Steve Jobs, By Walter Isaacson

 

It was one of the Sunday papers that got it. Not the serialisation rights to Walter Isaacson's exemplary biography of Steve Jobs (though it got that, too), but the epitome of the coarse-grained, dullard response to the story of Jobs's life. The puff on its front page read: "ACID TRIPS. WEIRD DIETS. THE DEMENTED GENIUS OF STEVE JOBS."

Questions are, of course, raised. The first two are easily answered. Yes, Steve Jobs took LSD as a young man. So did I. So did lots of us. And plenty of other things, too. If it's not interesting that I did it (which, believe me, it isn't) why is it interesting that Jobs did it?

There are two possible answers. First, that it's at variance with our idea of what a globally successful hi-tech entrepreneur should be like; and, second, that in an otherwise uneventful life, it's something out of the ordinary. The two analogies might be the Pope or the assistant manager of your local branch of Lloyds TSB turning out to be an acid-head.

The second, easily answered, question is the weird diets one. Yes, he had odd food fads throughout his life. Sometimes fruit. Sometimes nothing at all for days. Sometimes special smoothies that had to be done just so, or he would apparently spit the dummy, go ape, bug out and get a feather up his ass.

On the other hand, the first time I had lunch with Steve Jobs, in 1984, I was waiting for an explosion and – in a curry joint, albeit a damn high class one in Soho – it didn't come at all. He had the vegetarian thali, I think, and ate it all up like a good chap.

Yet... food fads? Again, on the list of Interesting Things About Steve Jobs, food fads are surely way down the pile. And again, they can only be of interest if they in some way deviate from the popular notion of what a world-class innovator and entrepreneur should be like.

The other two questions... well, actually, thinking about it, the third one is easy, too. "Demented." Was he? No. End of story. Demented people don't make much of their lives. They certainly don't achieve what Jobs achieved, which Isaacson summarises in an impressive list. The Apple II, the first personal computer which was not just for hobbyists. The Macintosh, which kicked off the home computer revolution and popularised graphical user interfaces - icons, mice, fonts, folders and all the apparatus we now take for granted. His involvement with Pixar began with Toy Story "which opened up the miracle of digital imagination" (and which left to their own devices, Disney would have ruined).

He launched the Apple Stores. He introduced the iPod, which "changed the way we consume music", and the iTunes Store, which killed the album but saved the music industry. He launched the App Store, the iPhone, the iPad and the yet-to-be proven iCloud. And, of course, he was the man behind Apple, one of the world's most recognisable brand.

This was not a demented man. Demented men don't do that sort of stuff. Demented men think it's Thursday, or the Queen's a penguin. They collect different sorts of Post-It note or keep spreadsheets of their bowel movements or wonder if they've had their tea. Nobody listens to them, and certainly nobody pays any attention.

As for genius: of course he was. In every sense of the word. He had exceptional natural abilities. He exerted a powerful influence over others. And he represented the spirit of the age of hi-tech innovation: an age which, I suspect, has now come to an end. I'll be wrong, of course, but how I'll be wrong is an example of the Rumsfeld Paradox, an "unknown unknown".

So: no points for the Sunday paper. Steve Jobs wouldn't even have let it go out. He wouldn't have liked the colour, the placement of the full stops, the yellow type, the typeface, the sans serif upper case, the kerning or the sentiment expressed. "This," he would have said, "is shit."

It was one side of Jobs's binary chop. The other was "insanely great". You could be on one side one day, the other the next. Grown men were reduced to tears by him, though he was a notorious weeper, too. But when he said "That's really great", you felt like a demigod.

It was, perhaps, an abusive relationship, though the more insightful of his colleagues worked out that you needed an attenuator and a translator in dealing with him. "That's shit" meant, most of the time, either "explain to me why this is a good idea" or "This is not quite how I envisaged it". "This is insanely great", in the same way, meant "That's kind of what I had in mind" or "Yup, that might just work."

They were both examples of what became known, in honour of a Star Trek episode, as "Steve's reality distortion field" which, one of the long-term Apple men said, remained effective even when you were entirely alert to the fact that he was doing it. The reality distortion field was simply Jobs's belief that what he wanted to be done could, by virtue of his wanting it, be done.

It's a childish belief – see the toddlers having tantrums in Tesco – that he retained for his entire life; yet, curiously, it more often than not worked. People did things that astounded them under the Field's influence; things that they either knew perfectly well were impossible or things they didn't know couldn't be done. Everyone laughed at it, but the Field was one of the most crucial factors in Apple's and Pixar's success.

Not that the success was smooth. Jobs's story, beginning with his adoption by loving blue-collar parents in California who, he said, realised he was special and "deferred to my needs", would serve as a model for courses in screenplay structure. The précis is easy. Boy believes himself special. He finds (in Steve Wozniak, a shy, gentle engineering wizard) the perfect sidekick. They design a computer.

It is a runaway success, thanks to Woz's engineering and Steve's perfectionism and salesmanship. Company grows. A man Jobs brought in as CEO squeezes him out. Jobs goes off and starts another venture which utterly fails. Goes into Pixar. Apple almost goes bust in his absence. Jobs returns. Triumph.

Even if you have no interest at all in the lives of businessmen, this is worth reading, and no surprise it's the number one bestseller in the US. It's a - literally - epic story, superbly told by Isaacson with none of the breathlessness of the usual boring hatchet-faced Chief Executive's Tale. Jobs approved; when, as he was dying, he said he hadn't read it yet but would there be stuff he didn't like, Isaacson said yes. "Good", said Jobs, "then it won't read like an in-house book." Nor, despite Jobs's triumph, does it seem a particularly happy life. But the man left his mark.

In the end, Jobs divides opinion. Some regard his obsession with the perfect Bauhaus-principled, form-follows-function ethic, expressed through his genius industrial designer Jony Ive, as picky. Some hate the "end-to-end" control that Jobs always insisted upon, saying it locks users into Apple. Others point to the sheer ugliness of other hi-tech products - the Dells, the Zunes, Windows, Motorola phones and so on - and their endless fussiness and complaining, and see Jobs as a saviour for making something we interact with every day actually be beautiful.

He also pulled off an astounding piece of branding. Though the logo is instantly recognisable, nobody owns an Apple product. I use a MacBook Air, an iPod and an iPhone. On none of them, except in the smallest type on the back, does the word "Apple" appear. They don't need to have their name on them; their provenance is instantly clear.

Jobs demanded it in Apple products because that's what he cared about. Not market share. Not, in the end, the money. But an industrial elegance which deserves to be called "beauty" and which is as powerful in objects and machines as it is in art. Whatever prompted them - hypoxia, a vision of the sublime, a new product inspiration – Jobs's last words, reported by his sister, novelist Mona Simpson, were appropriate, and nicely echoed what so many of his customers have said as they opened up the latest insanely great new thing: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

Michael Bywater's books include 'Big Babies: or, why can't we just grow up?' (Granta)

Comments