The Steve Jobs I Met
October 7th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
“The true measure of a man,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, “is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”
Steve Jobs was consistently thoughtful and supportive of those positioned far below him, not just in wealth and power, but also in age and experience. One of the first stories I read about Jobs in the early 1980s described him excusing himself from the celebrities of a party to have a conversation with a young person, demonstrating a new technology to him and absorbing his unfiltered reaction to it.
I didn’t imagine, growing up working class in rural Montana, that I would ever have any direct interactions with a man who was not just in the right place and time to ride the wave of early personal computing in the late 1970s, but who would ultimately go on to define what modern desktop computing would be in the 1980s, then directly manage and curate the state of the art in software and operating system development and in consumer electronics industrial design in the 1990s, revolutionize CGI film and the music industry and the retail software market, notebook construction and design, the global retailing of electronics and define how all multitouch mobile devices would work in the 2000s, and subsequently deliver upon the promise of cloud computing as an easy to use, free service to inaugurate a new decade he himself would not live to see.
And yet, as Jobs himself later pointed out, dots connect in ways that are far different that one can imagine from the start.
My interactions with the man who led companies I began to report on and follow as a technology historian (of sorts) impressed me with the measure of how Jobs responded when approached by someone who was younger, less experienced, rather unimportant and could simply do Jobs “absolutely no good.”
Among those interactions with plebes were mine.
A maturing view of youth and power
Jobs’ own view of the value of a person and his or her ideas appears to have matured along with him. At age 29, Jobs told Playboy in an interview, “It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing,” reflecting his view that young people had the most to contribute creatively.
Two years later, he was again interviewed by the same magazine, this time after his forced departure from Apple in 1986.
“I feel like somebody just punched me in the stomach and knocked all my wind out,” Jobs said. “I’m only 30 years old and I want to have a chance to continue creating things. I know I’ve got at least one more great computer in me. And Apple is not going to give me a chance to do that,” he complained.
Jobs recognized only in retrospect that starting over could be a new opportunity, an idea he expressed in his 2005 commencement address to Stanford, in saying he arrived at “realizing that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. Less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
Jobs’ most productive years, where he “contributed something amazing” at regular intervals, occurred in his forties and fifties as he introduced a series of incredibly successful products including iMacs, the iBook, Mac OS X, iTunes, iPods, MacBooks, iPhone, the App Store, iPad and, among his last announcements, iCloud.
My story of interactions with Steve Jobs
Well before I was 20, I grew interested in everything about the Macintosh: one of the first books I ever bought was Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, a manual that read like a holy book for making righteous software. Did I mention I was a hopelessly nerdy kid?
I didn’t love Apple for being Apple or having a cool logo; I had instead grown to respect its culture because of what it strove to accomplish. Apple’s HIG manual was simply a glimpse into an ideology of competency Jobs had inspired, a disciplined effort to achieve greatness through the hard work of applied genius.
Outside of the HIG, one of my favorite books in my small town library was the “NeXT Bible,” a reference that detailed Jobs’ first post-Apple computing system in excruciating detail, from the power of its Unix to the originality of its read/write optical disk, Digital Signal Processor, and Display PostScript that enabled the computer itself to render 400dpi printouts to a low cost laser printing engine as well as to the screen using the same language, something other computer systems wouldn’t begin to match for a decade.
With a full NeXT system costing around $10,000, I knew I’d never own one, but the technology captivated me the same way other more normal kids swooned at the Ferraris and Ducatis and Lear Jets they’d never own either.
The difference was that, thanks to the exponential pace of technological progress, I now have not only a notebook version of a system that is a direct descendant of NeXT (while being both far cheaper and far more powerful), but also a smartphone that packs an exaggerated, yet simplified and miniaturized version of the same technology in my pocket as well. Jobs made both happen.
I started growing frustrated with Apple in the early 90s as the price of Macs began to reach upward, leaving nothing but the ironically named Performa at the low end of its product line to compete against the generic PC, which offered none of the culture of excellence that Jobs had initiated.
Generic PCs were all about raw parts thrown together in a box to perform a task, not about design excellence or an intuitive interface or a reliable, or enjoyable, experience.
On top of Apple’s growing stagnancy in hardware, the Macintosh experience itself further crumbled from being a rock solid environment in the 1980s into an increasingly fragile one in the 1990s as System 7 lumbered along collecting extensions and the conflicts that came with them, leaving Apple’s products largely just a premium priced PC with a nicer looking desktop.
The overwhelming advantages and the technical and performance leads Apple had enjoyed the 1980s was slipping away rapidly.
Thanks! Best, Steve
While other people remember key world events like the moon landing or the Cuban missile crisis, for me the most shocking, obvious but unexpected spark of wildly giddy optimism wrapped in the terrifying fear of a potential failure happened in the last week of 1996 when Apple announced the acquisition of NeXT, and NeXT announced it was “merging” with Apple.
