August 16, 2009
Steve Jobs: The man who polished Apple
Chief executive of Apple Inc and owner of Jackling House changed the world and cheated death. So why the paranoia?
In June, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple Inc and the owner of the Jackling House, had had a liver transplant at the Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in April. He’d taken a house in Memphis to be nearby if a liver became available. He had chosen Tennessee because of its short transplant waiting list. But, even there, to get to the top of the list means you have to be close to death. He was, the hospital confirmed, “the sickest patient on the waiting list at the time”.
Philip Elmer-DeWitt, author of the Apple 2.0 blog at CNNmoney.com, e-mails me the grim details of his operation: “He’s lost his gall-bladder, part of his stomach, part of his pancreas, the upper end of his small intestine and now has someone else’s liver, which probably means he’ll be on immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his life. That can’t be fun.”
On January 5, Jobs had written to the “Apple Community” explaining that he was ill and taking six months off work. “Fortunately, after further testing,” he wrote, “my doctors think they have found the cause — a hormone imbalance that has been ‘robbing’ me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy. Sophisticated blood tests have confirmed this diagnosis.”
Apple Inc is worth around $140 billion. But is it worth anything without Jobs? It is a company formed around his personality and inspiration. It is also the most watched, envied, admired and adored company in the world. So how, you may wonder, was it possible for Jobs to put out such a statement four months before a liver transplant? And how was it possible for consumer capitalism’s greatest hero to pull off the Memphis Liver Caper in absolute secrecy?
The answer is that, along with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site Glassdoor.com, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”
But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”
Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.
Then there is the recent case of the exploding iPod in Liverpool. Ellie Stanborough’s iPod touch went up in a puff of smoke. Her father, Ken, complained, but Apple said he could only have a refund if he promised not to talk. He refused. “They’re putting a restriction on myself, my daughter and Ellie’s mum not to say anything to anyone,” said Ken. “If we inadvertently did say anything? they could take litigation against us. I thought that was absolutely appalling.” This isn’t the freewheeling, good-times California lifestyle image the company likes to project. It is, rather, that of a much tougher and paranoid operation.
Yet secrecy is Apple’s core marketing tool. Jobs’s specialities are 90-minute to two-hour-long presentations to prayer meetings of the faithful. These always end with the words “and one last thing”, at which point he unveils the latest gizmo to geek hallelujahs. Rumours suggest he is, in spite of the transplant, about to do it again in the next few weeks. It will be a dual sensation: the sight of a walking, talking Jobs and of a new tablet computer, a sort of giant iPhone, which, some say, will yet again change the world. Excitement intensified early this month when an unnamed “analyst” was reported as having actually held the tablet. He said it was “better than your average movie experience”.
The secrecy is all about preserving the magic of each new product. Apple hates personality stuff and press intrusion. “We want to discourage profiles,” an Apple PR tells me stiffly, apparently unaware she is waving a sackful of red rags at a herd of bulls. Another PR rings the editor of this magazine to try to halt publication of this piece.
Jobs doesn’t like being questioned. Despite his attempts to find serenity through Zen Buddhism, the agony of interviews can get to him. “Imagine what he’d be like,” said a reporter after emerging from a Jobs drubbing, “if he hadn’t studied Zen.”
“He’s a tough, prickly interview,” says Elmer-DeWitt, “and he’s always selling. Hard.” In fact, any interview situation with Jobs can turn nasty. One excessively strait-laced candidate for a job at Apple bored him so much, he sprang questions like “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” and “How many times have you taken LSD?” on the poor sap. (Jobs has said that taking LSD was one of the most important things in his own life.) Then he lapsed into a chant of “Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble”. “I guess I’m not the right guy for this job,” said the candidate finally.
The transplant was not Jobs’s first near-death experience. In 2004 he was found to have pancreatic cancer. This usually means certain death. He was told to go home and put his affairs in order. Then he got a call. His tumour was rare and operable. He returned to work, and in 2007 launched the iPhone, the latest of what he calls Apple’s “insanely great” products. The iPhone joined the Mac computer, the iPod and the films of Pixar Animation Studios, all vastly successful, influential products brought to market by Jobs. Well, “products” is perhaps a bit weak: “agents of global transformation” might be better. “My God!” says Andrea Cunningham, a PR hired and fired four times by Jobs. “He’s single-handedly changed the world, like, at least three times!”
But, even as the faithful queued overnight to get their hands on the first iPhones, new rumours were circulating about his health. These were given almost comical credence when his obituary was accidentally published by the Bloomberg news service last August. Then, in January this year, Jobs made his announcement. Then came news of the transplant. This indicated the cancer had spread to his liver. The signs are not good. On the other hand, he seems to be up and about. He has gone back to work, and Elmer-DeWitt has reported that he’s been seen at a Coldplay concert. Cunningham has seen him going into the Fraiche yoghurt cafe in Palo Alto near her office. “He walks by occasionally. He looks pretty good, actually, and they do make great yoghurt.”
