More than digital genius, in a wondrous life, ‘Steve Jobs’

Two years ago this month (on August 24, to be precise), Steve Jobs stepped down as chief executive officer of Apple. A few weeks later he died. The day before his passing, Jobs worked a few hours on the next Apple product lines.

Workaholic, visionary, self-absorbed, brilliant. From start to finish, he was all that and more. 

This week, “Jobs” — a new movie with Ashton Kutcher as the founder of Apple — hit theatres to mixed reviews, and denunciations from at least one key player present at the founding of the information age.

Coming this winter: another motion picture focused on the best-known wizard of Silicon Valley will come forth, focused on three snapshots from product launches across Apple’s early years.

Neither film is really based on the masterful Walter Isaakson biography, “Steve Jobs,” (Simon & Schuster) published shortly before Jobs’ passing. Isaacson’s book details the life — warts and all — of perhaps the most brilliant entrepreneur of the digital era.

Although he cooperated with the book, Jobs promised he would not expect veto power. He kept his word, and as a result the book delivers the story of a wondrous life, warts and all.

A powerful narrative gives this and future generations a uniquely detailed insight into a man of many redeeming features who was, in most personal and professional relations, “an assholic” – even by his own admission. 

The “reality distortion field” – through which Jobs compelled fulfillment of improbable (at the time) product engineering and “impossible deadlines” – is well-documented, as is the possible impact of that field on his personal health.

In this book, readers move from Jobs’ adoption as a baby through youthful drug experimentation — then on to his rise, fall and rise again in business,  and the disturbing unwillingness to react in the initial stages of his health crisis in the early 2000s. Both the professional “geek” and the seemingly dysfunctional father, friend and husband is laid bare.

His early spirituality, a blend of Buddhism and agnosticism, yielding a generic almost-monotheism in his latter stages, is ultimately understandable. 

Jobs told Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the greatest violinist of recent decades, that his artistry “almost” convinced him of God’s existence. Ultimately, Ma played at Jobs’ funeral. 

Was Steve Jobs really a dysfunctional human being?

Was he little more than a brilliant self-consumed narcissist?

That’s a tough one. Let’s say this for sure, as Charles Kuralt did when reporting for CBS News on the death of Russian hero Andrei Sakharov: “He made a difference. Not many do.” 

Even the most saintly among us are made of flesh and blood, not plaster or acrylic. Both experience and genetics shape us. Reasons for success and failure in a given life are often mysterious, mystical and spiritual.

Jobs was far removed from personal sanctity, yet among the most positively consequential human beings of the last few centuries. In the end, how does that stack up in the order of history?

He drew close to his natural birth sibling, and even to their mother, but never sought reconciliation with his birth father – although the book includes intriguing hints they met a time or two at a California restaurant.

Perhaps Jobs’ eventual awareness of his abandonment by his blood father and mother shaped him as the prickly perfectionist who is illustrated on page after page in this biography, filled with countless vignettes and moments that sear into the consciousness.

He was manipulative, even of his doting adoptive parents and the faithful wife of his latter years, yet examples of that manipulative-ness include this tale: 

When one Apple product was on the verge of catastrophic failure, Jobs engaged in a lengthy give-and-take interview with reporters, many of them among his most ardent critics.

His performance – a combination of disarming candor and clear-eyed detailing of rescue plans in the production pipeline – resulted in universally positive coverage in the news media, a surge in Apple’s stock value, and a dramatic increase in sales. 

Eventually, Jobs delivered on every single promise made that day to reporters, shareholders and customers. Incredible — and so rare as to inspire awe. 

When this book first came out, and again during the 2012 presidential campaign, many reviewers took note of a private meeting with President Obama in which Jobs said, “You’re headed for a one-term presidency.” He offered to help Obama’s team create advertising that would evoke the unifying “morning in America” themes that served Ronald Reagan so well in his 1984 reelection.

Not as widely reported were stiff criticisms of American public education Jobs delivered to the chief executive in that and other encounters. He told Obama the nation’s schools were “crippled by union work rules.” Jobs pressed the president to allow strong-principal models of schooling, in which principals could hire and fire teachers. 

At a dinner meeting of Silicon Valley leaders (not including Gates) he arranged for President Obama, Jobs said America needed more trained engineers and – much like Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn recently said at a town hall meeting – that special immigration procedures should be crafted to encourage such people to come and stay here. 

Jobs told Obama that the reason Apple had 700,000 factory workers in China was that he needed 30,000 engineers scattered around manufacturing sites to support workers – and that “you can’t find that many in America to hire.” Jobs said if the country had enough engineers, “we could move more manufacturing plants here.” 

