Requiem for a Heavyweight

It’s been a few days now since the passing of Steve Jobs, on Oct 5, 2011. It is a measure of his stature as a public figure that most people probably remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Steve Jobs had many admirers around the world, as well as more than a few detractors. While always willing to give the Devil his due, I was, to be honest, probably a little closer to being one of the latter than the former.

At first I was annoyed by the outpouring of praise; gushing, promiscuous, overwrought. The accolades went on and on. He changed the world; he was a revolutionary, another Edison; there will never be another like him; he was the last American original. People wept openly. You’d have thought Jesus Christ had died again. It was all faintly embarrassing.

Get a grip, people, I thought. It’s not like you weren’t warned. Once Jobs announced his resignation as Apple CEO, you knew the end had to be near. I was reminded of the mass hysteria that surrounded the death of Spanish dictator and cult figure Francisco Franco  in 1975, a phenomenon famously skewered at the time  by a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update sketch: “Francisco Franco is still dead!”

But Jobs’ death ended up having a much larger large impact on me than I would have predicted. Having been such a prominent actor on the American stage for so long, there was an illusion of familiarity, and with it a very natural human interest. I felt as though, somehow, I knew the man. But, of course I really didn’t, along with millions of others. Nevertheless, I could not help but wonder: Who was that guy?

Like most Americans of a certain age, I had been aware of Jobs since he first burst on the scene back in the mid-1970s. You couldn’t help but notice him; for a time anywhere there was a camera, it seemed, there he’d be, flashing that devilish half smile-half smirk that just made you want to slap him. Always touting the Apple brand. Part carnival huckster, part guru, part revolutionary, but always the consummate showman–whatever he was, Steve Jobs had a gift for getting your attention.

Most people associate Jobs with his later products–the MacIntosh and all the I-products. But before all that there was the Apple II, the world’s first truly personal Personal Computer, and the seed (no pun intended) of Apple’s–and Jobs’–astounding success. The Apple II was the first un-computer computer. It was cute, it was friendly, it didn’t take an engineering degree to understand and operate. Kids loved it. The Apple II was a gigantic success, made Jobs rich and famous, and created a well-funded platform from which to launch other even more successful ventures. The rest, as they say, is history.

Warts and All

We humans have a habit of ascribing admirable traits to individuals we admire, traits that reflect our beliefs and inclinations. We think: Steve Jobs made really cool products, therefore he must have been a really cool guy, and Apple must be a really cool place to work. But the truth is rather more complex.

Not surprisingly, Jobs was a complicated individual. Along with all the superlatives that have been applied to him, many well-deserved, are some less-than-flattering depictions. Let’s  start with the fact that Jobs was not a nice man or a kind one, at least in his working life. He was, to put it bluntly, an asshole. Flaming. If you had met him you probably would not have liked him. And he probably wouldn’t have cared for you either. Yes, he could be inspirational, and many were fiercely loyal to him. But more often he was just a jerk; rude and dismissive, profanely belittling to those who displeased him in even minor ways. His tirades are the stuff of legend. Jobs had a gift for at finding a person’s buttons and pushing them, repeatedly, relentlessly, until he got what he wanted. And when he didn’t get what he wanted, often as not he cried like a spoiled child denied.

Jobs was not one for subtlety. He held an unshakably binary,  black-and-white view of the world; things were either insanely great or they were garbage. Jobs’ messianic absolutism fostered a rabid fanboy culture that aped his every whim and prejudice. All things Apple were sublime, all else was ridiculous.

He could be absurdly rejecting of the utilitarian. At one point during one of his hospitalizations, he was placed on oxygen. Even under heavy sedation, he managed to tear off his oxygen mask, claiming that its design “sucked” (a favorite expression of his.) He demanded that the staff bring six different designs of mask so that he could choose the best one.

Although Jobs could on occasion be generous and accommodating, more often he was capricious, impulsive, self-centered, and churlish. When Jobs was 23, he fathered a child out of wedlock, and then spent the next two years callously denying responsibility, even going so far as to falsely swear in an affidavit that he was infertile. The child’s mother was forced to go on public assistance for a time. Jobs tried to force Steve Wozniak–his business partner and the man who actually designed and the BUILT the Apple II–out of the company.  The exact reasons aren’t really clear, but speculation is that Jobs just didn’t like this dorky, un-handsome, un-cool guy hogging his spotlight. Although eventually they made up, Wozniak, a decent and thoughtful man, would not speak to Jobs for years.

