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'Becoming Steve Jobs' - sweetening the Apple story by rebooting Jobs' image


Steve Jobs in 1984

Steve Jobs in 1984

Steve Jobs in 1984

"Just tell them I'm being an asshole." For once, Steve Jobs was applying his legendary brutal honesty to himself. This time he had a plausible excuse. This time he was dying.

The Apple co-founder passed away on October 5, 2011, leaving behind a remarkable technological legacy - but also a fearsome reputation that threatened to overshadow his achievements.

Brent Schlender, the author of a new biography entitled Becoming Steve Jobs, knew the man for 25 years and felt the public perception of "half-genius, half-asshole" didn't gibe with his experience.

So he was more than a little taken aback when Jobs jokingly offered the "asshole" excuse for pulling out of a planned round-table interview with Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Intel's Andy Grove in 2008. The truth was Jobs' cancer - first diagnosed and treated in 2004 - had returned, but he had kept it a secret for years.

Jobs wanted to hide his illness a little longer, maintaining his notorious streak of control freakery while he pursued his ambitions before his time ran out.

The book by Schlender, co-written by his Fortune magazine colleague Rick Tetzeli, is an attempt to redress the balance of a deluge of coverage and commentary that followed the late CEO of the world's most valuable company. But in particular, it seems aimed at countering Walter Isaacson's authorised biography, what was considered at the time the definitive account of Jobs' life when rush-released after his death four years ago.

Isaacson's exhaustive tome, which interviewed everyone from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak through to new CEO Tim Cook and feted designer Jony Ive, was produced with Jobs' full cooperation. It painted an even-handed picture of an inspired, driven visionary whose people skills were frankly abysmal.

Those closest to Jobs were definitely uncomfortable with Isaacson's raw portrayal of his management style, which had served to energise the Apple team to produce iconic products but left many a casualty on the road behind.

"That's shit!" was Jobs' customary opening (and sometimes closing) gambit in a conversation.

Tim Cook doesn't mince his words to Schlender: "That Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It focused on small parts of his personality. It didn't capture the person."

Mind you, the author also reveals that Cook was so fiercely loyal he offered the ailing Jobs a part of his liver when the search for a transplant donor stalled. The CEO, probably with an eye on the future of his company, demurred.

Several more of Jobs' colleagues and associates line up to present an alternative view of Jobs as boss, mentor, ally, confidante and loyal friend. Perhaps the world at large had missed a different narrative where SJ was merely tough but fair.

You wonder whether the subject himself would have been comfortable with this new revisionist take on one of culture's most divisive figures. Certainly, you get the sense that this is closer to the version of history that Apple would prefer endured.

Schlender and Tetzel make their intentions clear from the outset with the book's subtitle: "How a reckless up-start became a visionary leader." The first part was easy to revisit.

We eavesdrop on a young Jobs in 1979 trampling all over a meeting of a Californian charity trying to eradicate blindness in Asia. The callow 24-year-old had been asked to venture his opinion to a board of experts but couldn't resist brashly telling every one in the room: "You guys don't know diddly about marketing!" They threw him out.

When discovered in the car park sobbing, Jobs apologised and fled. Most of the myths about Jobs stemmed from this period in the late 70s and 80s when he was at his most indisciplined, says Schlender.

F Scott Fitzgerald insisted in 1940: "There are no second acts in American lives."

But Jobs proved him wrong. Ejected from Apple in 1985 when the business went sour, he spent more than 10 years in the wilderness. But in that decade he founded computer company NeXT and bought animation studio Pixar for a song.

Surrounding himself with mentors, he learned patience, calm and delegation, to add to his brilliance at marketing and laser-like focus on "insanely great" products. NeXT failed but Pixar soared.

"Watching our collaboration (at Pixar), I think that fuelled Steve," says Toy Story director John Lasseter.

"He (became) more open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent."

When Jobs reclaimed his throne at Apple in 1996, the company was broken, on the verge of going out of business. But Steve's newfound maturity and single-mindedness meant there would be no repeat of his fall from grace.

"Steve surrounded himself with an experienced team made up of people who could argue back fiercely," says Schlender. The result was a string of hit products, beginning with the colourful iMac and culminating in his greatest triumph, the iPhone in 2007.

By then, of course, the cancer had marked his card but Jobs knew his legacy was secure.

Yet the question unanswered by the book is which Jobs - good or bad - we'll remember in 50 years.

As Bill Gates - a bitter rival but also a respected friend - told Schlender after Jobs' death: "So many people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down - but forget about the genius part."

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Indo Review