The drama of it all is intense, important — not least for Apple shareholders — and strangely thrilling. Jobs, in business, has died before and risen from the grave. For the past 12 years he has been the risen God of Silicon Valley, the Sun King of Palo Alto. Yet it won’t be until squadrons of pigs are flying over the frozen wastes of hell that he will appear on Oprah Winfrey or Larry King to tell the world how he feels about all this.
Jobs can be a cold, hard boss. In fact, judged simply as an office politician, he can seem pretty hopeless. He blew it in 1985. Having launched the Macintosh, he was driven out of Apple by John Sculley, the CEO he had lured from Pepsi-Cola with the hubristic and diet-conscious words “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Many at Apple were happy to see Jobs go. They would be sad soon afterwards.
That’s Bad Steve. But then there’s Good Steve. Abused employees, if they survive, often find themselves praised to the heavens. They ride on what is know as the “hero-asshole rollercoaster” and they live inside the “reality distortion field”, Jobs’s uncanny ability to convince people that the utterly impossible is, in fact, entirely possible.
Good Steve is the only businessman to be accorded rock-god status by millions. Apple nuts queue overnight to hear him speak. They buy Macs, iPods and iPhones not just because they want them, but also because they want to support this company as if it were some kind of charity or cult. The nuts aren’t wrong for one crucial reason. Though personally worth $3.4 billion, Jobs is one of them, the great consumer of his own products.
“Jobs is not an engineer,” says the writer Dan Lyons, “he can’t really design anything and he doesn’t know anything about circuits. But he is the ultimate end-user, the guy who is on our side.” Lyons created the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog with a motto that captures the strange Jobs mix of geek fantasy and power: “I will restore your sense of childlike wonder. There is nothing you can do to stop me.” And so, amid the secrecy and geekery, Good and Bad Steves blend to form one, gigantic, mesmerising personality. “He would have made,” said Jef Raskin, the brain behind the first Mac, “an excellent king of France.”
To call Jobs a control freak is to call rain wet. When building the first Mac, engineers wanted to include “expansion slots” into which people could slide kit to customise their machines.
Jobs resisted. The machine was his and it had to be closed and perfect. And he’s still at it: he has made it impossible for buyers even to change the batteries on his latest laptops.
But he has eased off on this with the iPhone. He has allowed outside companies to develop applications — “apps” — that can be downloaded to the phone. These range from Grindr — a gay cruising tool that helps you find nearby gays — to Shakespeare, which stores all the plays on your phone. The success of apps has stunned Apple. By the end of the year there will be 100,000 apps available. There have already been 1.5 billion downloads. Some have speculated that the app cult will supplant the internet. Certainly the new tablet Mac will be based on this phenomenon. Jobs also has a bizarre obsession with the insides of his machines. He drives his engineers mad by insisting that insides look beautiful, even though his customers won’t see this. This code of impenetrable perfection even extends to Jobs’s view of his own body. He has always been a fussy eater, and health problems have intensified this. His favourite dish was once said to be shredded raw carrots without dressing.
Jobs is, in the words of the psychiatrist and scholar of leadership Michael Maccoby, “a productive narcissist”. To Jobs, the world is an epiphenomenon, a side effect of the existence of Steve. Or rather, it is a pyramid with Jobs at the top, a few bright people just beneath him, and then the rest of us — the “bozos”. The customer bozo is not, to him, always right. In the early days it was said the Apple marketing department consisted of Jobs looking in his mirror and asking himself what he wanted. His customer-relations motto is from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” In a world driven by technology, only the technocrats know what we want and need.
Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, was once simply the Santa Clara Valley, a land of orchards. Now it’s a land of smart, rich people who eat breakfast daily suffused with the conviction that today is the day they will make billions and change the world. It was in here, in the town of Mountain View, that Jobs spent his childhood. He was born to Joanne Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali in San Francisco. They were young and unmarried and, as a result, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. They seem to have provided a good home, but everybody is convinced that the mere fact of the adoption did much to form Jobs’s character. Michael Maccoby thinks the key might be the idea of the absent or lost father.
“The very striking thing about productive narcissists, particularly men, is that they grow up in families where there is an absent or weak father figure. You can see this in narcissistic presidents like Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Nixon. They struggle with their identity and view of the world. So they tend to come up with a very original view of things and are then driven to find followers.”
