Everyone has an inherent love for self that, in solitude, makes us believe we can be rocket scientists. That is, IF we had the resources, IF the circumstances favored us, IF we had enough confidence, IF we received enough push from our parents, IF we weren’t battling our own little demons, IF everyone were on our side, the list goes on. Here is where Steve Jobs was wired differently. Where we have confidence kept in check, he had chutzpah; where we wish everyone would share our perspective, he bent them to agree with his own; where we curbed our inner devils, he embraced them and made them his pawns. It also didn’t hurt that his adoptive parents thought he was genius.
In short, Steve Jobs is the quintessence of the unbridled human brilliance. Naturally, he also disregarded etiquette, rarely showed sympathy (let alone empathy), and indulged himself in knavery. At least that’s how I would sum up Steve Jobs after reading his recently released biography written by Walter Isaacson.
Oh, and one more thing – he was beautiful too, wasn’t he?
Abandoned but ‘Specifically Picked Out’
Steve Jobs was an adopted son, but his adoptive parents Paul and Clara Jobs told him, ‘We specifically picked you out,’ to highlight his being special rather than his being abandoned. They were loving parents who spotted very early on that their son was smarter than most boys, and were willing to give all kinds of concessions to him. So much so that when the bored third-grader started to play rather dangerous pranks (like setting off an explosive under his teacher’s chair), his father told the teachers, ‘If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.’
Even as a boy, Steve had developed that incredible (sometimes irritating) self-belief. He realized he was smarter than his parents (he said he felt guilty upon realizing this), and that his parents knew this. Although his father was a smart man who loved mechanics and self-studied his way into becoming a licensed real estate agent, he said he felt isolated, and understandably so. The bane of an intelligent man’s existence is to be intelligent and grow up with people who can’t quite match this intellect. It was in this environment that he felt incredibly special, and with no one reining him in, he grew to be independent and incredibly aware of his abilities.
The Other Steve
Steve Jobs learned to love electronics more than mechanics, and this was increasingly reflected in the pranks he played. Then he met Steve Wozniak, an electronics school legend five years his senior. Aside from electronics, they were also both deeply into music. They hit it off immediately. Together, they hunted for and collected bootlegs of Bob Dylan tapes and played more pranks in school.
One of the more significant outcomes of this involved the so-called Blue Box, which can make free long-distance calls by replicating the tones on telephone networks. Initially they tried making an analog tone generator together, but after it proved unsuccessful, Wozniak, who had to leave for Berkeley the next morning, created a digital one, on his own. It worked. At first they used it for pranks, but then Jobs realized they could make money off it. So they did. This would spell the role that each would play in their succeeding ventures: Wozniak would build something brilliant, and Jobs would figure out how to reproduce and sell them.
Enter Apple I.
Wozniak had been attending an electronics hobbyist group called Homebrew Computer Club when he realized that he could build a personal computer with a keyboard, a monitor and a terminal with a central processing unit. The group had a hacker ethics, which means they hack a legit software and then share them with others who may find better use for it or who can build something more off of it. Jobs was not part of this group. That is, until Wozniak showed Jobs what he had done – he had successfully assembled a keyboard-monitor-terminal package whose monitor showed whatever the user was typing in the keyboard – a first in history. Jobs began joining the Homebrew meetings, and soon enough he was convincing Wozniak to sell the computers. Wozniak was drawn by the challenge and the prospect of two best friends starting a company. And so it was that Jobs sold his Volkswagen and Wozniak his HP 65 calculator and gave birth to Apple. As to how Jobs came up with Apple, he said: ‘I was on one of my fruitarian diets. I had just come back from the apple farm. It sounded fun, spirited and not intimidating…’
To be fair, Jobs did the crucial job of hunting for suppliers, figuring out how to efficiently and effectively replicate the computer, and most importantly, finding buyers. How he did it was impressive. The two Steves presented their product to the Homebrew Computer Club – Wozniak focusing on the technical side and Jobs on the business/marketing aspect. Unfortunately, only one man stayed (Paul Terrell, who owned computer stores), and even then it wasn’t a commitment. He just gave them his card and said, ‘Keep in touch.’ So what did Jobs do? The very next day he showed up at Terrell’s shop and announced, ‘I’m keeping in touch.’ Jobs hit home run.
