I am interested in the history of computer technology and over the last couple months have read a lot about Steve Jobs. To be specific I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs, and a book published back in 2001, Alan Deutschman’s The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. To get the point of view of the other “Steve” I read Steve Wozniak’s autobiography, iWoz, How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. I watched the two biographical movies, Pirates of Silicon Valley from 1999 and the one from 2013 with Ashton Kutcher, Jobs. The first movie is a lot of fun, exploring the initial rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates. The second has been criticized but I like it also, and Kutcher’s resemblance to Jobs is uncanny. I am looking forward to seeing Aaron Sorkin’s version when it comes out. I also read Fire in the Valley by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger, which is a free-ranging and entertaining history of the PC era and on which the first movie mentioned above was based. Finally there are a number of documentaries on YouTube that address the early personal computer era. One of the best is the 3-part Triumph of the Nerds. There are numerous videos on YouTube of Jobs in action, from the earliest days of Apple until shortly before his death.
Reading and watching this stuff makes me nostalgic. I bought an Apple II+ in 1981 shortly after moving to Houston, Texas and starting my fellowship in electrophysiology. It was my reintroduction to computers after my brief fling back in my college days in the early 1970s. As underwhelming as its capacities were judged by today’s standards (base configuration had 48 KB RAM, 40 column all caps text display, 128 KB floppy drives and a MOS Technology 6502 CPU running at 1 MHz), I loved that little machine and was amazed by it. Using its 8 open expansions slots (something Woz insisted on and surprisingly prevailed in getting over Jobs’s objections) I had that thing decked out with an 80 column lowercase text display card, a 1 MB RAM-disk, memory expansion to 64 KB, and a CP/M card — all at considerable cost on a fellow’s salary. For software I had WordStar for word processing, Turbo Pascal for programming, VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program), dBase II (a database program) and lots of games, including the very first version of Flight Simulator. It worked well and was fun to use but over the years it was replaced by more powerful systems and eventually I threw it all out. Now I kind of wish I had kept it (or at least sold it on eBay). I kept all my old Byte magazines though, and paging through them is a trip down memory lane. It’s fun to revisit those days when Microsoft with its software that could run on anything (as long as it was compatible with an IBM PC) appeared to be heading towards victory over poor Apple, despite the coolness of their Macintosh computers. As we all know, a lot has happened between then and now.
Isaacson’s book is very well written and, being the authorized biography, has a lot of material that the other books don’t. Nevertheless, the one period that Isaacson skimps a bit on, the time when Jobs was at NeXT and starting Pixar, is well fleshed out in the other two biographies, particularly Schlendler’s. His thesis is that the struggles at NeXT and Pixar were crucial for Jobs to become a better manager and thus be in a position to return to Apple and turn it around starting in 1997. Schlender also seems a bit more sympathetic to Jobs, though it is hard to paper over some of his worst characteristics. For example, Jobs denied he was the father of his daughter Lisa, and he abandoned her when she was young. Later he acknowledged being her father and reconciled with her. This behavior seems particularly reprehensible given that Jobs himself was “abandoned” by his biological parents and was raised by foster parents. He eventually met his biological mother and his biological sister, the writer Mona Simpson. He discovered his biological father (who was a Syrian graduate student when Jobs was born) and actually had met him once by chance at a restaurant which his biological father owned, but neither realized the father-son relationship at the time. Jobs chose never to meet with his father again.
Jobs is a complex figure. He was self-centered and lacked empathy towards others. He could turn on the charm, but often in a calculating manner. His biographers point out his black and white approach to everything. To Jobs, other people and even things like food or computers or software programs were either perfect or they sucked. There was no middle ground. He may have mellowed somewhat as he grew older, but not much. Jobs’s genius appears to be that he was able to utilize both his strengths and his flaws together to inspire others to do their best (or get out of his way) and thus design and bring to market products that have certainly changed our world. In the process Apple became the wealthiest company on the planet. But Jobs’s driving force was not wealth. He aimed for perfection.
No Greek tragic hero is without his blind spot, and Jobs had his: his quirky views on health and diet. A child of the 60s growing up in California, he maintained a distrust of “western medicine” so that when diagnosed with a potentially surgically curable pancreatic cancer found incidentally on a routine CAT scan (he had a history of kidney stones, thus the CAT scan), he delayed surgery for 9 months. He tried various diets, alternative medicines, and acupuncture first. When he finally yielded to the surgery liver metastases were found, and after that, despite a liver transplant and aggressive chemotherapy it was only a matter of time before he succumbed.
Jobs’s genius was that he foresaw what most others didn’t: apart from the computer geeks like Steve Wozniak and the members of the Homebrew Computing Club back in the 1970s, most people don’t care about computer technology per se. They want to use these devices to listen to music, to read books and articles, to look up stuff, to keep in touch with friends, to watch movies, and to get their work done. For most, computer technology is just a means to an end. Steve Jobs realized this better than anyone else in the industry and had the overwhelming personality to find the best people and motivate them to do perform at levels they didn’t realize they were capable of.
One wonders what symphonies a 60 year old Mozart would have written. What songs were denied to the world when George Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38? What would Emily Brontë have written beyond Wuthering Heights if she had not died at age 30? What other “insanely great” products were denied to the world when Jobs died at age 56? Life at Apple goes on without Jobs. The hand-picked people he surrounded himself with continue without him. But his will be a tough legacy to uphold.