Later, Jobs dropped out of college. Again, this seems to have been crucial. Alan Deutschman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, says his lack of a proper education in a world of highly educated people left him permanently insecure, especially in matters of taste. “I think his choice of a minimalist aesthetic comes from his fear of making the wrong aesthetic choice. He was someone who had great wealth from his early twenties. He was worried about not being seen as a brilliant sophisticate, so he had gurus to help him. There was this anxiety about being judged, combined with a natural instinct about the tremendous importance of design.”
There was another sense in which Jobs seemed to miss out. Deutschman says he “lagged the zeitgeist”. He was too young — 12 in 1967 — to enjoy the full hippie, summer-of-love experience. Yet he seemed to want to catch up, travelling, like the Beatles, to India to find enlightenment, and returning, unlike the Beatles, a Buddhist.
His first business persona was that of counter-cultural guerrilla, a silicon Che Guevara. The Mac was launched with the most famous TV ad ever made, a tour de force of ad-art directed by Ridley Scott. It portrayed IBM as George Orwell’s Big Brother and Apple as a blonde, athletic Californian-type freedom fighter, smashing Big Brother’s screen with a sledgehammer.
Finally, he even dated Joan Baez, the folk-singing goddess of the counterculture. Some said it was because she had been the lover of Bob Dylan, and Jobs is crazy about Bob. According to Deutschman’s book, he later said gracelessly:
“I would have married Joan Baez but she was too old to have my children.”
Which brings me to the matter of Jobs and women. This has been a rocky road. When his first serious girlfriend, Chris-Ann, became pregnant, he refused to accept it was anything to do with him. Lisa, his daughter, was born in a commune in Oregon in 1978. They have since been reconciled. That would be that but for the fact that, in the early 1980s, Jobs rediscovered his biological parents. They had married and had a daughter, Mona Simpson, his sister. She was a highly regarded novelist, who in 1996 published A Regular Guy, about a driven, narcissistic superstar business man and his relations with the daughter he had abandoned. At every turn, Jobs’s story seems to grow into fiction and then myth.
Jobs seems to go for the blonde, athletic Californian look of the girl in the Mac ad. It may be one more aspect of his pursuit of belonging in the pampered groves of the Valley. In 1991, at a Zen Buddhist ceremony, he married a woman — Laurene Powell — with precisely that look. They are still together and have three children.
His eviction from Apple in 1985 was a death and he did not go gently into that good night. One day he called Andrea Cunningham to the Jackling House to talk about his new company. She found him in the almost entirely unfurnished house haranguing journalists about the iniquities of his usurper, John Sculley. “He was pretty much ranting. I was quite shocked that someone of his abilities and intelligence and all of that would attempt what he was trying to attempt. It was just amazing.”
Then came the wilderness years. Apple lost its way, and by the mid-1990s it was on the verge of collapse. Its computers were dull and the Apple operating system was buggy and awful. I reluctantly abandoned them at this point. Jobs’s new company, NeXT, meanwhile, went nowhere. It made beautiful-looking computers for education. But they were expensive and impossible to sell.
In 1986 he bought — from the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas — a strange commune of brilliant men who were convinced that movies could be made on computers. It was called Pixar. They were inventing the technology as they went along. That, too, seemed to be going nowhere.
Saddled with these increasingly implausible projects, Jobs saw his own massive wealth begin to dwindle. His press coverage, adoring at the time of the Mac, became sceptical. But vengeance is his and he will repay. Pixar went into partnership with Disney to produce Toy Story, and Apple, crippled and loss-making, took over NeXT and brought Jobs back into the fold. Within months he was God again. Pixar grossed millions, then billions, and Apple brushed the dirt off its face and leapt out of the grave. First came the iMac, a toy-like, one-box desktop computer that can still be seen in groovy offices. Then in 2002 came the real payoff for the grim NeXT years. Mac OS X, the new operating system, was based on NeXT software. It was superb, infinitely better than Microsoft Windows and infinitely more beautiful. I, and millions of others, returned to Apple.
Jobs couldn’t hope to conquer Microsoft’s dominance in the market, but he could easily make it look desperately clunky. Silicon Che Guevara, having defeated IBM, returned to outcool Microsoft. But world domination was still to be had. He took it with the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007. The first stole almost the whole of the MP3-player market, and the second is doing the same to the mobile-phone market. Apple is now the consumer-electronics company by which all others are judged and found wanting.
Inevitably, with his health hanging by a thread, this raises the question: can they do without him? Of course they can, says Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original Mac-makers, who is now at Google. “It’s ludicrous,” he e-mails, “to think that Apple is a one-man company; there are hundreds if not thousands of exceptionally talented individuals who work there. Much of their post-Steve fate will depend on the leadership that eventually replaces him. The company disintegrated after Steve left in the mid-1980s; hopefully, they can do much better this time around.”