I had been closely following the failure of Apple’s Copland with the morbid curiosity of train wreck witness. At the same time, I’d also been following NeXT and its efforts to deliver OpenStep and then WebObjects.
It had actually never occurred to me that the two might come together, but the peanut butter and chocolate moment of synergy left me wild eyed with a wondrous potential sparking in my synapses.
I started attending meetings at Apple’s Town Hall where the potential of a new Apple fused with NeXT technology was being discussed by the Bay Area NeXT Group, BaNG.
Around that time, I wrote Jobs a detailed email where I suggested a plan for bundling OpenStep with QuickTime and distributing the runtime as a way to deliver apps to any platform.
I even suggested calling it QuickStep to associate it with Apple’s then fairly successful video technology rather than the then-distressed Mac brand. My plan was naive and fraught with real world problems, including third party technology licensing issues and the key drawback of not having a specific business model at all, but Jobs responded personally with a succinct reply: “Thanks! Best, Steve.”
As it turned out, Jobs instead saw the Mac as Apple’s most salvageable, investment-worthy brand. Sometime later, the company announced plans to rename its acquired NeXTSTEP technology “Mac OS X,” and over the next few years, Apple converted Macintosh from being a loser brand of a beleaguered company into a premier brand of a respectable firm.
Jobs’ infamous “reality distortion field” kicked in to both assure customers that Mac OS X would eventually make it to market and to convince them that the classic Mac OS was relevant enough to keep using until then, with a little dusting off in the interim.
The next year, in 1998, I raced to Apple’s website while at work to catch a recap of Jobs’ Macworld Expo announcements. The Apple site loaded with a blank white space in the middle, pausing for moment before an animated blue bulge turned to face outward, announcing itself as iMac.
I was again stunned by a mix of hopeful anticipation and a striking fear that this might be a comical flop. It’s translucent! Blue! It’s a big round blob of a computer! It looks like… like nothing else a computer maker had ever produced.
Cool computers were originally beige, then snow white, then platinum, then were jet black. Is Apple really going to attract new buyers with this clear blue and white thing? Then I realized that the series of colors that had defined cool across the history of computing were the colors of computers Jobs had been involved in building. This was simply what was next, and Jobs was going to make it happen.
And he did. By 2000, everything was translucent and candy colored, particularly anything with USB on it, which the iMac brought into the mainstream. Just in time for Jobs to unveil the new look in computers: Titanium metal.
Mac OS X was adorned with “brushed metal,” a look that toned down Aqua’s software version of candy colored translucent plastics as Apple’s product line shifted from translucent plastic to a more serious sheen of a metallic finish.
The first time I saw Apple’s Titanium PowerBook ad, I knew I needed to own it. I used the thin machine to explore the first builds of Mac OS X and continued using it until a truck performing an illegal u-turn threw me from my motorcycle and smashed the screen.
I removed the display and used the decapitated body of my TiBook to host RoughlyDrafted from my apartment for another year before it finally died from heat exhaustion at the ripe old age of five.
Interactions of a shareholder
The next time I had an opportunity to interact with Jobs, Apple had recovered, from both its initial 90s beleaguerment and its early 2000’s recession pummeling following the dot com bubble burst. I was now writing about Apple regularly and was officially an investor in Apple, although not really an important one.
However, that enabled me to attend the company’s annual shareholder events, where Jobs would entertain a question and answer session with audience members.
At every opportunity, I scrambled to come up with good questions that might coax Jobs to reveal some new insight into what Apple was doing or would be doing. While I felt privileged to engage Jobs in answering my own questions on a couple occasions, his answers and responses to everyone else’s questions around me also gave me a lot to think about.
When random people would get up and ask silly questions that didn’t really make sense, Jobs wouldn’t belittle them. He was an expert at framing situations, knowing exactly how to reply and when.
Even when pitched the most unexpected curveball queries, Jobs would line up a swing that would return the ball exactly where he wanted it to go. While frequently demonstrating his savvy in being evasive, Jobs’ most impressive responses, in my mind, were his answers to young people. At one shareholder meeting, Jobs called on a young man who might have been twelve.
The boy asked a question that I don’t even remember. What I recall was how Jobs shifted his stance to the edge of his seat, focusing his attention on every word the boy expressed. Jobs then answered his question with rapt personal attention, remaining on the edge of his seat, focused on the young person while delivering a satisfying response.
That Jobsian moment to me was far more memorable that any other: a busy billionaire sitting in front of an audience of millionaires he had created, but focused on a young person who clearly didn’t have any potential to benefit Jobs in any particular way.
There were no cameras rolling to capture anything. Jobs was simply demonstrating his sincere, respectful interest in this young person.
When it was my opportunity to ask questions, I pitched my best efforts at hardballs, asking at different times whether Jobs actually recognized the potential market for video games, if he realized what great unrealized potential there was surrounding .Mac, challenging him on the subject of the conspicuously missing native SDK for the original iPhone (which hadn’t yet gone on sale), pushing him to address the complaints of retail store employees, or asking why he didn’t make more of an effort to advertise the company’s social responsibility steps, if they were really all that significant.
