Saint Steve? Not Exactly. Apple and the Power of the Dark Side

10/7/11Follow @wroush

Today’s column was co-written by myself and Curt Woodward, Xconomy’s Seattle-based senior editor.

There’s a great term of art in the history profession: hagiography. It’s from the Greek for “holy writing,” and at one time it pertained mostly to biographies of saints. Well, there’s a whole lot of beatification going on this week as the world processes the news of Steve Jobs’ death—and for good reason. As I wrote in my own tribute piece Wednesday night, Jobs taught us to expect more from our technology. He played the game at such a stratospheric level that everyone in the industries he touched—personal computing, digital media, telecommunications—had to become more innovative and customer-focused just to compete. Commentators are right to place Jobs in the same section of the history stacks with giants like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, David Sarnoff, Edwin Land, and Walt Disney.

But like these other men, Steve Jobs was human. A more accomplished human than most, with a thoroughly American, rags-to-riches life story that even Horatio Alger couldn’t have dreamed up. But also one with so many intriguing, controversial, and sometimes abrasive sides to his personality and his business philosophy that it would be dishonest for chroniclers to focus solely on his innovations. If we want to understand what made the man tick, we need to acknowledge both the good and the bad, the inspiring and the infuriating.

In that spirit, here’s a brief survey of some of the less savory aspects of Jobs’ career, as noted by sources around the Web. These darker pieces of the story are, in the end, inseparable from Jobs’ incredible successes.

Jobs the Tyrant

While the Apple co-founder had perfectly good interpersonal skills, it’s clear from several book and journalistic exposés that he didn’t always choose to use them. After his return to the company in 1997, Jobs reasserted control through what Alan Deutschman called a “reign of terror” in his 2000 book The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. “Word got around about Steve going into meetings, saying, ‘This is shit,’ and firing people on the spot,” Deutschman wrote. Jobs developed a method of alternately praising and belittling employees; insiders came to call this the “hero-shithead roller coaster,” according to Wired writer Leander Kahney. A May 2011 Fortune article added to the picture with an account of a harrowing 2008 meeting where Jobs shared his displeasure over MobileMe, Apple’s troubled e-mail synchronization system, berated employees for letting each other down, and relieved the project leader of his duties.

But while these sorts of confrontations weren’t pretty, the Fortune article described them as part of a larger pattern of accountability that helps to explain Apple’s uncannily low failure rate. “On a regular basis you either get positive feedback or are told to stop doing stupid shit,” one former Apple designer told the magazine. Even people you might not suspect of harboring warm emotions toward Jobs say his brusque management style was effective: “It’s O.K. to be driven a little crazy by someone who is so consistently right,” former Apple CEO John Sculley told Bloomberg BusinessWeek in a September interview. (Sculley is the guy who will always be remembered for kicking Jobs out of Apple in 1985.)

Jobs the Egomaniac

Steve Jobs’ greatest creation was Apple. His second-greatest may have been his own public persona. Although rival Bill Gates probably has spent a longer period as an identifiable public figure, Jobs’ public image has long seemed perfectly designed—just like one of Apple’s products. Jobs frequently favored clothes that would stand out as a kind of brand, from his early bow-tied days at Apple to the lasting image of a black mock turtleneck, round spectacles, and jeans. And although each Apple launch event had a specific product at its center, Jobs himself was the marquee part of the show every time. iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad—you could leak all the specs you want, but they didn’t really exist until Jobs held them up before the crowd and sparked the applause.

The ultimate salesman? Absolutely. A showman at heart? Undeniably—Walt Mossberg writes that Jobs insisted on hiding products under a cloth and unveiling them even in private pre-show sales pitches for a tiny conference-room audience. Contemporaries and employees have long described the “reality distortion field” that seemed to emanate from Jobs. As early Apple employee Andy Hertzfeld wrote in this remarkable retrospective, the phenomenon was “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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