In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death on October 5, the praise was overwhelming.
He was the greatest CEO in history, a prescient visionary, prolific inventor, influential designer, brilliant artist. He could walk across San Francisco Bay without getting his New Balance 991 sneakers wet, bend light with his will and turn dog shit into gold.
Then the backlash hit.
About a week after Jobs’ death, the promotional tour for Steve Jobs, the Walter Isaacson biography, began in ernest. This week, the book itself hit. And so did the “dark side” revelations. Plus, former rivals and Apple employees with an axe to grind came pouring out of the woodwork to tell snarky stories about Jobs’ flawed morality, bizarre personality and petty misconduct.
As they are wont to do, the lame-stream media pounced on the negative angle.
The praise was too much. But so is the ongoing character assassination. It’s time to bring the pendulum back to the center, and provide context for some of the most egregious dissing.
In particular, there are four major falsehoods about Jobs being thrown around in the past three weeks that need to be addressed. Here they are:
1. Steve Jobs stole ideas from Xerox to create the Mac.
In 1979, Jobs and a group of Apple engineers visited Xerox PARC, a famous Silicon Valley research group, for three days. During those visits, the Apple team saw what was then the future of personal computing: Bitmapped screens, graphical interfaces, desktop metaphors like folders and trash cans, Ethernet, printers, mice — the works.
Four years later, Apple shipped the Lisa and a year after that, the Macintosh — both of which used concepts seen at PARC.
The conventional wisdom has become that Xerox PARC invented the networked graphical PC, and Jobs “stole” their ideas. But this is wrong on all counts.
Of course, there’s no question that Apple made major leaps of understanding and vision by visiting PARC. But what Apple created was not Xerox technology.
Malcolm Gladwell clarified this point brilliantly in a May New Yorker piece.
In fact, according to Gladwell, Jobs instructed Apple designers to avoid Xerox’s way of doing things. According to industrial designer, for example, Jobs instructed him to create a mouse for Apple, but specifically to make it completely unlike the Xerox mouse.
Jobs told him: That mouse “cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.” Oh, and one more thing. The Xerox mouse had three buttons, but Apple’s had to have one.
Everything about Apple’s mouse — the materials, the functionality and most importantly the methods by which the device registered and conveyed movement — was totally different from the Xerox mouse.
And, in any event, Xerox didn’t even invent the mouse. Douglas Engelbart and Bill English created the first mouse prototype in 1963. And a German company even shipped the first commercial mouse in 1970.
The idea that Apple stole Xerox’s mouse invention is totally wrong on all counts. This basic scenario is also true for many other Mac technologies seen at PARC.
Of course, some things the Apple engineers saw were in fact invented by Xerox, including bitmapping and Ethernet. But the biggest thing Apple got out of the visit was the big-picture vision of how a networked graphical personal computer and printers might function. The second thing was a whole lot of pointers and shortcuts to the solution to problems solved by PARC researchers.
But here’s the most important fact: Nothing was “stolen.”
Whatever Apple got from those three days was bought and paid for as part of a fair, legal, above-the-table business deal between Xerox and Apple.
At the time, Apple was still a year away from its IPO. Everybody wanted in. Apple was the hottest of hot companies. So Xerox and Apple made a deal: Apple would be granted 3 days of access to PARC in exchange for Xerox being allowed to buy 100,000 shares of Apple stock for $10 per share.
Apple went public a year later, and the value of that stock had grown to $17.6 million. Xerox paid a million for the shares, so essentially Apple paid Xerox $16.6 million for showing its research to Jobs and his team.
This monetization of PARC research was vastly higher than Xerox’s Star, which lost a lot of money.
(Also: My back-of-the-envelope calculation, factoring in a stock split, is that those shares would today be worth about $324 million.)
There’s no question that the deal Xerox made was unfair to PARC researchers, who were forced by the suits to reveal their hard-earned intellectual property. But Xerox was a stupid company. Those researchers voluntarily chose to work for that stupid company. That’s not Jobs’ fault.
The bottom line is that Jobs didn’t steal from Xerox. He paid for whatever he got, fair and square.
2. Steve Jobs was mean, petulant, brittle, abrasive and cantankerous.
One general theme in the piling on of Jobs attacks his people skills and personal ethics. Jobs screamed and yelled at, publicly humiliated and bruised the feelings of Apple employees and business partners. He was cold and unfeeling to his parents, lovers and children. In short, he was an asshole.
Of course, it’s better to be nice than to be harsh. Everyone should treat everyone else kindly. However, there are two points about Jobs’ coldness and petulance that need to be factored in.
Most of the “Steve Jobs is cold and unfeeling” stories come from his youth. He didn’t say good-bye to his parents when he went to college. He rejected his daughter. He humiliated an applicant by demanding to know if he was a virgin and whether he had taken LSD.
When these things happened, Jobs was practically a teenager. Remember, when Jobs started Apple, he was 20 — not even old enough to buy beer. Many of the worst stories about Jobs happened when he was in his early 20s.
In fact, all the tech titans with reputations as a-holes follow a similar pattern. Gates and Zuckerberg were jerks too. And they also founded companies in their early 20s.
Like the song says: “Nobody likes you when you’re 23.” And for good reason.
Male teens and men in their early 20s tend to struggle with the concept of empathy.
This is especially true of the kind of guys who launch successful companies too young. They’re likely to be nerdy, socially awkward, narcissistic loners. When these immature personality types are suddenly thrust into positions of wealth, fame, power and responsibility, it’s reasonable to expect callous disregard for the feelings of others.
