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Who Was Steve Jobs?

What Jobs could not see was his own future at the company he’d cofounded. A year after the Macintosh was released, Jobs was ousted from Apple. He cashed out his stock options, walked away with about $100 million, and cast about for something to do. Eventually, he made two investments. One was to found a new, high-concept computer company called NeXT. The other was to buy a small computer animation studio being sold off by the filmmaker George Lucas.

Apple, meanwhile, was foundering. Jobs’s guiding philosophy—that to maximize the user experience it was necessary to control both hardware and software—had led to superior products, but it was out of sync with the marketplace, which wanted cheaper and faster, even if cheaper and faster were unattractive and unwieldy. Microsoft’s CEO Bill Gates understood this and licensed his company’s operating system, MS-DOS, to any number of hardware manufactures, IBM among them, and before long both IBM and Microsoft came to dominate the personal computer world.

With Jobs gone from Apple, the new leadership tried to have it both ways, continuing to sell Apple’s own branded, closed, hardware-software systems like the Mac, while also licensing the Apple operating system to clone makers, but this only served to cannibalize hardware sales. By 1996, Apple’s share of the PC market had dropped from 16 percent to 4 percent, and the company was being written off in the business press.

As Apple was falling apart, Steve Jobs’s two investments were not doing so well, either. His computer company, NeXT, aimed to build affordable, Mac-like workstations powerful enough to be used by universities and other research institutions. Mac-like meant stylish and intuitive. Powerful enough meant having sufficient computing power to perform high-level functions. A small cadre of software engineers, some of whom had come from Apple (prompting a lawsuit), set about developing a new operating system based on UNIX, which had come out of Bell Labs in the late 1960s and was the first operating system that was not machine-dependent. While they did this, Jobs turned his attention to NeXT‘s design, which he envisioned as a perfect cube. According to Isaacson, the near impossibility of constructing a perfect cube resulted in outrageous costs, like a $150,000 specially designed sander to round off rough edges, and molds to make the sides that cost $650,000 each.

Though Jobs’s intent with NeXT was to create an affordable research computer, by the time it launched, the NeXT cube cost $6,500, and needed a $2,000 printer and a $2,500 external hard drive because the optical drive Jobs had insisted upon was so slow. At that price, no one was buying. Instead of the ten thousand units the company estimated shipping each month, the number was closer to four hundred. As Isaacson points out, the company was hemorrhaging cash.

It was the same for Jobs’s computer animation studio, which kept needing infusions of money to stay in business. If he could have found a buyer, he would have unloaded it. Instead, he poured $50 million into it—half of what he had made selling his Apple stock. Almost as an afterthought, the company’s animators made a short film as a sales device to show off its unique hardware and software package, which cost well over $120,000. Remarkably, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. This led to other short films, one of which, Tin Toy, did win an Oscar in 1989, and to a deal with Disney for a full-length computer-animated feature film. Released at the end of 1995, Toy Story was the top-grossing film of the year. Betting on the film’s success, Jobs had arranged for the company, which had taken the name Pixar, to go public the week after the movie opened. By the end of the first day of trading, Jobs’s stake in Pixar was worth $1.2 billion.

Then, in an even more unlikely turn of events, Jobs’s investment in NeXT also paid off, less in money—though that would eventually come in the form of significant stock options—but in something more valuable: vindication. Apple, which looked to be close to dissolution, made a deal with Jobs to buy NeXT‘s operating system, and he came along with it. Eleven years after his ouster, Jobs was back at the company he’d founded.

Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Steve Jobs introducing the iPad while standing below a photo of himself from the early days of Apple, San Francisco, January 2010

The next part of the Steve Jobs story—call it act three—is the one that we are most familiar with because it coincides with a key flashpoint in the lives of even those without the means or desire to buy Apple products: the metastatic growth of the Internet. Jobs was prescient in understanding how deeply the Internet could reach into our lives, and that it was not limited just to networking computers. Once the iPod came out, then the iTunes store, then the iPhone, then the App Store, then Apple TV, then the iPad, and the iBookstore, and now iCloud, Jobs and his team at Apple had created an entire, expanding, ensnaring iUniverse. (And now Siri, the recently released natural-language-processing “personal assistant” built into the iPhone 4S, has the potential to contract the competing universe created by Google since it will send fewer and fewer queries through Google’s search engine, which is the core of Google’s business.)

