Profile of Steve Jobs, published in Open Road magazine
Open Road magazine
"It's better to be a pirate than join the navy," is one of Steve Jobs typically memorable sayings. The billionaire co-founder of Apple, animation studio Pixar and (most recently) the brains behind the i-Pod music downloading phenomenon has never been a conventional businessman.
Originally from what became Silicon Valley in California, born in February 1955 to an Egyptian father and American mother, then put up for adoption, Jobs dropped out of Reed College, Oregon after one term of studying physics, literature and poetry.
A stint designing video games for Atari followed, where he met fellow software programmer Steve Wozniak. The two of them joined forces, Jobs selling his Volkswagen camper van to finance the company. By 1976 Apple was born.
By all accounts, the two men were proto-typical products of their time: long-haired, bearded, yet with an instinctive grasp of what the market was looking for - affordable, easy to use computers. By the age of 23, just two years after founding Apple, Jobs recalls being worth $1 million. "And over $10 million when I was 24, and over $100 million when I was 25, and it wasn't that important, because I never did it for the money," he said in 1996.
Nevertheless, the money has kept on flowing in his direction, despite some hiccoughs along the way. After spending seven years building up Apple to be a multi-national company, in 1983 Jobs hired a corporate hotshot - John Sculley - from Pepsi-Cola, to drive the company forward. Just two years later, Sculley engineered a boardroom coup and Jobs was kicked out of his own business.
Undaunted, he founded a second computer maker, NextStep, producing high-end boxes for academic researchers and scientists. Yet the large price tag (almost $10,000) and the availability of cheaper alternatives held the company back. In the end, by 1996 with Apple's fortunes suffering and making big losses, Jobs managed to sell Next back to his old company and returned in triumph.
Meanwhile, he had bought a computer animation studio from George Lucas, renamed it Pixar and developed a string of wildly successful movies, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo and the most recent hit The Incredibles. When Pixar went public, Jobs became an instant billionaire.
Simply telling the story of Jobs' switchback career, however, does faint justice to the compelling charisma and chutzpah of the man. Former colleagues recall a man of intense and rapidly changing emotions: "That's the way it went with Steve - flip-flopping from a soaring high, when he was an absolute delight to be around, to a mood of extreme anger or intense gloom that excluded any rational or civil conversation," says Gil Amelio, Apple chief executive and chairman in the mid-1990s. "I would get to see so many varieties of mood that I never knew exactly who I would be facing."
Underpinning the mood swings would be a fierce self-belief, according to California journalist David Plotkinoff: "He exudes arrogance of a certain blastfurnace intensity that people find hard to overlook... With Jobs, it was never enough to say 'we're right on this and they're wrong'. No, it was always 'we're right on this and they're idiots'."
There have been times where Jobs the pirate, Jobs the unconventional visionary has had to swallow his pride. Most famously when hooking up with Microsoft in 1997, thereby admitting that the Mac operating system could not survive as a stand-alone technology with Microsoft's Windows enjoying such widespread dominance. "We want to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose," he said at the time, in order to save face.
Jobs certainly sees himself as a pioneer, someone who has been able to anticipate how new technologies will be embraced, building machines not because some marketing focus group tells him what people want (and anyway, they'll probably want something different by the time you can build to this spec), but as the leader of a company that goes it alone and builds it whatever.
"It's easy to copy ideas in computers and consumer electronics," says Alan Deutscheman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, about his return to Apple. "So Apple has to stay far enough ahead of the pack that it has some lead time to profit before others come charging in, and the company needs to maintain the fierce loyalty of its core followers."
This loyalty has been hard-won. From the very beginning Jobs concentrated on creating a personality for the Apple brand, something that would define the product in customers' minds, quite apart from the technology inside. It was to do with the round curves of the monitors, the intuitive use of a mouse versus cursor keys, the very name 'apple' allying the product to a fruit, 'the apple of my eye', as American as apple pie.
Launching the i-Pod and i-Tunes has been a similar story, since they have quickly become must-have icons, the Sony Walkmen of their day. In the first quarter of 2004 an estimated 800,000 iPods were sold, overtaking the number of Apple Macs sold.
Alongside design elements, Jobs has continually fostered the image of a life-changing company, that Apple's products are imbued with an ethos almost of creative anarchy, set apart from the suited, conventionality of IBM or even Microsoft. "I wish him the best, I really do," says Jobs of Bill Gates. "I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger." By implication, Jobs is admitting to some psychotropical refreshment in his younger days and certainly spent some time in India (the home of Ashrams) just before starting Apple.
Like Gates, Jobs favours a fairly relaxed dress code, specialising in black turtleneck shirts and blue jeans. Like Gates he is married (since 1991 to Laura) with four children and has a fondness for art and organic farming. So besides the fact that Gates is several times richer than Jobs, what are the essential differences?
Robert X Cringley in his book Accidental Empires summarises the issue: "Gates sees the personal computer as a tool for transferring every stray dollar, deutschemark and kopek in the world into his pocket, [whereas] Steve Jobs sees the personal computer as a tool for changing the world."
Jobs famously seduced John Sculley away from Pepsi by saying, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" Apple's advertising strap line - 'Think different' - is meant to encapsulate this breakthrough, innovative mentality.
In the Pixar movie A Bug's Life, one of the ants (called Flik) is forever trying out new schemes which nobody else believes in. More than once in the film, he cries out: "I just wanted to make a difference," to which the queen ant replies: "It's not our tradition to do things differently," just as numberless bankers, investors and finance officers must have said to Jobs over the course of his career. (In A Bug's Life, the innovative ideas triumph in the end).
Yet while this individualistic flair has always attracted those in the creative industries, for the majority of computer users, the phrase 'no-one ever got sacked for buying IBM' has perhaps a stronger attraction. Why go against the flow when getting to grips with the complexities of computers is hard enough?
As another technology commentator puts it: "What's different about Jobs is that he has always seemed less interested in building institutions than in overturning established orders. He is a bundle of paradoxes: a manipulative cult-of-personality leader, he also brings egalitarian principles to his workplaces. He is, it seems, a revolutionary control freak."
Working in close contact with Jobs has become known as the 'reality distortion field' in which, as one former employee puts it: "Reality conforms to what Steve thinks it should be." Even his original Apple founding partner Steve Wozniak found him pretty hard to fathom at times: "You might ask him a yes-or-no question, and the answer said 'no' to anyone who heard it but really means 'maybe yes, maybe no'. Aside from not being able to trust him, he will use anyone to his own benefit."
Jobs would not be the first billionaire entrepreneur to be accused of egotism, arrogance, manipulation or sheer obsessive craziness, but his legacy of true groundbreaking technologies, in the computing, animation and music industries, surely mark him out as one of the great visionaries of our time.
Jobs has been able to afford to retire since his early 20s and never want for money again. That he has continued to fight against the established order of business life, to put his company and reputation on the line again and again, to take risks and lead from the front, to perceive opportunities which others cannot, or are too scared to pursue, has been a major technological contribution to modern life.