America has always idolised its entrepreneurs, even when it has proved a thankless task — if you can glamorise Bill Gates, you can glamorise anyone. Especially Steve Jobs, whose death from pancreatic cancer has been greeted as the loss of Mammon’s Messiah.
Is any of this justified? Well, yes and no. Jobs did as much as anyone, with the possible exception of Gates, to bring digital change into the mainstream, and this makes his biography as much a history of a digital revolution as a personal story. It’s this fittingly binary quality that makes Walter Isaacson’s biography so worthwhile, since Jobs himself emerges from it as an unattractive, even repellent character.
Jobs grew up in the engineering belt just south of San Francisco which became Silicon Valley. He was adopted at birth, and Isaacson argues that Jobs felt a lifelong sense of abandonment at being given away by his ‘true’ parents. But Jobs was remarkably composed about his genetic inheritance — describing the Syrian restaurateur who fathered him as nothing more than a sperm bank.
Strong-willed from the start, Jobs possessed an unattractive arrogance that was fuelled by his adopted parents’ insistence that he was special. Years later he confessed that he always knew he was smarter than them; his self-absorption seems to have kept him from realising that his adopted parents knew this, too. They indulged him relentlessly, scraping and saving to send him to the schools he insisted upon, and then to the wildly expensive Reed College, where he lasted little more than a year.
He worked briefly for the games company Atari, developed an interest in Zen, took LSD, and visited an ashram in India. So far, so perfectly Californian. But his return coincided with the introduction of the first microcomputer. With his friend Stephen Wozniak, Jobs determined to produce his own. The result was clunky and sold only to hobbyists, but the second version (the famed Apple II), which appeared in 1977, was a success from the start. Simple to use and beautiful, it bridged the divide between the hi-tech world of memory chips and that of consumers.
When IBM introduced its Personal Computer in 1981 the fledgling sector grew up quickly, established corporate roots, and lost the connection with the passionate hobbyists who had helped to found it. Apple suffered accordingly, and though it retained its status as the hip bastion of a colourless industry, it was starting to struggle. Jobs drafted in John Scully from Pepsi, but Scully was unable to adapt to products that were more complicated than sugared water. He was more credible than the jejune Jobs, however, who was spending most of his time either shouting at people or crying. In a showdown at board level Jobs lost.
His exile from Apple lasted 11 years, some spent in an ill-fated venture to make a high-end computer that exposed his lack of engineering skills. He also bought Pixar, a computer animation company that over ten years kept Disney afloat with a string of hits, including Toy Story. For Jobs, Pixar not only taught him how to run a business, it also opened up a new world of digital possibilities.
On his return to Apple, he focused first on re-establishing Apple as a computer force with the iMac — which remains, with its translucent colours and curved contours, the nonpareil of designers all over the world. Only then did Jobs look further afield. His passion for music led to the creation of the iTunes store, which sold single songs for 99 cents, playable originally only on Apple’s iPod, and kept a music industry wounded by pirates from expiring altogether. Unimpressed by the existing state of mobile phones, Jobs brought his design sense to telephony next, with the iPhone in 2007. The iPad ‘tablet’ followed in 2010; since his death, reports suggest that an Apple television will soon follow.
None of the products Jobs oversaw was entirely new — he was not really an inventor — but his vision ‘of what we didn’t know we needed, but then suddenly can’t live without’ was breathtaking in its range. He had impeccable taste in technology, at a time when technology companies had none. He also had the advantage of exercising absolute control over the development of Apple’s products. He ignored his Board and shareholders, and didn’t believe in market research. Never very open to the views of his own workforce, he was nonetheless intelligent enough to appreciate good ideas when he saw them, and vain enough to claim them as his own.
Faced with portraying an almost uniquely successful monster, Isaacson has done an outstanding job. He keeps a sturdily detached perspective about Jobs’ many eccentricities — an aversion to bathing, weird diets — and about a personality that combined lack of empathy with a penchant for bullying abuse. It’s unnecessary in any case for Isaacson to act as hanging judge; Jobs was so indifferent to what people thought of him that he brought his own rope to court.
He married, after conducting a straw poll among friends about the two candidates, and had three children, as well as a daughter by an earlier liaison whom he only grudgingly acknowledged (having first disputed paternity on the grounds that he was sterile). But his emotional life was a battlefield in which there were many more casualties than survivors, and his true engagement was with the company he founded. The rhetorical question of whether on their death beds anyone wishes they’d spent more time at the office, would have had Jobs replying ‘yes’.
Unlike his long-time adversary Bill Gates, whose current charitable work to eradicate malaria comes after years of ruthlessly accumulating wealth, Jobs was never very interested in money — or philanthropy. During his last fatal illness, his over-riding concern was for Apple to prosper after he was gone. His biographer has written a captivating account of this digital visionary whose products have enthralled millions of people. But he was not the kind of man anyone else would want to be.