Steve Jobs: The guru behind Apple

He's chief executive of two of the most powerful technology brands in the world: Apple and Pixar. But what motivates Steve Jobs? And how does he choose a new washing machine? Charles Arthur investigates
Click to follow

It sounds like an urban myth but it could be a day in the life of Steve Jobs, who is chief executive of two technology companies that are admired both inside and outside their respective industries: Apple (which makes the iPod and a range of computers) and Pixar (which made the films Toy Story and The Incredibles). Apple made him a multi-millionaire, Pixar made him a billionaire, and the two mean that at the age of 50 he has cemented a unique position as a force in computing, consumer electronics (through the iPod), the music business (the iPod again) and Hollywood.

And despite all that, he still can't choose a mobile phone. (How nice to find you have something in common with such people.) His problem, he says, is that he can't find things that satisfy him. "I end up not buying a lot of things," he says, carefully, when I ask how he chooses what to buy from the myriad of gadgets and technologies in the shops. "Because I find them ridiculous."

I'm in an anonymous underground room in Paris with Jobs and a large group of journalists, in a floor below a conference centre where people are flocking to a showcase of Apple products and services, a cacophony of promotional videos and software demonstrations with amplified voice accompaniment by eager geeks. But here, it's quiet. Jobs is dressed in his trademark black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans, and trainers. The only gadgetry here is an iPod nano, the credit card-sized player he has just launched.

Despite his rock-star approach to unveiling new gizmos, Jobs has no great love of the media, which has from time to time exposed details about his private life that he would rather keep to himself. Thus he is a prickly interviewee, disliking personal questions, always aiming to turn the conversation back to his companies and their output. Though outwardly friendly, with an easy smile, in time he betrays his impatience through his hands and shoulders.

Suggest something he disagrees with - such as that there might be demand for an FM tuner in the iPod - and he'll respond with the unprovable "People don't want that." Questions he deems foolish are themselves rebuffed with a brusque question, such as "Oh yeah? Who?"

A friend who once worked at Apple suggested to me that "Steve basically thinks of the press as insects." Certainly, he is hard to engage at a personal level. And journalists are always at a disadvantage to Jobs, which may be just how he likes it. He has the insider knowledge of which way the technological river is flowing. When I questioned him, Apple had not launched its video-enabled iPod, nor begun selling videos from its online music store. But to me it seemed obvious that would happen, and soon. Isn't it a logical next step, I asked?

"Whether people will buy a device just to watch video - it's not clear," Jobs replied easily. "So far the answer's been no, because there are several devices out which play video and none of them has been successful yet. So, um - so far, nobody's figured out the right formula."

What's missing from the other devices already on sale, then?

"Well, uh, if we knew then I probably shouldn't talk about it," Jobs beamed. Three weeks later, he did talk about it, holding aloft the video iPod he had known then was ready: "Never before has it been done where you can buy hit, network, prime-time shows online the day after they air on TV and watch them on your computer and iPod." Whether it's the right formula remains to be seen, of course.

So, looking forward, what does he see? For example, will TVs and computers merge? "Our personal belief is that while there's an opportunity to apply software to the living room, the merging of the computer and the TV isn't going to happen. They're really different things. So yes, you want to share some information [between the two], but people who are planning to put computers into the living room, like they are today, I'm not sure they're going to have a big success." That's a no, then.

He is disparaging about approaching development backwards. Home networking wirelessly whizzing music and video around the house? "I think in the future you'll see some of that, but you've got to be sure it's not a technology in search of a problem." Wireless headphones for your iPod? "It means you not only have to recharge the iPod, you have to recharge the headphones, and people don't want to do that - so again, I think it's like so much f you see: a technology in search of a problem."

But when he's got a problem that needs some technology to solve it, he can be as painstaking as he is about his computer company's output. He once described how he and his family chose a new washing machine. Not for them a cursory study of the spin speed and price tag; instead they discussed European versus American design, relative water use, detergent demands, everything. When I remind him of this, he smiles slowly, and says, "Yeah, but you have to have a washing machine, right?" It's all the other things that frustrate him. So how does he choose things? "Same as you," he says slowly. "We're both busy and we both don't have a lot of time to learn how to use a washing machine or to use a phone - you get one of the phones now and you're never going to learn more than 5 per cent of the features." He's talking much faster now, accelerating in frustration. "You're never going to use more than 5 per cent, and, uh, it's very complicated. So you end up using just 5 per cent. It's insane: we all have busy lives, we have jobs and we have interests and some of us have children, everyone's lives are just getting busier, not less busy, in this busy society. You just don't have time to learn this stuff, and everything's getting more complicated."

