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My Personal Encounters with Steve Jobs

As most of you know, Steve Jobs is an extremely private person, someone difficult to know well, but certainly described as loyal to his friends, family, and trusted coworkers. The forthcoming authorized biography will reportedly include not just interviews with Jobs, but with others as well, supposedly with no restrictions on the questions being asked.

It’s fair to say I was never on his speed dial list, so any opportunity to speak with him ought to be considered a gift, or a lucky break.

Back in 2001, less than two months before the 9/11 tragedy, the family and I spent a week in New York City, primarily to attend a Macworld Expo, and also to catch up on long-delayed visits with my nephews. Well, Apple was opening a new retail store in the SoHo neighborhood in New York, in a building rebuilt from a former post office, I believe. Apple scheduled a special event on the eve of the grand opening for so-called VIPs and members of the press, and I was lucky enough to snag an invitation.

That evening, I was having a long chat with actor/comedian Tim Allen, an avid Mac user, when Jobs and some other Apple executives, including VP Philip Schiller, strolled in. I was nearby, and managed to snake my way to the front the crowd, where I asked Jobs a few questions about some of the matters he raised during his keynote. He responded politely at first, and began to use a technique that enabled him to easily extricate himself from an uncomfortable situation. As he was answering my final question (or what he chose to regard as my final question), he simply walked away in the other direction at a fast speed, realizing full well that I’d consider it impolite to follow him. Well, he was right, though I suspect others might feel otherwise.

Some years later, at a San Francisco Macworld Expo, I was again just a few feet from jobs, who was greeting some of those who attended his keynote. Again, I approached him, asked a brief question about some minor issue in his keynote and, once again, he responded by speaking and walking away at a fast rate.

Understand that nothing he said could be regarded as quotable, though I might have written it up in an old blog at the time. It was clear to me, however, that he was uncomfortable in a public setting when he didn’t have full control of the presentation. Yes, he would do interviews on occasion with selected members of the press at keynotes, media briefings, or even on a cable news program. The most you’d get out of him was a carefully scripted response, although his appearances at an AllThingsDigital conference often provided far more illuminating information. But you know those responses were rehearsed there too.

Yes, when Steve Jobs appears in any public setting, he is always in full control, even if you wish it were otherwise.

Now I would certainly hope that I’d be able to speak with Jobs at greater length on a future occasion, but certainly his sudden, but not unexpected, decision to step down as CEO of Apple Inc. has reminded many of his mortality. His resignation letter states clearly that he is not up to the task of working full time at Apple, and being Chairman of the Board affords him far more flexibility. To me this means that others can do the “grunt work” as it were, and he can focus on the larger picture, plotting and helping to execute Apple’s strategy. Indeed, Jobs reportedly spent a day at Apple’s headquarters shortly before his decision to resign became public, so it’s not as if he is necessarily at death’s door, though his condition appears to have weakened him considerably.

Unfortunately, some members of the media have treated the Jobs story as a sort of eulogy, reciting his history and speculating on how Apple will fare on the post-Jobs era. However, the state of affairs at Apple today is little different than it was months ago, when Jobs took his extended sick leave. Then and now, Tim Cook performed the CEO chores. Then and now, Jobs made occasional public appearances, came to the office from time to time, continued to plot strategy and make deals. In other words, at least for now, nothing has changed at Apple other than to formalize an arrangement that had already, in fact, existed. Indeed, Wall Street, after an initial drop in Apple’s stock price, appears to be calming down.

But I do agree with others that the clock is ticking, and that Jobs will ultimately give up the Chairman post as well. One hopes, however, that his health isn’t still deteriorating and that CEO Tim Cook will get the wish he voiced some years ago, that he would see a gray-haired Steve Jobs, in his 70s, still plying his trade at Apple Inc.

And maybe, just maybe, Jobs will be a little more forthcoming next time I have the chance to speak with him, and I am optimistic enough to believe that will happen some day.