The War Over Who
Steve Jobs Was
Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Apple’s genius leader is being challenged by a new book supported by Jobs’s inner circle.
On October 16, 2011, the early evening weather on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, was almost unspeakably gorgeous — mild as a warm bath, a cloudless sky above, a full moon beaming benevolently on the 300 people gathered to mourn Steve Jobs. The world had lost one of its greatest creative forces, but for those in attendance, especially his family, the loss was painfully personal.
Yet the ceremony was, as intended, a celebration of a distinct, brilliant and sometimes impetuous man of flesh, blood and foibles. After the formalities in Stanford Memorial Church ended with Bono singing “Every Grain of Sand”(reading the lyrics from an iPad), the entire party retreated to a nearby garden area that was beautifully arranged for a post-dusk gathering. For several magical hours over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, mourners reminisced about a most unforgettable human being.
The Steve Jobs portrayed in the encomiums that evening was not just a genius who oversaw the development of products that would change our lives. He was cast as a person with a keen wit and a capacity for deep connections with his friends and enduring love for his family. But behind the scenes of a seemingly perfect memorial a shadow drama was unfolding, with Jobs’s public perception at stake.
As the crowds mingled before the service, Walter Isaacson, who had been entrusted to write the official biography of Jobs, was telling people he had just dropped off an early copy of the book to Steve’s widow, Laurene. The work had been rushed into print to capitalize on the huge interest after Jobs’s death. And just after the service, a journalist who had known Jobs well, Brent Schlender, left before the mourners gathered in the garden, racked with regret at not seizing the opportunity to say goodbye to his frequent subject earlier that year.
Isaacson’s eponymous biography of Jobs became a publishing phenomenon, selling over a million copies and making Isaacson himself somewhat of a celebrity. But privately, those closest to Jobs complained that Isaacson’s portrait focused too heavily on the Apple CEO’s worst behavior, and failed to present a 360-degree view of the person they knew. Though the book Steve Jobs gave copious evidence of its subject’s talent and achievements, millions of readers finished the book believing that he could be described with a word that rhymes with “gas hole.” A public debate erupted around the question of whether having a toxic personality (as was the general interpretation of Isaacson’s depiction) was an asset or a handicap if one chose to thoroughly disrupt existing businesses with vision and imagination. A Wired cover story (not mine!) asked, “Do you really want to be Steve Jobs?”
Only now, over three years later, has their dissatisfaction become public. In a February New Yorker profile, Apple’s design wizard Jony Ive conspicuously insisted that, while sometimes withering, Jobs’s harsh criticisms of his employees’ work were not personal attacks, but simply the result of impatient candor. As for Isaacson’s book, Ive was quoted as saying, “My regard couldn’t be any lower.”
But their unhappiness comes in full view in a new book co-written by the journalist who left early from the memorial service, Brent Schlender, called Becoming Steve Jobs. The reason Schlender had been angry enough at Jobs to turn down a precious final meeting was that his former source had stopped giving him access for his Fortune Magazine stories. But for this book, Apple was rolling out the red carpet for Schlender. In their new tome, Schlender and co-author Rick Tetzeli capture the thoughts of the people closest to Jobs in rare interviews seemingly granted to get the record straight. The subjects include Ive, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple’s former head of communications Katie Cotton, Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, and Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. Others who were otherwise uninclined to cooperate did so at the urging of some of the aforementioned insiders. The implicit message seems to be that although almost all of those people participated in the official biography, they very much feel that the Steve Jobs they knew has still not been captured. Catmull’s authorized quote about the new book is telling: “I hope it will be recognized as the definitive history.”
Becoming Steve Jobs is the anti-Walter.
I guess I should come clean about my own bias here. Schlender is one of the very few journalists whom Steve Jobs favored with his trust over decades of coverage. The core of this tiny group probably includes only Schlender (who reported for the Wall Street Journal and Fortune), the New York Times’ John Markoff — and me. (Walt Mossberg, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, also had a close relationship with Jobs, but it was through his job as a product reviewer, and later conference organizer, rather than his reportage.) All three of us had some similar experiences with Jobs. And all of us had the opportunity to see Jobs evolve from a cosmically brash rebel in his twenties to a leader of one of the world’s most significant companies in his fifties.
But as explained in Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, Schlender’s contact with Jobs was more personal. (Despite the book’s being a collaboration of two authors, the prose is in the first person, from Schlender’s point of view.) Though he is careful not to cast his relationship with Jobs as very much more than a warm interaction between professionals, Schlender seems to have been in very frequent contact with Jobs, visiting his house frequently and on several occasions bringing his children.
It was presumably this closeness that led Schlender to get cooperation from Jobs’s inner circle. Judging from the quotes from the interviews its members gave the authors, they very much had the Isaacson book in mind when offering up anecdotes about Jobs.
The best example of this is current Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account of his effort to donate part of his own liver to Jobs at a time when no compatible organs were available on the transplant list. Jobs vigorously refused the offer even before Cook could finish explaining it. It’s an emotional story that stands on its own. But Cook seems to have a specific point in recounting this. “Somebody that’s selfish, doesn’t reply like that,” he tells his interviewers. And in case they miss the reference, he continues.
“The picture of him isn’t understood. I thought the [Walter] Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I never would have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short. . . He wasn’t a saint. I’m not saying that. None of us are. But it’s emphatically untrue that he wasn’t a great human being, and that is totally not understood.”
