The Steve Jobs backlash has begun, sparked by a new biography that paints a balanced but often unflattering portrait of Apple’s visionary cofounder and CEO.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, contains no huge revelations—which is no surprise, considering many other biographies have already covered much of the Jobs life story—but does deliver some key nuggets of information that will surprise and perhaps disappoint even those who have followed Jobs closely during his career.
Unlike other biographers, Isaacson had access to Jobs himself, interviewing the CEO some 40 times and speaking to most of the people who knew him well. Jobs first sought out Isaacson to write the biography in 2004, not long after his initial diagnosis of cancer. Isaacson demurred. But in 2009, knowing that his health had grown worse and that he did not have long to live, Jobs asked Isaacson again. At that point Isaacson, who previously had written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, signed on for the project.
Jobs’s death on Oct. 5 prompted an outpouring of grief, with Apple fans creating makeshift shrines outside Apple stores and industry luminaries delivering tributes to his genius and portraying him as a kind of selfless messiah, a silicon saint who had led the world out of darkness and into the light.
The Isaacson book paints a more complicated picture, one that Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, encouraged the author to present, saying that “there are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth. You shouldn’t whitewash it. He’s good at spin, but he also has a remarkable story, and I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully.”
The picture here is of a brilliant, successful yet amazingly narrow, limited, and ungenerous man, who, even as he was dying, could not let go of his desire to outdo his enemies.
She might not have expected, however, that Isaacson would include comments from Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original Macintosh developers and a longtime friend of the Jobs family who lives near them in Palo Alto, Calif., claiming that Laurene’s story about meeting Steve by accident at an event at Stanford, where she was a graduate student, was not entirely true—that in fact she had schemed to meet him. “Laurene is nice, but she can be calculating,” Hertzfeld says, “and I think she targeted him from the beginning. Her college roommate told me that Laurene had magazine covers of Steve and vowed she was going to meet him. If it’s true that Steve was manipulated, there is a fair amount of irony there.”
Laurene Jobs tells Isaacson that this is not the case. But still, there it is, in the book.
Also much addressed is Jobs’s notorious mean streak and willingness to be rude and belittling even to those closest to him. Jon Ive, Apple’s head of design and one of the closest people to Jobs during his career at Apple, recounts examples of Jobs being hurtful, something that puzzled Ive, since Jobs was also a very sensitive person. “His way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that.”
Jobs is painted as a stubborn egomaniac who refused to get treatment for his cancer when he was first diagnosed despite entreaties from close friends like Intel CEO Andy Grove, who is a cancer survivor himself, and Genentech chairman Arthur Levinson, who is an Apple director. “That’s not how cancer works,” Levinson recalls telling Jobs when he first set out to cure his disease by with a vegan diet, carrot juice, acupuncture, and visits to a psychic. “You cannot solve this without surgery and blasting it with toxic chemicals.”
Eventually Jobs did have surgery, but by then it was too late—the cancer had spread beyond his pancreas. The Isaacson book also reveals that for the last several years of his life Jobs knew his health situation was far worse than he let on to Apple and the public. For years some critics have complained that Jobs and Apple were not being forthcoming enough with shareholders about the true nature of his condition. The portrait presented by Isaacson is of a man who claimed he had been “cured” even when he knew this was not the case.
Jobs comes across as hypercompetitive and vengeful, a man who, even as he was dying, remained obsessed with Google’s Android operating system, which he considered to be a rip-off of the software in Apple’s iPhone. “I will spend my last dying breath if I have to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs says.
Isaacson also recounts Jobs’s fury when Jon Rubinstein, a key Apple engineer, left the company and later joined Palm, which was building a rival to the iPhone. Rubinstein was pushed out of Apple by Ive, who had clashed with Rubinstein and gave Jobs an ultimatum—he goes or I go. So Rubinstein left, and yet when he took a position at Palm, Jobs went ballistic, and even called rock star Bono, whose investment company, Elevation Partners, owned part of Palm, and asked him to intercede. Bono told Jobs to chill out. Jobs did, eventually, and later says, “The fact that they completely failed salves that wound.”
Jobs in his dying days seems not to have gained any special wisdom or perspective. He has unkind things to say about Rubinstein, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Barack Obama, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and others. In the case of Obama, Jobs refused to meet with the president unless Obama called him personally to ask for the meeting. When the pair finally met, Jobs comes across like a version of Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, suggesting, among other things, that the U.S. should be more like China when it came to regulating (or not regulating) companies as they built factories, that the president should get rid of teachers’ unions, and that schools should stay in session until 6 p.m. and operate 11 months out of the year.
Perhaps the most disappointing side of Jobs involves his family. Isaacson delves into the story of Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter Jobs fathered when he was 23 years old but refused to acknowledge, forcing her mother to live for a time on welfare and food stamps, and later on a meager subsidy even while Jobs became one of the wealthiest people in America. Jobs later acknowledged Lisa, and at age 14 she moved in with Jobs and his new family, after some kind of difficult situation that Isaacson hints at but, for reasons that are unclear, decides not to divulge completely. Even then, though, Jobs and his daughter had a rocky, on-and-off relationship, with the tech titan often cutting his daughter off when they had disagreements, forcing her to borrow money from Hertzfeld to pay for her tuition at Harvard, for example.
Jobs had three children with Laurene—a son, Reed, and two daughters, Erin and Eve. According to Isaacson, “Jobs developed a strong relationship with Reed, but with his daughters he was more distant. As he would with others, he would occasionally focus on them, but just as often would completely ignore them when he had other things on his mind.” Says Laurene: “He focuses on his work, and at times he has not been there for the girls.”
Isaacson says Jobs told him one reason he wanted to have a biography written was so that his children would know him. He said he hadn’t been around much for his kids, and he wanted them to understand why that was. This must be one of the saddest things I have ever read. The picture here is of a brilliant, successful yet amazingly narrow, limited, and ungenerous man, who, even as he was dying, could not let go of his desire to outdo his enemies and could not imagine anything more fulfilling to do with his limited time on earth than building more new gadgets and gizmos, a man who put work ahead of his family and was often appallingly hurtful to the people closest to him. He was, in other words, a man of his time, a symbol of all that is great and all that is wrong with our culture.