That frustration is characteristic of the man. Jobs, 50 last February, is notoriously finicky about the tiniest details of the products that Apple produces. (He gets less involved in Pixar's output.) The iPod's success largely derives from its ease of use, which derives from his insistence, when shown prototypes, that one should be able to pick any piece of music within three button presses from turning it on.

It's remarkable that Jobs is still about. By rights, he should have disappeared decades ago, after being kicked out of Apple in 1985 and starting up another computer company that couldn't make a profit, and buying an animation company that almost bled him dry (and which he tried to sell several times).

Yet NeXT Computer was bought by Apple, throwing him a lifeline which let him take charge again of his creation. And Pixar Animation, which Jobs co-founded in 1986, came up trumps with the first totally computer-generated feature film, Toy Story, giving him leverage over the all-powerful Disney and making him a billionaire in its stock-market floatation.

Still, Apple was just chugging along before the iPod relaunched it in October 2001. The ubiquitous small white machines now generate just under half of its $14bn revenues, and are still growing.

It sounds easy enough. But Jobs has rarely been offered, and rarely taken, the simple path. The son of a college student and a political science professor, he was adopted by a family led by a machinist at a laser manufacturer. Although his birth mother had made it a condition of his adoption that his new parents get him to attend university, he dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, after just six months. But then he became a "drop-in" back at Reed, attending only the courses, such as calligraphy, that interested him, while scratching an existence earning a few cents recycling cans and eating for free each week at the local Hare Krishna temple.

He got a job with the games company Atari, then left to travel in India. On his return, he worked for Hewlett-Packard before setting up Apple Computer in 1976 in the Jobs family garage with former school friend and computer hacker Steve Wozniak.

Apple grew and prospered, and so did Jobs; the Macintosh introduced the idea of "windows" and "mice" to the wider world. Microsoft adopted the idea and made it famous, continuing a long rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates that stretches forwards and back in computing history. While Jobs obsessed over details, Microsoft steamrollered its way into companies and took over the world.

What's peculiar is that Gates has frequently been wrong about the overall direction of technology. His 1995 book The Road Ahead is full of clunkers about how life would develop; Microsoft barely realised that the internet was coming along.

By contrast, you'd be unwise to bet against Jobs. In 1996, when NeXT Computer had already failed in its attempts to sell hardware (and so was having to concentrate on software), he gave a long interview to Wired magazine. In it he forecast that Microsoft wouldn't find out a way to own the Web, that nobody would make money from web browsers, that the Web would be a huge hit for commerce (at a time when Amazon was barely six months old), and that the internet would revolutionise the supply of manufactured goods, by letting consumers specify fine detail of their desired product which could be relayed back to factories. Dell Computer, for example, works on precisely that basis. And Dell is by far the most profitable of the computer manufacturers. Jobs tends to be right about the direction of technology.

He has been wrong a few times, though. At NeXT, he thought people would pay a huge premium for an overdesigned cube-shaped computer (it had a laser-cut magnesium case; most manufacturers just used injection-moulded plastic). Only 50,000 were sold over eight years. At Apple, he thought people would pay a premium for a cube-shaped computer, the Cube; they didn't. In the same year, 2000, he thought people would prefer to watch DVDs on their computers, rather than making their own music compilations by "burning" CDs. They didn't. But he learnt from the latter mistake: Apple immediately bought in a music-playing program called SoundJam and its developer, Jeff Robbin. SoundJam became iTunes, the program that feeds the iPod, and Robbin leads its software side.

What has helped Jobs back from his errors is his ability with people. From a point of minimal leverage he has bettered both the Disney corporation and the record labels, two of the toughest (legal) negotiators on earth. Disney gave Pixar a favourable deal; the record companies licensed the iTunes Music Store, which has more than 75 per cent of the entire legal music download market.