Jobs clearly preferred Obama to the assorted Republicans competing in 2010-11, but he told Isaacson he was infuriated by Obama’s excuses for his   inability to get things done. 

Intriguing, in light of his early hippy years, was Jobs’ antipathy, as he grew older, to the Internet’s role in the explosion of access to pornography. When civil libertarians complained to him about the blocks Apple products put on salacious materials, he repeatedly justified himself by saying his critics would change their minds once they had children of their own.

Jobs sat for 40 long interviews with Isaacson – who interviewed more than 100 individuals in the course of his research. The book fully delivers as the insider story of arguably the greatest entrepreneur of the modern era. 

Jobs’ first two incarnations with the firm that will always bear his imprint were stormy, filled with experimentation, exhilarating achievements and shocking errors — and an ultimate decision by his self-chosen board of directors to fire him.

He then went into digital animation and motion picture production, semi-profitable ventures, before his third coming as headman at Apple. That was the beginning of an epochal transformation of what was already an epochal industry. 

This is the guy whose teams launched products that changed the world: Apple II, the MacIntosh, Pixar films like “Toy Story,” Apple Stores, the iPod, the iTunes store, the iPhone, the App Store, the iPad, iCloud (where credit is shared with other digital moguls) and, as Isaacson puts it, “Apple itself, which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth.” 

Jobs was high-functioning, not dysfunctional. His drive and insistence on perfection drove away friends and early colleagues – most (but not all) of whom eventually reconciled.

A daughter conceived out of wedlock drew close to him late in life. The three children from his marriage to Laurene Powell were alternately astounded at his emotional distance, and in his final years driven to seek his approval and love.

The child least close to Jobs was his youngest daughter. He told Isaacson,  and everyone with whom he was intimate, that she was the most like him.

Reading these stories of Jobs interior life, and his complicated family relationships, evoke feelings that are poignant, personal and real — among the most edifying aspects of the book.  

Highlights include the way Isaacson captures the love-hate relationship between Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Mostly they were competitors, but at crucial points they cooperated. 

Each relied on the other as a trigger to generations of new products with selective cross-compatibility (always subject to Jobs’ notable reluctance to permit too much integration with competing models) allowing development of a profitable product for one firm that allowed interaction with the other.

What lingers after reading the book is not the differences among these business titans, but their similarities. They brought to bear diversity and tension that still drives the digital era.

At the May 2007 “All Things Digital” conference, the pair agreed to a joint interview. Each spoke “warily, then warmly, about the other.” When Gates said the most notable thing about Jobs was his “taste” and instinct for beauty in production, there was nervous laughter in the crowd. Years before Jobs had assailed Microsoft for its lack of taste.

Gates immediately stressed he meant it, recalling one of their joint projects, when “I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that, you know, is hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different and I think it’s magical.”

Jobs later told Isaacson he was “blown away” by the generosity of Gates’ comments.

In that joint appearance, Jobs admitted – recalling his early years in Silicon Valley – that for all his criticisms of Microsoft’s open model, “we (at Apple) weren’t so good at partnering with people. And I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well.” 

A few years later, their last visit began, Isaacson reports, when Gates showed up at Jobs’ back door, to visit a clearly ailing competitor.

They spent hours together, “old guys in the industry,” looking back at a lifetime of alternating conflict and collegiality. Interestingly, much of their time that day was devoted to education reform and the curious lack of impact on high-tech in delivery of broad-based instruction. They both realized they had been made more whole, and more productive, in their choice of wives.

Gates told Jobs his career had made a positive difference, and Jobs reciprocated.

Curiously, in separate conversations with Isaacson, each predicted that the other’s companies would have trouble surviving without the founder. 

Indeed, Apple has had a stormy time since Jobs’ death. 

Hand-picked successor Tim Cook is battling continuous disappointments with recent product lines.

Still, Fortune Magazine recently designated Apple as “officially the second most profitable company in the world.” Here’s how Evan Niu, writing for “The Motley Fool” blog online, put it: “Seven years ago, before the iPhone was released, (Apple) ranked as No. 159. In 2013, the company scored No. 6.” Apple’s revenue has increased eleven times since 2006, when the Jobs rescue operation, detailed in Isaacson’s masterpiece, reached its summit. 

Today, most of the top 20 companies on the planet Earth are oil firms or car makers. Only Samsung joins Apple as a technology firm in the top 20.

What hath Jobs wrought?

For hints at answers, read Isaacson’s book — one of the best biographies of this generation.

Editor’s Note: This essay blends two reviews – respectively printed in The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City, and posted at the website. McGuigan uses both Microsoft and Apple products. He appreciates each, but inclines toward the latter. Contact him at