Jobs seemed to have a pathological need to make enemies, and feuded endlessly with perceived detractors. Adopted at birth, he sought the identity of his biological parents, but then purposefully avoided meeting with his father, a man who never did him any wrong and who publicly, plaintively expressed the desire to know his son. By an odd coincidence, Jobs once met his father without realizing it, when the father owned and managed a well-known restaurant in Palo Alto.

Apple, the company Jobs built, is not the new-age, touchy-feely paradise some suppose. It is a high-tech sweatshop, a paranoid, fear-driven, stressed-out rat race of a place. It is a place where your Iphone can be seized and searched, your email may be inspected, and your home searched by private investigators if they think you have something to hide.

And then there was Jobs’ absolute fixation on control. He was your girlfriend’s control-freak mother on steroids. Squared. No detail was too small for him to obsess over, often in late night phone calls to rudely awoken subordinates. In his quest for perfect, total control, Steve Jobs built a corporate structure that can only be described as Orwellian. Information was strictly rationed, and those making unauthorized leaks were dealt with harshly by Apple’s Worldwide Loyalty Team. If somehow you irritated or threatened Apple  you could expect a good working over from Apple’s famously ruthless legal department, who would just as soon sue you into bankruptcy as look at you.

It is the richest of ironies that the company favored by creative freethinkers and self-described rebels itself epitomizes authoritarian control. The Apple OS is a closed system, even though it is based on open-source Linux. Apple practically invented proprietary hardware and software standards. Every Iphone app must be approved by Apple, which goes to extraordinary lengths to restrict the loading of any unauthorized applications. Apple effectively censors the content of its Iphones by explicitly prohibiting any apps that deliver gay art, gay travel guides, political cartoons, sexy pictures, Congressional candidate pamphlets, political caricature, Vogue fashion spreads, and other things considered morally suspect. If you want porn, get an Android, Jobs has been quoted as saying.

And we should not overlook the factories that make those beautiful Apple products. British newspaper Daily Mail got a reporter inside one of them in 2006, and he described a nightmarish scene. Workers, many under the legal age of 16, working 15-hour shifts, sometimes 7 days a week, under constant pressure to produce. Workers who failed to make their hefty quota were dismissed. The PA system broadcast a nonstop mix of propaganda and exhortations to work ever harder. Workers lived in noisy, reeking, bug-infested, prison-like dormitories. Suicides were a persistent problem until management covered the windows with mesh to keep workers from jumping to their deaths.

The Apple of today is such a stark contrast with the hard-working and driven yet collegial Apple of the pre-MacIntosh days that it begs to be asked: What in the hell happened? I suspect that if you had asked Jobs, he would have expressed regret that it turned out the way it did. At the same time, I can’t help but think that he would have defended the heavy-handed management style as being necessary to ensure Apple’s continued success. And sadly, it would probably be true. It is less an irony than a hard and inconvenient truth that high-order success comes at a steep cost. Warm and fuzzy is not a winning strategy in business, and nice companies, like nice guys, really do finish last.

The Tao of Steve

Steve Jobs never designed a circuit, never wrote a line of code, never built a prototype, never invented anything, never “made” anything. So what exactly did he do? Jobs has been described as a visionary, but that label doesn’t seem entirely correct. A visionary clearly sees that which does not yet exist, brings it to life, and in so doing pushes the future in an entirely new direction. Jobs didn’t meet that definition for a couple of reasons. First of all, the change he wrought was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Something like the MacIntosh would eventually have been created even if Jobs had never existed. Same with Itunes and the Iphone. Furthermore, Jobs didn’t even know what he wanted. He just knew that something better was out there waiting to be created. “I’ll know it when I see it,” he often said when asked by others to describe what he had in mind. Part of his gift was in saying no again and again until finally he could say yes.

Jobs was a connector, a locus of much creative toil, a synthesist (if that’s a word,) and an opportunist, but in a good sense. Without really knowing what he was looking for, Jobs connected ideas together until synergy happened. He possessed superb intellectual peripheral vision. He spotted useful ideas and emerging trends out there on the fringes and then put them together in novel ways. The Apple II was existing computer technology plus a friendly interface. The Macintosh was the Apple II plus Xerox’s graphical user interface.  The Imac was a Macintosh computer plus a monitor in one package. The Iphone is a Blackberry plus a library of downloadable apps and a touchscreen. Apple itself is technology plus art, staffed by people with backgrounds as deliberately diverse as you could imagine.

Not being an engineer, Jobs did not easily accept that some things couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, technically speaking, and he frequently sacrificed function to serve form. This led to a mixed legacy of technological achievement. On the one hand Apple popularized a number of standards we now take for granted, such as USB, Firewire (IEEE 1394), ethernet, and wireless, and it is arguable that without Apple these now-ubiquitous technologies might have languished for years. Furthermore, Jobs’ relentless pushing impelled designers and engineers to do things they truly did not think could be done.

