Whether out of awe for the achievement (which almost justifies the phrase ‘insanely great’), or the reverse, dislike for the obnoxious aspects of the personage (likewise), reviewers of Walter Isaacson’s masterful warts-and-all biography of Steve Jobs have failed to pick up on a rich vein of dark comedy that runs through it.
One strand, the three-decade-long ego joust betweenJobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, just asks to be made into a Tom-and-Jerry type animated story (by Pixar, naturally) in which every seven or eight years an abrupt new sideways leap by his rival leaves a baffled and apoplectic Gates trailing in Apple's wake. Jobs ‘doesn’t know anything about engineering and 99 per cent of what he says and thinks is wrong,’ Gates yells at then Apple CEO Gil Amelio when the latter brings Jobs back into the fold by buying his start-up, NeXT, in 1997. ‘Why the hell are you buying that garbage?’ Similar incredulity and denial greets every strategic shift and product announcement: the move from IBM to Intel chips, the launch of the iMac, then the iPod and iTunes Store, which wrong-foots Microsoft yet again. Redmond carps that the iPhone is too expensive and doesn't have a keyboard (exactly), and the iPad will be sidelined by devices with a stylus and camera. In the end, of course, Jerry outdoes Tom even for size and money. Jobs reflects: ‘The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune [Microsoft’s music player] was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t love music and art the way we do... If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.’
One of the profoundest things he said, that quote channels the higher-level comedy of which the rivalry with Gates is a knockabout subset. Redmond isn’t the only thing Apple made a monkey of. In the course of its journey to most valuable firm in the world it cocked a snook at every nostrum of the conventional management playbook (one reason, of course, why its actions were so difficult for others to anticipate). From corporate governance down, Jobs made up his own rules. ‘Jobs did not cede any real power to his board’, Isaacson notes; one of the conditions of his return to Apple was replacing most of the existing directors with his own appointees. He kept them in the dark about his illness. Sometimes his disregard for the normal rules got him into trouble, as in the options backdating affair of 2006 – but even then it served to underline the fact that options are a black joke at the best of times; his sheer disregard got him off the hook. Shareholders he simply ignored.
As Isaacson shows, Jobs cared about customers, though. ‘We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you don’t cheese out,’ he said. From this unsparing product focus, everything else flowed – whatever the textbook might say. Against all advice, Apple insisted on making both hardware and software, because seamless integration made for a product that was better, sexier, easier to use. Jobs wouldn’t licence the Mac OS and killed off the Mac clones, again in the face of dire warnings, for the same reason. The desire to show off the product in the best possible light led to the Apple stores. Everyone warned that it was a vanity project; in fact the Apple stores, manned by Apple freaks who are on salary, not commission, are the most profitable retail real estate per square foot on the planet. Apple is a relationship company – and retail the fourth industry, after computers, music and phones, that Apple has stood on its head.
The obsession with product even determined the company’s structure, with profound consequences. Because Jobs wanted integrated products, he ran a company that was integrated, too. Determined that techies would work with artists, production with design and marketing, he ran his teams as one company with one bottom line. Sony, on the other hand, was organised in divisions, each with their own P&L. Having all the elements, including content, under one roof, Sony was ideally placed to do the iTunes Stores – but it could never get its divisions to work together to do it. The implacable product focus was his best weapon in negotiations, too. It meant that he always knew when to fold and when to push, a talent that served him well not just in the tense arguments over the iTunes Store but also in the sale of Pixar to Disney, in effect a reverse takeover. Finally, Jobs intuitively understood that if he got the product right and established a relationship with the customer, the money would take care of itself, which it duly did – Apple’s culminating paradox is that it became the richest company in the world by caring about everything except money.
It’s hard to overstate how unlike the normal businessman Jobs was. ‘Vegetarianism and Zen Buddhism, meditation and spirituality, acid and rock – Jobs rolled together, in an amped up way, the multiple impulses that were hallmarks of the enlightenment-seeking campus subculture,’ sums up Isaacson. Whether conscious or not, not being a businessmen was one of Jobs’ greatest strengths, allowing him to entertain preposterous yet insanely profitable ideas that more sensible people would have dismissed out of hand. The trouble with Gates, Jobs once opined, was that he had never loosened up: ‘he would have been ‘a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram whn he was younger’.
I said it was a dark comedy. In only one respect did Jobs’ belief in his own rightness let him down, but it was a crucial one. A lifelong dieter, Jobs was a vegan and sometime frutarian who in his youth held the whacky (and, as co-workers testified, completely false) belief that a strict enough diet absolved him from the need to wash. More damagingly, in 2003 he dismayed his family by delaying an operation for pancreatic cancer in the hope that diets and other New Age remedies could stave off the inevitable. Alas, in the grim reaper he had picked one of a very few entities that was immune to his notorious reality distortion field. As to who gets the last laugh, it’s too early to tell. Jobs wanted his legacy to be ‘an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products’ (his thoughts on this subject are perhaps the two most moving pages in the book). He left it many advantages, including the App Store, through which Apple keeps its cherished close integration yet opens its devices up for personalisation, and its very difference. But as this brilliant, clear-eyed account makes clear, Steve Jobs will indeed be a hard act to follow.