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Sunday 4 December 2016

Steve Jobs: A rotten apple?

Among Apple fanatics, company founder Steve Jobs is a messianic figure. But two new movies lay bare his nasty side

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Leading man: Michael Fassbender as the Apple founder in new movie Steve Jobs
Leading man: Michael Fassbender as the Apple founder in new movie Steve Jobs
Messianic: Steve Jobs

Four years since his death Steve Jobs' immortality is assured. Apple, the $1.4 trillion company he founded in a California garage, is one of the world's largest corporations and arguably the most culturally influential.

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Jobs himself has attained the status of machine-age secular saint - a guru whose messianic faith in the transformative power of technology has become the unofficial gospel of our era. When the latest iteration of the iPhone was unveiled on Wednesday the world briefly shuddered to a stand-still as we feasted on the technical specifications of the iconic device - testament to Jobs' incredible influence on how we live today.

But is it possible this tech-era holy man, who died from cancer in 2011 aged 56, had a little of the devil in him?

That is the picture emerging piecemeal as his passing becomes part of the historical record. In a new biopic, premièring last week to stellar reviews, Kerry actor Michael Fassbender plays Jobs as cold and hard-charging - a boardroom despot whose visionary streak was offset by a remarkable capacity for cruelty and indifference towards the feeling of others.

Equally unflattering is the portrait set to emerge in Jobs: The Man In The Machine, a new film by award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney.

Even more explicitly than Fassbender's movie, Gibney's documentary is said to be deeply critical, painting Jobs as conniving, combative and fundamentally untrustworthy. Not only was he thuggish and demanding of colleagues - in Gibney's telling he was also supremely disloyal, throwing under the figurative bus allies who had ceased to be of use.

Damning portrayals of powerful men are no novelty - and are, indeed, a Hollywood staple going back to Citizen Kane. What's different about Steve Jobs is that, to many, he represents something larger than a technology company. To Apple diehards the corporation Steve built embodied the best of humankind - fusing art and technology, refusing to settle for second best, pushing for perfection where others were happy to be average.

Still, there's no getting past it. Up close, Jobs had a nasty side. He parked in disabled spaces with cocky impunity. Underlings recall quivering in terror as he unloaded on them over what he regarded as a below par presentation or report. He wasn't above hurling abuse at those failing to meet his stratospheric standards. Were he anyone other than Steve Jobs, it's doubtful people would have been willing to work with him.

In his personal life too, he was often aloof - almost sociopathic. He denied for many years the parentage of his first daughter Lisa, conceived out of wedlock with high-school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan. After Apple became a success and Brennan asked for very basic child support, he dispatched a team of high-powered lawyers to keep her at bay (he would later apologise for his actions and named a computer after Lisa).

Just as shocking was his betrayal of Steve Wozniak, the hardware genius with whom he built Apple's earliest computers. When in the late 1970s Atari hired the pair to create a new video game, Breakout, Jobs told "Woz" that Atari was offering $700.

Loyal and dutiful, Wozniak stayed up four straight days and suffered sleep-deprivation sickness. However, he finished the game, for which he duly received his $350. What he didn't know was that Atari had, in fact, offered thousands - the rest of which was pocketed by Jobs.

"He did tell me that we would get paid 700 bucks, then he wrote me a check for 350 dollars, and he got paid thousands. He should have told me differently because we were such close friends. Who cares about money? Well, I do care about friendship and honesty."

What is made explicit by both Fassbender's movie, the Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs (for which the actor is already receiving the apocryphal Oscar "buzz") and Gibney's doc, is that Jobs' true gifts were as a pitch-man, not a tech guy. He didn't personally design the iPhone - he articulated a loose vision as to what it should be, then sent his minions to make his shaggy philosophy a reality.

"That he was the grand vizier, that he could see into the future, that he was going home into his house at night and just imagining what the next product would be, and thinking about new tech and how it was going to be engineered and how it was going to be designed," said Gibney. "My understanding is that it was not like that at all. That Steve was a storyteller, but not really the inventor. And that's not a story that Steve wanted anybody to tell."

"Jobs was the best example of 'cult of personality' in terms of marketing and branding that there's ever been," says Shane O'Leary, brand strategist with Dublin advertising agency Target McConnells. "We've heard that term used negatively in history, but Jobs' passion and unique personality seemed to create an irresistible magnetism around him, and by extension Apple.

"From reading about him extensively…I would agree that the day-to-day reality was probably that he overstepped the line quite a bit and seemed both sensitive, but also bullish, difficult, stubborn and contrarian. Combined with his obvious deep understanding of business strategy and design, that created a perfect storm, and helped to build Apple into one of the world's biggest brands."

"The concept of Apple's success was definitively rooted in using Steve Jobs as a 'brand'," adds Colin Lewis, a digital branding expert based in Dublin. "Indeed, it is one of the best strategies for any business: use the figurehead of the organisation as a 'humanising' element of typically faceless corporations. Then develop the personality of the business around that person, and cue acres of press column inches."

The question is whether Jobs' visionary genius could have existed apart from his nasty side. Gibney is inclined to think so and worries that the esteem in which "Steve" is held in the tech industry has encouraged younger entrepreneurs to behave as he did - for good, but also for ill. It's something to ponder the next time a hipster exiting one of the gleaming tech corporations on Dublin's docklands almost runs you down on his skateboard.

"I see a lot of people in Silicon Valley who feel like they need to ape every aspect of Steve Jobs," says Gibney. "So, 'let's not give to charity, that would be a fucked-up, stupid waste of time.' You know, how does that compute? And how does being unnecessarily cruel to people or not reckoning with the kind of corporate responsibility that big companies should have to reckon with, how does that really advance the ball? Was it really necessary? I think that was a kind of peculiar petulance that Steve had that doesn't have to be observed."

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