate backstabbing and an ousting from the Apple President, whom he himself had installed, John Sculley of Pepsi Cola. Jobs had famously lured Sculley to Apple by asking, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Now Scully was giving Jobs the boot. In the ensuing interim, Isaacson argues that Jobs was allowed free reign at NeXT Computer and then Pixar to “indulge all his instincts good and bad,” to make brilliant flops and successes and that this was the real learning curve for Jobs, not the ousting itself.
During this time, Jobs built a corporate HQ for NeXT worthy of an international architecture journal with an I. M Pei designed and trademarked floating, glass staircase, while his futuristic, all-white factory was so pristine that you could eat off its floors. Electronic Data Systems billionaire Ross Perot became an oddball cheerleader and investor for Jobs’s new company. In a prescient move, Jobs included the complete Oxford edition of Shakespeare on the NeXT computers—in essence he had created the first digital books decades before iPad, Kindle and Nook existed. OF course, in typical fashion, Jobs hyped it by saying “There has not been an advancement in the state of the art of printed book technology since Gutenberg.” At the unveiling, Jobs even had a violinist from the San Francisco Symphony play a Bach piece in duet with the NeXT computer. Nevertheless the machine was doomed, falling in no man’s land between the personal computer and work station.
Pixar, however, was another matter. Ironically Jobs had once tried to convince Sculley to buy Pixar for Apple. At Pixar, Jobs struck a cunning deal with Disney for co-branding of products and the result was two words: Toy Story and the mammoth success that came from this revolutionary piece of computer animation. Toy Story transformed the movie industry overnight. Jobs wisely took Pixar public on the date of the release of Toy Story in Nov. 1995, so confident was he of its success, and it became the biggest IPO of the year, exceeding Netscape.
With the purchase by Apple of NeXT in 1996, Jobs was offered re-entry into the company he had founded. As Isaacson states: “In returning to Apple, Jobs would show that [contrary to his own theory] people over forty could be great innovators. Having transformed personal computers in his twenties, he would now help to do the same for music players, the recording industry’s business model, mobile phones, apps, tablet computers, books, and journalism”
In a seminal meeting upon his return to Apple, Jobs asked his team “OK, tell me what’s wrong with this place” and impatiently answered himself with: “It’s the products! …The products suck! “ he shouted “There’s no sex in them anymore!” Jobs proceeded to pare down the multiple products to the essentials, presumably brought back the sexy and reinstalled brilliant ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, who had crafted the 1984 ad, to create a new message for the new Apple. The result was the famous heroes campaign: “Here’s to the crazy ones…” and the “Think Different” motto.
The heroes of the campaign, most hand-picked by Jobs from his personal pantheon, included Einstein, Ghandi, Lennon, Dylan, Picasso, Edison, Chaplin, King, Bobby Kennedy, Jim Henson, Martha Graham, Ansel Adams, Richard Fenyman, Maria Callas, Frank Lloyd Wright, James Watson and Amelia Earhart. Jobs can surely be added posthumously to this list. In his back-to-the- basics campaign upon his return to Apple, Jobs slashed 70% of the Apple products, honing in laser-like on four things: a consumer, pro, desktop and portable computer (The Power Macintosh G3, the PowerBook G3, the iMac and the iBook). And significantly, Jobs was quietly working on a brand new definition of the computer—it would be re-imagined as the hub for all one’s digital activity from pictures and videos to music, books and magazines.
The Digital Hub and Last Acts
In an indication that the personal computer was no longer the centerpiece, Jobs dropped the word “computer” from his Apple company and set about, at age 45, redefining the computer as the digital hub “for an astounding array of new gadgets, including the iPod and iPhone and iPad,” writes Isaacson.
With the unveiling of iTunes digital music purchasing store and the tiny portable iPod, both in 2001, Jobs individually reinvented and restored the music business, saving it from pirates like Napster. Next came the iPod Mini and iPod Shuffle. By 2004 the biggest rock group on the planet, U2, was pitching a commercial pairing with iPod, not visa versa. Bono called the device “the most beautiful art object in music culture since the electric guitar.” By 2007 the iPod sales counted for half of Apple’s revenues. "What’s on your iPod?" became the parlor game for the new millennium.
In 2003, Jobs was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Refusing surgery to remove the tumor, he persisted in thinking that his oddball diets would cure him naturally. Facing cancer and turning fifty, Jobs returned to Apple from his first medical leave on a mission and the end result would be the iPhone and the magical, multi-touch, keyboard-free tablet known as iPad. Realizing the booming mobile phone industry would eat the iPod for lunch, Jobs set about creating a smart phone to out-distance all the others. Quickly dubbed the “Jesus phone” by bloggers at its 2007 launch, the iPhone created an object of lust on a grand scale with its sleek, screen-centric design, while it’s unified iPod/phone/portable Internet capacities thrilled early adapters.
Jobs proved the many nay-sayers wrong again with the debut of the iPad in 2010 and Daniel Lyons of Newsweek exulted:
“He [Jobs] has an uncanny ability to cook up gadgets that we didn’t know we needed, but then suddenly can’t live without. A closed system may be the only way to deliver the kind of techno-Zen experience that Apple has become known for.”
In less than a month, Apple sold one million iPads, reaching that million mark twice as fast as its earlier device the iPhone. With the opening of the app store for the iPhone in 2008, yet a new industry was created overnight, says Isaacson—holding out the promise that magazines and newspapers that had been giving content away for free could put the genie back in the bottle. Books, TV, and movies would also be affected. Jobs was still working out deals with magazine publishers and squabbling over ownership of subscriber data at his death. Whereas Microsoft was the rival in the past, now Google and its Android iPhone were the new challengers. By 2008 Jobs (like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc) was fixated on the cloud as the newest hub. Instead of the computer, all your content would now be stored in the "cloud" and would automatically sync up with your various Apple devices. Apple iCloud was unveiled in June 2011 in an integrated way that surpassed Amazon or Google’s offerings. Isaacson dubbed it “another tectonic shift in the digital age.”
No media platform escaped Jobs’s notice. Jobs also had his eye on TV and wanted to make a simple, elegant multi-platform TV device, just as he had revolutionized the computer, phone and music player. But time got the better of him. The book does not touch upon Job’s attitudes to the latest social media platforms but in a TV interview Isaacson cited Job’s generally favorable attitude towards Facebook. Jobs told his biographer: “We talk about social networks in the plural, but I don’t see anybody other than Facebook out there. Just Facebook, They are dominating this. I admire Mark Zuckerberg . . . for not selling out, for wanting to make a company. I admire that a lot.”
As cancer ravaged his thin frame, Jobs also focused on a civic arena primed for a revolution: the American education system. He offered several reasonable suggestions for reform and naturally thought the curriculum should be more digital and interactive and customized to each student in real time. He even hosted a dinner for President Obama, whom he had previously been critical of, to discuss the matter. Towards the end of his days he also had a poignant three-hour visit with his long-time rival-turned-comrade-in-arms Bill Gates. By August 2011, Jobs's failing health forced him to resign from his beloved Apple company and six weeks later he would pass away.
At the conclusion of the book, Isaacson posits that Jobs was “an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a ‘magician genius,’ someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead. “
The nation and the globe mourn the loss of the digital world’s prime pathfinder.
Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson (Simon Schuster) $35 at local bookstores or available for $17.88 on www.amazon.com