Jobs frankly acknowledged the flaws of .Mac and made it clear Apple was working on major improvements. Regarding a iPhone SDK for native apps, Jobs told me in May 2007 that Apple was working to balance the needs of software security and deployment with demands for custom development on the iPhone, instead of just blowing smoke about how the existing plan for iPhone web apps was going to be sufficient.
When I asked Jobs if he had considered targeting developing countries with a low cost edition of Mac OS X (borrowing Microsoft’s strategy of selling a limited, low cost “Starter” version of Windows), Jobs responded with an incredulous reply asking if I thought Apple should sell developing nations Mac OS 9. That generated some laughs from the audience, but when I clarified that I meant Apple could essentially give Tiger away in India and China while continuing to sell Leopard here (a plan not without flaws, but one I suggested might spur Mac OS X development), Jobs thoughtfully paused for a moment, then said that could be an option.
One other question I lobbed at the shareholder meetings that was never really reported anywhere was why Apple wasn’t putting its logo on tshirts and selling them in its retail stores. Clearly there would be a huge market for branded merchandise, Disney style, I suggested. The answer I got was that apparel requires trying things on (or handling returns), and Apple didn’t want its retail employees to be spending a considerable portion of their time refolding clothes instead of helping people with technology.
Jobs vs Cook
I’m not sure if Jobs realized my affiliation as a writer for AppleInsider, a publication Apple had at one point engaged in a somewhat embittered Gizmodo-like legal skirmish after it revealed plans for an upcoming product but refused to divulge its sources, resulting in the “Apple sues bloggers” micro-controversy.
Regardless, Jobs’ answers were always insightful and honest and personal. I wasn’t able to pry free the company’s secret roadmaps, but I did get a clear, if not necessarily always an ultimately satisfying answer, to every question I could invent, answers that came extemporaneously from Jobs rather than being some canned response prepared in advance and aimed at shooting down questions with unrelated talking points.
Jobs, along with Tim Cook, kept reiterating that the company engaged in social accountability because it was the right thing to do, not because it was a good way to impress consumers. There were no cameras capturing the shareholder events and the media never really covered many of the responses.
CNET in particular personally criticized me in public for blogging about Apple while holding shares of the company, rather than reporting any of the answers I got from Jobs at the shareholder meetings that its reporters also attended, but were unable to ask any of their own questions at.
At subsequent events, Apple’s PR would always attempt to shuffle me off into the media room to avoid complaints from the mainstream media, but I kept managing to weasel my way into the main auditorium for opportunities to play ball with Jobs, a man who could always hit home runs when he wanted to, bunt when he didn’t, and lob out clever jokes whenever things got too serious.
I wanted infinite opportunities to test his responses, but I appreciate the few I was privileged to have and the many I was able to observe. I will never regret my efforts to evade the containment policing of Apple’s PR people, and I’m fortunate and happy they conceded the battle as many times as they did.
I have enough titanium parts in my body to set off the security system at Apple (which is stricter than the metal detectors of airports, as they’re looking for cameras rather than guns, apparently), but Apple’s PR never used it as a pretense to shuffle me away into a closet, even if they secretly wanted to.
Listening to Cook talk at successive shareholder meetings while Jobs was on leave initially gave me the impression that Cook could only parrot things Jobs had already said.
It then began to click with me that the reason Cook and Jobs were always saying the same thing was because they were part of a tight team that had forged a coherent, consistent vision. What to cynical critics was a blind cult around Jobs is really a culture, a parallel vision that appreciates the same values.
While Apple’s neighbor, HP, has largely extinguished its own “HP Way” culture to reach short term goals that imperiled the company’s long term future and disrespected its past, Jobs borrowed the HP Way and embraced and extended it.
For example, the company has continued to keep its efforts to improve working conditions in China and among other suppliers, and even its distant suppliers’ suppliers, a published fact devoid of grandstanding, not to impress the public, but because Apple’s executive team wanted to do the right thing, whether being closely watched or not.
I’ve since seen Cook as more of a younger brother to Jobs, emulating his lead out of a mix of respect and fraternal commonality, with his own identity and talents held in check because Cook doesn’t seem to feel any immediate need to impress the world in a way distinct from Jobs. Cook seems content building upon the culture Jobs established, not replacing it with his own brand.
Some people shake up the world in wildly dynamic new ways. Other people take that newly shaken world and perpetuate its trajectory, cultivating the core seed of innovation so it can slowly grow on its own in a way the originator probably couldn’t have himself without growing bored.
Cook isn’t the next Jobs, but he doesn’t need to be. In fact, it’s better that he isn’t. Cook doesn’t appear poised to Sculley the Apple Jobs built, but rather to curate it, to Cook up Jobs’ Apple into a cake the company can have and eat, too.