At that point the authors mention that Cook’s remarks “echoed the feeling of many of Steve’s close friends — in interview after interview…”
In my view, Cook’s dismissal of Isaacson’s book as just a sloppy rehash is somewhat over the top. I came to Isaacson’s book with a lot of knowledge about Steve Jobs, yet I learned many new details from over 40 interviews Jobs gave to Isaacson, as well from some interviews Isaacson won because Jobs prevailed on people to cooperate with the book. No matter what one thinks of Isaacson’s book, it is absolutely permeated, as is appropriate, with the voice of its subject. In addition, no one is claiming that Isaacson fabricated material.
(Isaacson himself, in an interview in the New York Times, said, “My book is very favorable and honest, with no anonymous slings.”)
Instead, the complaint is that Isaacson over-emphasized Jobs’s unattractive qualities and failed to present a rounded picture that corresponded with the reality of those closest to him. Schlender and Tetzeli attempt to remedy that in two ways. First, they give plenty of room for people on the wrong side of Jobs’s bad behavior to contextualize it. Second, they present a contrast between the young Jobs, whose misdeeds often arose from a self-indulgence or a flailing indecisiveness, and the mature Jobs, who not only channeled his energies more successfully, but was able to develop rewarding adult relationships.
This is a tricky balancing act for the authors, as even to the last, Jobs could be a tough person to deal with. Towards the end of the book they spend a full chapter, titled “Blind Spots, Grudges and Sharp Elbows,” trying to deal with some of Jobs’ unsavory actions even after his touted maturation. There’s no getting around the fact that Jobs held grudges, was gleeful in apparently violating the labor laws banning corporate collusion in not hiring each other’s employees, and sometimes would throw formerly valued employees under the bus.
At that point, one wonders whether the difference between the two perspectives is a matter of spin. Yet from my own perspective of knowing Jobs for almost 30 years, I have to say that there is indeed something that Schlender and Tetzeli bring to their portrait that was missing in Isaacson’s. For sure, the direct quotes in the authorized biography rang true as being pure Steve. But only in Becoming Steve Jobs do I recognize the complexity and warmth that I saw first-hand in Jobs, particularly in the last few years of his life.
Although Jobs professed to hate nostalgia, I did sense that as he grew older (and faced his mortality) some sentimentality had crept into his palette of emotions. He would sometimes bring up with a cackle something from the past — an arcane product from the early PC era, some gossip about the Mac team, even a shared incident from one of the stories I worked on about him or Apple. Though he was far from a jokester, he was quite capable of unleashing a barb. Often these were pointed at others in the industry, but sometimes he would make fun of himself. My own favorite quip of his came when I once asked the Beatle-loving Jobs if his dream was to have Paul McCartney perform one of those two-song sets that often closed his product launch events. “No,” he told me. “My dream is to have John Lennon perform.”
Though I have even less reason than Schlender to claim that ours was anything but a professional relationship, I believe I did get to see Steve as the man in full described in Becoming Steve Jobs. Though as with Schlender, Jobs and I had differences due to the diverging agendas of reporter and subject, we saw eye to eye on many things, including the amazing transformation that technology had on society, the importance of clear, simple design, and the greatness of Bob Dylan. And I am very thankful that, unlike Schlender (whose baffling refusal to see Jobs one last time seems to be tied to unique circumstances regarding not just journalism, but the writer’s health issues), I was able to properly say goodbye to Jobs in the last year of his life. Taking all this into account, I believe that Schlender and Tetzeli have indeed captured elements of Steve Jobs not found in the official biography.
In the long run, though, I believe that the disagreements about Jobs’s personality will have diminishing importance as future students of technology and culture seek to understand what Steve Jobs actually did, and how he did it. To that end, the lasting value of Becoming Steve Jobs might have nothing to do with its effort to be a corrective to the previous biography. Instead, historians will appreciate the careful documentation of Jobs’s professional evolution. The official thesis of the book is that during Jobs’ so-called “wilderness” years, between his being fired from Apple in 1985 and his return in 1997, the prodigal co-founder gained management wisdom, patience and even a measure of tact, all of which helped him take the company to unprecedented heights. Far from a novel observation, this has long been the conventional wisdom. But never has this narrative been so carefully developed as in Becoming Steve Jobs.
The authors zero in on specific negative consequences of Jobs’s behavior in his first stint at Apple and the early years of Next, and then demonstrate that, while Jobs was still capable of rudeness and self-entitlement, he had learned how to become an unparalleled strategist and manager. He also was successful in forging rewarding professional relationships with those he respected.
In addition, the authors manage to come up with many fascinating details neglected in all previous accounts of the very well-documented Jobs. Who knew that the Apple CEO was just as proud of the micro-transaction strategy embedded in the iTunes store as he was in winning the 99 cents-a-song concession from the labels? (Not me, and I wrote a book about the iPod.)
Because Becoming Steve Jobs has such a wealth of detail about its subject, summing it up in a sentence would do it injustice. The authors themselves explain that Jobs’s life can’t be neatly packaged like a Pixar movie script, instead saying it was “inspiring, confounding and unabashedly human.” But if I were forced to offer a précis in the space of a tweet, I would quote a line from Schlender and Tetzeli, about Jobs:
“He could be a jerk, but never an asshole.”
photo by George Lang, courtesy of Brent Schlender