For years, Apple refused to cooperate with authors who wanted to write books about Apple or, more particularly Steve Jobs. There have been a number of books published on both without any cooperation from the company or its employees. For the most part, authors relied on former employees, friends, ex-friends, and competitors to build a narrative. Apple stayed mum.
That changed when Steve Jobs agreed to allow author Walter Isaacson to interview him for an authorized biography titled “Jobs.” The book also included interviews with such people as Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive, and even Apple’s rivals, such as Bill Gates.
The picture of Jobs wasn’t friendly. He came across as the mercurial tyrant he was always believed to be, but since this was the book he authorized, it was all taken as factual. This was the man some came to love, others learned to fear or hate. Or some combination of these and other emotions.
Now I have followed Apple for years, but I never had the opportunity to do a formal interview with Jobs. I did write up a brief interview with Jonathan Ive back in 1998, when the iMac was first introduced, but it was restricted to that product.
However I did encounter Jobs at two Apple events. One was at the rollout of the very first Apple Store in New York City in July, 2002, at a former post office building in the SOHO district of Manhattan.
Well, when I got to the gathering, I spent a few minutes talking with actor/comedian Tim Allen, who was looking over some photographic gear but was happy to chat. I asked him whether there would be a sequel to “Galaxy Quest,” a 1999 Star Trek sendup starring Allen as a Shatner/Kirk character that has become a cult classic. Other than the usual difficulties Hollywood had in concluding deals, he mentioned that actor Daryl Mitchell, who portrayed Tommy Webber, the navigator and Sulu counterpart, had been paralyzed due to a motorcycle accident the previous year. That put a huge damper on the possibilities for a second film. (Mitchell’s career continued, however, and he is now a featured player, in his wheelchair, in “NCIS: New Orleans.”)
A few minutes later, I encountered Philip Schiller and asked him about some general matters of little importance. We had met several times previously. Jobs showed up soon thereafter, and after introducing myself, I asked a couple of questions. As he delivered a curt response to the second question, he turned on his head and walked away mid-answer. I gathered on a subsequent encounter, a few years later, that this was just one of his methods to cut off an unwanted conversation.
Certainly these brief encounters confirmed my impression of Jobs as not a very nice guy, but his reaction was typical of the way he managed press meetings. Unless the encounter was under his own terms, he made it quite clear he wanted to be elsewhere. Remember my presence was quite unplanned.
Well, even people that you may regard as nasty and egotistical will have other sides to their personalities. Jobs certainly was less impossible to deal with as he grew older, and you wonder whether his wife and young family helped to tame his attitude. But I wouldn’t care to guess.
But now there is yet another book about Steve Jobs, one that is being touted by key Apple executives as a more fair and balanced approach to his life. Well, in this case that means you see not just his nasty side, but his mellow side as well. As he matured, according to “Becoming Steve Jobs,” written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzell, he became less the micromanager and learned how to delegate more responsibilities to people who could do the job better than he. That meant Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive and others. In his last years, he helped establish Apple University, a training system where employees are instructed in the Apple Way. This means teaching the corporate culture to new hires, or existing workers who need refresher courses. It’s a way to translate the company’s DNA going forward. Call it the wisdom of Steve Jobs.
So “Becoming Steve Jobs” is, for now at least, the official take on the life of Steve Jobs. At the same time, the Isaacson book is being criticized as presenting a distorted picture of Jobs the man; in other words, they feel that book portrays Jobs in too negative a fashion. In short, you get the bad, but not so much the good.
Or maybe Isaacson, who did not have a history as a tech journalist, didn’t quite understand the ins and outs of the industry and how corporate politics played out, particularly the frenemy relationship between Jobs and Gates.
Regardless, you have to feel that the new book has become a stepchild of Apple’s corporate spin machine. Indeed, the manuscript was reportedly sent to Apple before publication, though it’s claimed that they did not order any changes. Still, I understand why a column in the Boston Herald characterized the book as “Apple’s attempt to deify co-founder.” Apple clearly wants to present an official story about the life and times of Steve Jobs, and that means softening his excesses.
Does it represent a more accurate portrait of Jobs than Isaacson’s? That’s a very good question, and one that may never be answered. There are just too many stories, too many different versions and too many scattered emotions to know. Only those close to Jobs, such as his family, coworkers, and friends, can tell the truth, but you can understand if they want to sugarcoat a few facts for public consumption. Or just to feel better about the man.