Jobs’s original premise, that Apple needed to manage the user experience by controlling both hardware and software—the premise that nearly destroyed the company in the 1980s and 1990s—was still his guiding philosophy. But this time around it catapulted Apple from niche brand to mass-market phenomenon—in part because once consumers entered the iUniverse there were costs associated with leaving it, and because Jobs made sure it was a pleasant place to be. And even though it became a mass-market brand, it retained its cachet.

The coolness factor set Apple apart from the start. Jobs’s Zen aesthetic (he was a longtime student of Buddhism), his passion for design, his good fortune to hire Jony Ive, who must be the finest industrial designer working today, and his other guiding philosophy—that function should not dictate form but, rather, form and function are integral and symbiotic—resulted in unique-looking products that, almost without exception, worked more smoothly than anyone else’s. And just in case that was not enough incentive for consumers to part with their money, Jobs transformed the product launch into a theatrical production, building suspense in the months and weeks beforehand with leaks and rumors about “revolutionary” and “magical” features, and then renting out large auditoriums, orchestrating the event down to its smallest detail, and, on launch day, holding forth, typically on an empty stage, in his blue jeans and black turtleneck, using the words “revolutionary” and “magical” some more. The original Mac launch took place shortly after a chilling, Ridley Scott–directed ad suggesting that anyone who used an IBM PC was a drone, while Mac users were people who defy conformity, aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, and has become the model for every Apple product launch since:

The television ad and the frenzy of press preview stories were the first two components in what would become the Steve Jobs playbook for making the introduction of a new product seem like an epochal moment in world history. The third component was the public unveiling of the product itself, amid fanfare and flourishes, in front of an audience of adoring faithful mixed with journalists who were primed to be swept up in the excitement.

(It should be noted that Apple product launches are now live-blogged in The New York Times and other major newspapers as if they were sporting events or breaking news.) Jobs was so good at this show-and-tell that it did not feel like he was on the stage selling but, rather, that he was up there offering, and what he was offering was the chance to share in the magic. Who wouldn’t want in?

As others have before him, Isaacson writes about what those who worked with Steve Jobs called his “reality distortion field”—Jobs’s belief that rules did not apply to him, and that the truth was his to create. “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything,” an Apple colleague told Isaacson. What this meant in practice was that when Jobs told Apple employees that they could do things that had never before been done, like shrinking circuit boards or writing a particular piece of code or extending battery life, they rose to the occasion, often at great personal cost. “It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid,” another employee said. “You drank it.”

And so, in many ways, have most of us, and not just by buying what Steve Jobs was selling—the products and the feeling of being a better (smarter, hipper, more creative) person because of them. Through his enchanting theatrics, exquisite marketing, and seductive packaging, Jobs was able to convince millions of people all over the world that the provenance of Apple devices was magical, too. Machina ex deo. How else to explain their popularity despite the fact that they actually come from places that do not make us better people for owning them, the factories in China where more than a dozen young workers have committed suicide, some by jumping; where workers must now sign a pledge stating that they will not try to kill themselves but if they do, their families will not seek damages; where three people died and fifteen were injured when dust exploded; where 137 people exposed to a toxic chemical suffered nerve damage; where Apple offers injured workers no recompense; where workers, some as young as thirteen, according to an article in The New York Times, typically put in seventy-two-hour weeks, sometimes more, with minimal compensation, few breaks, and little food, to satisfy the overwhelming demand generated by the theatrics, the marketing, the packaging, the consummate engineering, and the herd instinct; and where, it goes without saying, the people who make all this cannot afford to buy it?

While it may be convenient to suppose that Apple is no different than any other company doing business in China—which is as fine a textbook example of a logical fallacy as there is—in reality, it is worse. According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

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