Others are not so sure Apple can do without his burning product perfectionism. “A lot of companies can do without that,” says Cunningham. “There’s probably a lot of business they can do with long-term incremental improvements to their products. But are they ever going to have another breakthrough product? I don’t know.”
“Apple will keep executing its current business plan,” says Philip Elmer-DeWitt, “which could go on for years. But it will be different in one key respect: with Jobs there was a guy at the beginning and end of every project who had the authority to say, ‘This sucks. Start over.’ Whoever replaces him may share his vision and job title, but he or she will not be the co-founder of Apple and won’t have the same authority.”
My own view is that a Jobsless Apple will seek a merger with Google. The two companies are rapidly converging, a fact that recently led to the resignation of the Apple director Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive of Google. He had been on the Apple board for three years, and was forced out because of suspicions that links between the two companies could endanger competition. One other director of both companies remains: Arthur Levinson, former chief executive of Genentech. The key areas of convergence are, first, mobile phones. There is Apple’s iPhone and there is Google’s Android, not a phone in itself, but an operating system that can be used by other companies. Google also produce a web browser called Chrome, which competes with Apple’s Safari. And, most importantly, Google is working on a computer operating system, also called Chrome, which may well be a very serious competitor for Mac OS X. Apple’s iPhone “apps” also compete with many free Google applications. The point is that both companies are aiming to seize dominance of the world market from Microsoft. Microsoft’s Windows still dominates world computing in spite of its failure to innovate. The loss of Jobs’s genius for products would mean Google’s innovation and Apple’s design and market sense would be a very good fit, although antitrust regulators might disagree.
Then there is the mighty, epic question of Jobs himself. Can the Valley do without him? Can we? Opinions of his career swing between the Bad Steve/Good Steve poles. Those who focus on the former think he could have done it all without the tantrums and brutality. Gifted people have been damaged horribly by his behaviour. Jobs took against Alvy Ray Smith at Pixar and cut him out of the company history. “He has failed many times,” says Smith, “but the press and the public overlook that in their rush to glorify him? Steve and I don’t like one another.” Deutschman’s book is a cool look at Bad Steve and asks the very good question once asked by a college friend of Jobs: “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be highly successful?” One Hollywood boss compared Jobs to Citizen Kane, adding: “I hope there’s a sled called Rosebud.”
“Rosebud” was Kane’s mysterious last word. It turns out to be the sledge he lost when a banker took him from his childhood home. The implication is that Jobs nurses a wound that cannot be healed. Such ambivalence infuriates those who focus on Good Steve. “I think Deutschman’s book was a hatchet job,” says Hertzfeld. “Steve is a complicated individual. Like many of us, the good and the bad aspects of his personality are inextricably linked.”
“I think we need productive narcissists like Jobs,” says Maccoby, “but there are always quirks. You may get an Abraham Lincoln or you may get an Adolf Hitler; you may get a Winston Churchill or you may get a Joseph Stalin.”
The strength and relative stability of the company make it clear that Jobs learnt something from his first fall and his second coming. He learnt, says Maccoby, that a narcissistic personality like his, with extremely dodgy people skills, needs a more consensual character to keep him in check. He found one in Tim Cook, Apple’s comparatively serene chief operating officer, who is the likeliest successor. He’s not Jobs but he’s a rarity in the Valley — a “safe pair of hands”.
All agree that Jobs made Apple into more than a company. To the believers it is a great cause; to the sceptics it is more sinister. “Apple is less of a company and more like a cult,” says Dan Lyons. “If the Church of Scientology went into consumer electronics it would be Apple.” The status of the company is beyond argument. It is watched by bloggers who trawl through its patent applications and analyse its every move. “I swim through Apple newsfeeds like a whale swims through krill,” says Elmer-DeWitt. Yet the company continues to surprise and amaze. I don’t want Jobs to die because my computers and iPhone are, indeed, “insanely great” compared with the dismal competition but, more importantly, because he is an extraordinary figure. I don’t use the word “genius” about businesspeople, but in Steve Jobs’s case I’m prepared to make an exception.
Geniuses tend to see their own lives as universally significant, embodying the great currents of their age. They may not know they are doing this, but it is evident in their work. Everything about Jobs tells me this is how he sees his life, as the distillation of the high-tech revolution and of affluent, aspirational consumerism. He is, as Dan Lyons says, “the ultimate end-user”, both consumer and maker. He is one with the bozos and their gizmos. That’s who he is.
Surviving his health crisis may require more than a transplant in Memphis. Perhaps he will need a free download or upgrade from the other god that watches over Silicon Valley. If he gets it, then he can knock down that ghostly house in Woodside and build the minimalist mansion that will set his consuming mind to rest. He just wants a home really, like the rest of us bozos, because home is everybody’s Rosebud.