Thus started the production of 50 pieces of Apple I in the Jobs’ garage. As more orders came in, Wozniak wanted to sell the computers at cost. Jobs, of course, wanted to profit. They sold the Apple I at $666.66, about thrice the cost (neither knew that 666 is regarded as the number of the devil). But before they could legalize their partnership, the high-minded Wozniak felt it proper to first present it to HP, as he designed the computer while in its employ. HP demurred, and he was both disappointed and relieved.
Wozniak soon after began developing the Apple II. Jobs, meanwhile, was thinking of how to make their computer more palatable to prospective buyers. Having decided that their market was now not limited to hobbyists, he decided (as was previously suggested by Terrell) to offer a complete computer package (including a power supply, software, and everything in between), and he wanted an elegant design. He got an idea for a sleek case while looking at appliances at Macy’s; hunted for someone to design the power supply such that the computer can do away with the fan; and ensured that the lines in the circuit board, although hidden, be straight.
Sure, he did not actually produce any of this (credit for the sleek case design goes to Jerry Manock, Rod Holt for the power supply, and several unsung hero-engineers for the straight circuit board lines), but these were his ideas. Some people dismiss him as being ‘just’ a design person, not having actually produced the gadgets nor written any programming for any of Apple’s softwares. Indeed it would sound scandalous how people hero-worship him while the ‘real’ heroes remain unsung. But the impression I get is that Jobs’ artistry, commitment to perfection, and indeed his hardheadedness has pushed a great deal of technological advancement. Naturally, others will also say that he did not really revolutionize anything. Everything he ever thought of – computer, smartphone, tablet – was already foreseen decades ago by ‘real’ revolutionaries and even science fiction movies. He ‘merely’ brought these devices commercially. I think, however, that this ‘mere’ commercialization of gadgets so powerful (i cannot possibly go through all the ramifications of these gadgets in our lives) is in itself revolutionary. This, and the fact that he actualized whatever visions his predecessors may have had. And don’t you think it should be a given that we can only build on what others have already started? We are not God: we cannot create something out of nothing. Every great idea is sparked by an inspiration. If anyone wants to trace the real real real real revolutionary who really really really started anything at all, I think it’s safe to say he will eventually end up with God.
That said, it is also true that Jobs, for all his many greatly inspired ideas, also had a great deal of flaws, so bad that a few hundred pages into the book I almost didn’t want to touch my iPhone. He can be/was so hardheaded, insensitive, manipulative, ungrateful and unloving, selfish, narcissistic, and yes, he can be so phony, which I think is the worst. I am a big fan of Ayn Rand and her push for objectivism, but he went beyond Howard Roark in two ways – one good, one awful: he found a means to marry functionality and aesthetics and didn’t have to be alone in this path – the consumers championed his cause (just look at the billions of cash sitting in Apple’s vault); BUT, he valued himself way more than Roark did, AND was prone to claiming to have come up with an idea that wasn’t really his. It makes me want to puke.
But I digress. This part should be about the other, more kind-hearted (albeit a tad too naively) Steve. So naive that Jobs, in their pre-Apple days, lured him into doing a game design that his boss at Atari asked him to do (yes, Jobs was once an employee too). The boss offered to give a bonus for every chip fewer than fifty that he used. What happened was he pushed Wozniak to finish the design in four days (nearly impossible) because he had someplace else to go after four days; and upon completion using just forty-five chips, Jobs just split the base fee, keeping the bonus to himself.
Woz: ‘I wish he had been honest. If he had told me he needed the money, he should have known I would have just given it to him… [but] I would rather let it pass. It’s not something I want to judge Steve by…’
Jobs: ‘I don’t know where that allegation comes from. I gave him half the money I ever got. That’s how I’ve always been with Woz. I mean, Woz stopped working in 1978. He never did one ounce of work after 1978. And yet he got exactly the same shares of Apple stock that I did.’
As the business began to blossom, the financial aspect got more real. Wozniak’s father, himself an engineer, was convinced Jobs didn’t deserve a fifty-fifty sharing with his son. Jobs, in tears, told Wozniak that if it weren’t going to be an equal sharing, the latter can have the whole business to himself. Of course Jobs knew that it wasn’t in Wozniak’s DNA to transact with business stakeholders he didn’t know, as did Wozniak himself. He understood more than his father the nature of his relationship with Jobs. He can build all these brilliant things, but without Jobs his gadgets would be just another hobbyist’s brilliant creation. He agreed to equal sharing.