Alan Deutschmann, a journalist who researched Jobs's middle years for a biography called The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, believes he displays two personalities in his dealings with people: Good Steve and Bad Steve. The Good side is charming, and can make people believe almost anything; that's the side on public view at the rock-star product launches. He's been said to have a "reality distortion field" - by a mixture of charm and exaggeration, he can make you believe pretty much anything. But once he's walked away, you're sometimes left thinking "Huh?" Or as Bud Tribble, another of the early Macintosh employees, described it: "In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything." But, he added, "It wears off when he's not around." (Tribble, too, still works at Apple.)

When the Good Steve system hasn't worked, or isn't needed, there's Bad Steve. He can get furiously angry, an emotion reserved for private moments with staff or those he thinks have been disloyal or useless. And his relationship with the media has its ups and downs, too. While he loves hobnobbing with celebrities, he hates being treated like one, and Apple's relationship with the press reflects that.

"Apple manipulates several narratives to continue to make its products interesting fodder for journalists," comments Jack Shafer, editor-at-large of the webzine Slate. "One is the never-ending story of mad genius Steve Jobs, who would be great copy even if he were only the night manager of a Domino's pizza joint."

He probably wouldn't stay night manager for long, if he were. Jobs is a fiendishly good negotiator, a skill honed in the 1970s, when he charmed every supplier in Silicon Valley into providing parts for the first Apple computers. It's this ability that makes him valuable to Pixar, where Jobs isn't so involved in the production side (that is handled by John Lasseter). Jobs's role was to write the cheques (which nearly bankrupted him, until the company was floated) and barter with film studios. Which he did with accomplishment: Disney gave in to Pixar, and is presently trying to woo it back to a new distribution deal - a deal that Jobs is making Disney give up all sorts of favours for, like providing content in the form of TV shows for his Apple iTunes store. The giant Disney, kowtowing to the tiny Apple? A bizarre reversal.

Viewing his life, one feels that Jobs, a Buddhist, came into some serious karma in his previous existences. Not only is he a billionaire but last year he fought off pancreatic cancer, usually a quick and efficient killer. He had a scan and was told it was a tumour that would almost certainly be fatal. He was told to go home and "get his affairs in order" - "which is doctors' code for 'prepare to die'. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means ... to say your goodbyes."

That evening he had a biopsy: it turned out to be a rare form of pancreatic cancer that makes up just 1 per cent of cases and, crucially, is curable with surgery. Talk about your karma payoff. And yet with all that karma accumulated and dissipated, Jobs doesn't believe that technology is going to change the world. "This stuff doesn't change the world. It really doesn't ... Technologies can make it easier, can let us touch people we might not otherwise. But it's a disservice to constantly put things in a radical new light - that it's going to change everything. Things don't have to change the world to be important."

So then finally, what is the last piece of technology that he acquired - not made by Apple - that really delighted him? He pauses for long seconds, looks down, puts his hands on his knees, looks away. "I actually bought a bicycle recently. It's just ... wonderful."

And how did he choose it? What sort of bike? What's so great about it?

He holds a hand up. "That's as far into my private life as I want to go," he says. And with that, Steve Jobs moves on again.

The Apple story

1976 Apple Computer founded with Steve Wozniak in Jobs's parents' garage. Apple I computer introduced.

1977 Apple II computer launched, the first mass-market personal computer with colour graphics. (IBM's monochrome PC was still four years away.)

1983 The Lisa computer, the forerunner to the Macintosh, launched. It uses "windows" and a "mouse".

1984 The Apple Macintosh, the first general-purpose computer to use windows and mouse, launched.

1985 Jobs fired from Apple. He founds NeXT Computer.

1986 Jobs co-founds Pixar Animation around the remnants of George Lucas's computer graphics division, which he buys for $10m.

1989 The NeXT Computer - an expensive black cube - introduced.

1993 NeXT ceases making computers, having sold just 50,000 in four years, and concentrates on selling its software.

1995 Pixar releases Toy Story, the first feature-length film that is completely computer-generated.

1996 Deep in financial trouble, Apple Computer, led by Gil Amelio, buys NeXT for $402m, bringing Jobs back into the fold. He insists he is not trying to take over the company.

1997 Jobs replaces Amelio as "interim chief executive".

1997 Apple introduces its first iMac.

2001 Apple introduces the first iPod. It is a slow-burning hit. In the first year it sells about 400,000. To date more than 21 million have been sold.

2005 Jobs unveils the tiny iPod nano and a new iPod capable of playing video.