On the other hand, at Jobs’ insistence useful, practical, necessary features (such as cooling fans) were often arbitrarily omitted from product designs, hampering their reliability and usefulness. Many Apple products are also well-known (at least by people in my business) for their pointlessly excessive internal complexity and difficulty of repair. Making Apple products difficult to work on was part of the Apple creed. Jobs was quoted as saying that he didn’t want users to be able to have have access to the innards of their Apple products because “people just (mess) things up.”

Jobs was a gifted industrial designer who fully understood an elementary yet powerful concept: People love elegant simplicity. Clean lines, pleasing curves, simple but attractive color palettes became Apple’s hallmark. Even the marketing  campaigns were marvels of clever minimalism. Think of the iconic Ipod television ads: Monochrome  silhouettes (of clearly young and attractive people) cavorting, twirling, shimmying gracefully across a solid white background as an infectiously catchy tune plays, culminating in the final frames with a simple punchline “Ipod, by Apple.” Exactly four design elements, yet so dead solid perfect that it takes your breath away. Life is good. Ipod is cool. Buy one and you can be cool too.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Jobs understood the awesome power of “cool,” and knew how to harness that power to drive sales. He knew that people would gladly pay, dearly, for that which they judged to be cool. More importantly, Jobs forever linked “cool” with the Apple brand.  Jobs also knew that you couldn’t fake cool. For a product to be considered cool it had to be authentically, positively distinct from the competition. The Apple II was made of plastic, not metal. It had a cute little rainbow logo on it. It had a color display. You operated it using menus, not commands.

Jobs also discovered the hard way that the power of cool had limits. The original MacIntosh, released in 1984, was radically different than the PCs it competed against in almost every way, starting with its appearance. The whole thing was not much bigger than a coffemaker. The screen, a tiny 9-inch black and white CRT, was built in. There was no hard drive. It had only a paltry 128K of RAM. There were only two programs written for it. It cost nearly $2500, the equivalent of about $5000 in 2011 dollars. Although undeniably cool, the Mac was so far removed from the established standard, so expensive, so radically different, that it had to be, one would think, a pretty hard sell. And sure enough it was; even with Jobs as pitchman the Macs didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Though a technical success, the MacIntosh was a commercial failure.

In the face of disappointing sales, Jobs forced a showdown with the Apple Board of Directors over the future leadership of the company. He lost, and was essentially fired by Apple. Jobs would spend 12 years away from Apple before returning in 1997, this time to engineer a spectacular turnaround for the badly ailing company he co-founded. If Jobs had never done anything else, he would still be long remembered for his stunning reversal of Apple’s decline. Within 60 days of shutting down when Jobs took over, as of this writing Apple is the world’s most valuable corporation, with a market capitalization of close to $500 billion.

Jobs “thought different” because he understood that “different” gets you noticed. Consider again the Ipod ads with their gracefully cavorting silhouettes. A less creative person might have envisioned the same basic approach, but used unretouched footage instead, with the young and pretty actors visible in all their glory. Nice, but not all that memorable if you really think about it. Somehow, the simple act of rendering the actors as silhouettes focused our attention on the product, not the actors, and gave the spot a brilliant extra dimension, took it to the next level, made it memorable, made it cool.  It was very Jobsian.

One ingredient in Jobs’ spectacular success was his consummate skill as a negotiator. In this he was well-served by his fearlessness, tenacity, and complete  lack of concern about how he was perceived by others. Again and again Jobs went up against the toughest, savviest heavy hitters around, only to walk away with everything he wanted and then some.

Another ingredient was Jobs’ absolute commitment to excellence. From an early age, Jobs hungered for greatness, and he understood that one sure pathway to it was through achieving excellence. But he knew that good enough doesn’t lead to excellence and that pretty damned good doesn’t either. Only excellence–unambiguous, uncompromising, absolute–begets excellence. By all accounts, Jobs never wavered from that standard, a testament to his epic will and determination.

Like most of us, Jobs matured as he grew older. Age improved him and burnished his many rough edges. The feisty brashness of his youth diminished; his famously tempestuous demeanor improved a bit; he embraced family life; he made up with people he had alienated over the years; the consistency of his judgement improved. He became less capricious. The Boy Wonder seemed to be morphing gradually into something like a Wise Elder. In a now-famous commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 he urged his audience to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” Yet he himself seemed to be  edging towards something resembling conventionality. Whether he might have ever actually gotten there, we will never know.