Apple needed to look like a real, well-managed company. To produce the Apple II they needed more money, so they looked for investors. At that time, Jobs was on one of his diets. Jobs, who often went to extremes, fully believed that with his diet he didn’t need to constantly take a bath. He was also into Zen Buddhism by then, having gone to India for enlightenment. He walked barefoot, had long hair and an overall scruffy appearance. That, plus his body odor left investors in doubt. Nevertheless they managed to get the approval of Mike Markkula who would make Apple’s initial business plan (Jobs would repeatedly promise to contribute but never did, so Markkula ended up doing the entire thing himself) and establish ‘The Apple Marketing Philosophy’:
(1) Empathy – We will truly understand their needs better than any other company
(2) Focus – In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities
(3) Impute – People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software, etc; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.
The three points above are worth mentioning because today, when you look at Apple products and Apple as a company, it is evident that Jobs has put these points to heart. His inherent ability to go to extremes – to outright reject one proposition and outright soak up in, assimilate, and indeed osmose another concept – is one of his many two-edged weapons. In this case it has been extremely propitious, producing, among others, the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.
The Abandoned Becomes the Abandoner
Around this time, Jobs got her on-again-off-again girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, pregnant. Only Jobs can say why, but at that time, he didn’t offer marriage, was open to abortion, but strongly discouraged adoption (guess why). It is said that he was given to blocking/ignoring certain realities that he didn’t want to face. He was twenty three, the same age his biological father (whom he refers to as his sperm bank) was when he abandoned baby Steve. Years later, he would admit:
I wish I had handled it differently. I could not see myself as a father then, so I didn’t face up to it. But when the test results showed that she was my daughter, it’s not true that I doubted it. I agreed to support her until she was eighteen and give some money to Chrisann as well. I found a house in Palo Alto and fixed it up and and let them live there rent-free. Her mother found her great schools which I paid for. I tried to do the right thing. But if I could do it over, I would do a better job.
Despite the expression of remorse, however, the book says that the two were often at odds, and, both being stubborn, would often not speak to each other for weeks or months.
Apple III, the Lisa, and the Xerox Affair
Apple II sold very well, but it was largely seen as Wozniak’s creation. Jobs resented it, and started creating the Apple III. It was a flop. Another model was started, the Lisa, named after his firstborn whom he abandoned, and that too was fast turning out to be a disappointment.
And then the Xerox Affair happened.
Xerox PARC’s (Xerox Palo Alto Research Center) Alan Kay envisioned a personal computer that could easily be understood, even by children. To achieve this, they pioneered the GUI, or the graphical user interface, in tandem with bitmapping. Bitmapping created a wealth of new and much more beautiful graphics by allowing for pixel-by-pixel control of graphics, rather than per character. It was also the first to use the ‘desktop’ metaphor, where your computer is like your desk, with various documents on it, which you can select by using a mouse.
As fate would have it, Apple then needed a second round of financing. Xerox’s capital venture division showed interest, and in Jobs’ haughty way, his offer was to accept $1 million investment in Apple, in exchange for Xerox ‘opening the kimono’ at PARC. Incredibly, Xerox agreed! One of Xerox’s engineers was so angered that she decided they’ll only show enough to dazzle Jobs, but not nearly enough to give away the technology. Jobs was not fooled. He brought with him his engineers and even called the division head when he felt that ‘the kimono’ was only partially open. The Xerox engineers were helpless.
Jobs was on a roll. He pushed for several notable improvements – windows that can be dragged, files that can be dropped in folders, documents that can be opened via double click, windows that can overlap (allowing for several open files at a time, one ‘on top’ of another), among others. Xerox did its share of leveraging on its technology, but it failed, both because of [poor] quality and prohibitive price.
Did Steve Jobs steal Xerox’s idea? Or did he rightly build upon and take to greater heights a technology (whose own pioneers can’t even get right) which was virtually offered to him on a silver platter?
Jobs’ intense passion on working on the Lisa did wonders, but it also got him booted out of the team, mainly due to clashes with the head of the Lisa division. At that time, another line was being developed, headed by Jef Raskin. Raskin called his product the McIntosh, later renamed the Macintosh, after his favorite type of apple. His vision was to bring this computer to the masses by pricing it below $1,000. Jobs was impressed with the vision, but not with the goal of keeping costs down. His vision was to have an ‘insanely great’ computer, and again his passion and energy would drive his co-workers crazy, especially Raskin. In the end Jobs was given the green light to take over the Macintosh project. With Raskin out of the way, Jobs was in total control, and he was about to show the Lisa team that he could create a better and more profitable computer.
