Anyone picking up this authorised biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, is left in little doubt that he was a Very Important Person. Not surprising, considering that Jobs himself designed the dust-jacket which features an enormous headshot of the self-proclaimed genius.
Jobs also hand-picked the author, Walter Isaacson. In the Introduction, Isaacson puzzles away at why Jobs chose him. “I think you’re good at getting people to talk,” Jobs said when he asked him that question. But the explanation is obvious. Isaacson’s previous subjects include Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein and Jobs clearly thought he belonged in the same company.
To Jobs’s credit, he urged his official biographer to produce a warts-and-all portrait and Isaacson has taken him at his word.
The figure who emerges from these pages is a ferociously driven technologist whose business savvy and marketing flair revolutionised six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing.
Yet he was also a thoroughly unpleasant human being. He belittled his employees and took credit for their ideas. He screamed at waitresses, telling them the food they were serving was “garbage”, and parked in handicapped spots. He even abandoned his first child. “He was never destined to win Father of the Year,” writes Isaacson with characteristic understatement.
Steve Jobs was undoubtedly the type of wunderkind who only comes along once in a generation and Isaacson doesn’t stint in describing all his achievements in loving detail. He died tragically young, something he long suspected would happen, and left behind two of the most respected brands of the 21st Century: Apple and Pixar. He was also rich beyond the dreams of avarice, becoming a billionaire at the age of 40.
But could he have achieved all this without being quite such a cruel, arrogant man?
The answer that Isaacson provides in this richly entertaining biography is no. Like America’s great robber barons of the 19th Century, Jobs was a ruthless entrepreneur who trampled over business rivals in his climb to the top. “Jobs never studied Nietzsche, but the philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him,” writes Isaacson.
One of Jobs’s least attractive characteristics was his poor personal hygiene, a condition that was exacerbated by his eccentric diet. For weeks on end, he would only eat one or two vegetables, such as turnips or carrots, often turning orange in the process. “We would have to literally put him out the door and tell him to go take a shower,” says Mike Markkula, Apple’s first chairman. “At meetings we would have to look at his dirty feet.”
More troubling for his biographer was Jobs’s semi-detached relationship with the truth, making it difficult to disentangle what actually happened from his self-aggrandizing hyperbole.
“The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” related Bud Tribble, one of the computer nerds who worked on the first Macintosh. “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.”
Nevertheless, without this ability to bend reality to his will Jobs wouldn’t have been able to change the world. He was a mediocre engineer, but a charismatic leader and he knew how to harness the wizardry of others to create high-tech products that consumers would buy in their millions: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.
“Woz designed a great machine,” says Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley PR man, referring to Apple’s co-founder Steven Wozniak who built the world’s first fully-integrated personal computer. “But it would be sitting in hobby shops today were it not for Steve Jobs.”
By the time Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple earlier this year it had become the most valuable company in the world, yet Jobs was never interested in making money. His one redeeming virtue – and the source of all his triumphs – is that he cared more about getting the product right than the bottom line.
“Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged the design team to think of ourselves that way too,” says Andy Hertzfeld, one of Apple’s first employees. “The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money. It was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater.”
It was this perfectionism – this artistry – that enabled Jobs to transform so many industries. When asked by a journalist what market research he did before launching a new product, he replied, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?”
If any other Silicon Valley entrepreneur made such a lofty comparison we’d dismiss him as delusional. In Jobs’s case, as this biography makes clear, it was probably justified.