Examples of men in their early 20s suddenly finding themselves running companies so hot they get their pictures on the cover of TIME, and who are not jerks, are non-existent. I can’t think of a single example.
It’s also worth nothing that both Gates and Jobs mellowed, once given the chance to grow up, start families and all the rest.
So were Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg cold, unfeeling jerks? Or were they just human beings in extraordinary circumstances trying to find their way?
The stories of Jobs’ “petulance” and his scream-fests directed at employees and business partners are completely different from his youthful displays of coldness.
I believe Jobs learned two things from being a 20-something asshole. First, he learned to regret it. He reconciled with most of the people he abused, ultimately establishing warm and kind relations with his daughter, Lisa, his parents and others.
He learned that being an asshole to loved ones doesn’t work.
But the other thing he learned is that being an asshole to employees and business partners does work.
Jobs is famously persuasive — you know, Reality Distortion Field and all that. In fact his ability to use his persuasive powers became a well understood tactical asset at Apple. It was part of Apple’s secret sauce.
But Jobs’ persuasive abilities weren’t just about inspiration. They brought to bear the whole range of human emotions — not just inspiration, nostalgia, and awe, but also fear, anger, humiliation and more.
If you read the stories about Jobs’ famous tirades, you’ll see that in the end Jobs usually got what he wanted.
When chip supplier VLSI Technology was falling behind on deadlines, Jobs screamed at VLSI executives that they were “fucking dickless assholes.” He freaked everybody out, and made them feel really, really bad. But in the end, “Team FDA” got their act together and delivered on schedule.
Jobs fired people publicly, refused to give severance pay when fired. He called people “stupid” and worse.
But the source of Apple’s incredible success in the past ten years can be oversimplified as having three parts: 1) Jobs’ competence (including competence in hiring great people); 2) Jobs’ vision; and 3) Jobs’ ability to get his way and focus everyone on his vision.
Part 3 of this formula was achieved in part through Jobs’ mastery of the art of being a prick.
All the after-school bitching about Jobs’ “petulance” really adds up to a bunch of cry-babies getting their panties in a bunch over how mean Jobs was.
Thousands of people join the military every day, and endure boot camp where they’re screamed at in their faces every day. Other industries like Hollywood (ever seen Entourage?), ballet dance and many others involve harsh yelling and public dressing-down as a matter of course.
You don’t hear them whining about it.
Most importantly, all these relationships were voluntary. If you don’t want to work for a boss that yells at you, don’t work for Apple. If you don’t want to be screamed at by a lunatic perfectionist, don’t enter into a business partnership with Apple.
Jobs’ temper and volatility was no secret. Everyone volunteered.
Besides, the burden is on critics who think Mr. Jobs could have accomplished what he while acting like Mr. Rogers. Until proven otherwise, we can and should assume that Jobs’ “petulance” was part of his secret for success, and well worth it.
3. Steve Jobs intended to spend all of Apple’s money to destroy Android.
Jobs told Isaacson for the book that suing Google over Android was Apple’s way to say: “Google you f***ing ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off… I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product.”
Apple now has $81 billion in the bank.
Of course, spending all of Apple’s cash reserves on lawsuits would be an unnecessary, irresponsible and reckless abuse of Apple executives’ responsibility to shareholders.
But Apple hasn’t done this. These were just words.
Jobs learned over the years that he can increase the value of Apple by millions or even billions of dollars by just talking.
Jobs’ “thermonuclear” comments about Android and Google actually make good business sense. If he can demonstrate over-the-top resolve to crush Android, maybe Google will make different design decisions about it in the future. Maybe they’ll be more sensitive about adding features and functionality that are similar to Apple’s.
More likely, maybe Google’s OEM partners will be affected by this now well-known resolve, and invest less in Android, or make decisions that reflect a shaken belief in Android’s future.
You don’t hear about Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt much anymore. But FUD is alive and well, and Jobs knew how to bring it.
4. Steve Jobs was evil.
Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has been dancing on Jobs’ grave ever since his death was announced.
Stallman blamed jobs for making “unjust” closed systems cool, and putting millions of people in “digital handcuffs.”
The truth is that Jobs and Stallman represented opposing sides in the battle over whether software should be free or open, or whether products should be integrated for elegance and ease of use.
The battle rages, but Jobs proved an unbeatable opponent. Now Stallman senses that with Jobs no longer able to debate, he might finally win the argument.
Personally, I love choice. And I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides. In the end, I’ve increasingly chosen Apple products because they make me happy, they improve my life.
I’ve seen life on Stallman’s Nebuchadnezzar. But F that. I want to be plugged into the Matrix. And I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing!
It’s not evil to disagree with Richard Stallman, and having a different vision of how computers and gadgets should be put together. It’s an absurd notion.
Consumers have their choice between the most open and the most closed (or, the most fragmented or integrated) of systems and software. And those of us who buy Apple products aren’t being duped, or tricked or seduced into making the wrong choice.
Steve jobs was a complex human being. And like all human beings, he was a mixed bag of good and bad, nice and not-so-nice — he was great and flawed at the same time.
We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking he was perfect. But we should also not allow ourselves to over-indulge the inclination to exaggerate his transgressions.
Steve Jobs could be a jerk. But he was also insanely great. Above all, Steve Jobs was human. And both his successes and his moral failings should be tempered by an understanding of the larger contexts in which he lived his extraordinary life.