In his quest for something he could really call his own, he rejected the Macintosh code name given by Raskin, and proposed that it should instead be called the Bicycle. Luckily, it didn’t take off. A disaster averted! Everything else, however, was assembled and designed to absolute perfection that even his greatest frenemy Bill Gates acknowledged its brilliance. Jobs was critical about every aspect. No part or feature was small enough to ignore, just like how he ordered that the lines in Apple I’s circuit board be straight. He got it from his father who taught him that it was important to do everything perfectly, including the ones only the repairmen will see. The book chronicles this quest for perfection admirably.
As the launch of Macintosh neared, Jobs envisioned having a commercial that will ‘stop people in their tracks… I want a thunderclap.’
I have just seen the commercial now, and my reaction was ‘F*cking brilliant!’ Seriously. You can call it overly ambitious, conceited, egotistic, anything really – except a failure. Because for all its intended purpose, it hit bull’s eye. If you want to position your company as rebellious and countercultural, how better convey that than through Orwell’s ’1984′? The girl smashing Big Brother is Apple smashing what has until then become an industry of mediocrity and counter-innovation. It really appealed to me.
Apart from the commercial, Apple (i.e. Steve Jobs) also had a product launch. The launch of the Macintosh would be the start of many more, each one as successful, if not more, than the previous one. Here’s the video of the Macintosh product launch, for which Jobs tirelessly prepared, from the script down to the lighting, requiring several run-throughs to ensure seamless performance.
Watching this launch and several others in the ensuing years made me think that perhaps, more than any other trait, it is his childlike enthusiasm and curiosity that has continuously made him come up with better and better devices, always pushing technology to its limits, rarely settling for compromises. He’s like a child staging his little show in exchange for some applause. He loved debuting a device by covering it in cloth and dramatically unveiling it – he did this not just in launches, but even in Apple internal meetings, and more noteworthy, even in interviewing employees (if after the great unveiling, the prospective employee’s eyes twinkle and show excitement to ‘play’ with the new ‘toy’, he’s in)! He seems to me as if he did not outgrow the wide-eyed awe of the young; the innocent, almost ignorant, belief that we can ‘turn our dreams and visions into reality’. All his evil ways aside, in this aspect I am inclined to think that he is actually more optimistic than most of us; more innocent and pure than the most devout.
There is still much ground to cover. I haven’t even mentioned his famous reality distortion field. I’ll try to do another entry when I have time. I suggest you read the book. It’s all very easy to hero-worship him or dismiss him as a manipulative guy who steals ideas – but it’s always preferable to be better-informed in giving out judgment.
As for me, it’s almost an equal proportion of disgust and admiration, obviously (I hope it would be obvious by now). Jobs said that he needed to be harsh to get the job done; he needed and wanted only A-players in his team to be able to build ‘insanely great’ products. But I find myself asking – how important is making a dent in the universe if it means being cruel and losing your integrity?
Soliloquy addressed to the man (random thoughts in 30 seconds):
You say you are wired that way. You cannot tolerate mediocrity; you can’t help it. But other people are not as great or as meticulous as you, can they say they can’t help it too? And yet, if you did accept them for how they are wired and settle for second-best – that would sound just as bad. But should that logic give you reprieve?
You see, thinking about it is counter productive. And to some extent, Jobs’ actions are perfectly understandable. Everyone’s judgment has only one benchmark: The Self. What we deem acceptable and what we deem stupid is all relative to our own assessment of ourselves. No matter how much we want to believe that we are aware of our flaws, reflex-judgment often assumes that we are The Perfect. And then logic (sometimes guilt) kicks in and we make adjustment to our judgment and come up with a more reasonable one. Perhaps it is this second, crucial step which Jobs lacks. He doesn’t have the patience to understand; he doesn’t have the humility for self-doubt.
That, I can probably chew. What I can’t yet make sense of is why he had to lie to Woz (if it were true), how he was able to stomach the fact that one of his best friends and cofounder of Apple was not given stock options when Apple went public in 1980, why he had to crush someone’s idea and later put it forward as if he were the one who came up with it, and yes – why he had to abandon his daughter, knowing how being abandoned left an indelible mark in him.
But it’s ten in the evening and I’m tired and this entry has been way longer than I thought it would be. So I now throw away all that thinking and start exploring my Macbook Pro. Finally.
How coincidental is it that the first thing I do with my Mac is write an entry about its ‘father’?