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 fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.”

It worked for him. As Jobs famously said, claiming that Apple did no market research for the iPad, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Jobs the Toll Collector

Jobs established a market-making platform for content sales and consumption with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and Apple hasn’t been shy about exacting a pretty hefty toll for the privilege of reaching those consumers. Apple’s standard cut for sales through its App Store was long established at 30 percent. But things really got interesting earlier this year when Jobs announced that the same revenue split would apply to subscriptions, music, or books sold through apps on its platforms. And it was willing to go pretty far to enforce those terms: Publishers were not allowed to offer links outside the app to skip the revenue-share, and weren’t allowed to offer better prices outside the app either. Publishers also couldn’t get basic subscriber information without an additional opt-in by consumers.

That roiled content publishers and sellers of all types. “It’s pretty simple math: they’re asking us to sell a product for less than it costs to deliver it,” said Rhapsody president Jon Irwin, whose company also said it would explore legal options. And that was actually a pretty tame response, compared to the F-bombs coming from the co-founder of Last.fm; “[A]pple just f****** over online music subs for the iPhone,” Richard Jones wrote in an IRC chat. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the price controls could raise antitrust scrutiny. Amazon was among the companies that responded by building a Web app—and earlier this month, its own tablet, to control more of the content-selling and serving ecosystem.

Jobs the Censor

As profitable as it is for Apple, the iTunes App Store wasn’t part of Jobs’ original vision for the iPhone. Concerned that third-party apps might interfere with the device’s basic functions, he initially restricted app developers to creating services that users could access through the phone’s Web browser. “These are devices that need to work, and you can’t do that if you load any software on them,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be software to buy that you can load on them coming from us. It doesn’t mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment.”

Apple later eased those controls—but has never fully lifted them. Editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore learned that this spring, when Apple rejected an app he’d built because it contained cartoons that satirized public figures. Apple said the app violated the terms of its developer agreement, under which it’s free to ban apps it finds “objectionable”; the company relented only after Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Apple has built a little slab of Disneyland with its iPad, which is meant to be an experience unsullied by provocative or crude material,” commented Wired writer Ryan Singel. “It’s beautiful and enticing…but it’s not the real world.” Singel is far from the only observer to have called attention to Apple’s seemingly paternalistic attitude toward toward the app ecosystem it created. Free software advocate Richard Stallman, in a comment on my 2010 column about the tension between openness and control at Apple, wrote “I doubt the term ‘open’ fits the censorship of the Apple app store…Apple is the pioneer in putting chains on its users.” Yet these same controls help guarantee a wider global market for iOS devices.

Jobs the Police Sergeant

When Apple feels that its trade secrets are under threat, it’s not above taking heavy-handed measures to protect them. In 2005 the company sued ThinkSecret, a Mac rumors and news site, for publishing leaked information about an unreleased Mac model; in a legal settlement two years later, ThinkSecret agreed to shut down. In April 2010, after Gizmodo blogger Jason Chen paid $5,000 for an iPhone 4 prototype that had been misplaced at a Bay Area beer garden by an Apple employee, San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies got a search warrant to enter Chen’s home and confiscated several computers and servers. (Former Gizmodo editor Brian Lam blogged about the episode this week, saying Jobs was kind but firm with him about Apple’s demands that the iPhone be returned.)

More recently—just last month, in fact—a posse of San Francisco police and Apple employees searched the home of a San Francisco resident suspected of harboring another iPhone prototype lost, incredibly, at another bar. Prototypes seem to have a way of jumping out of Apple employee’s pockets when they smell beer—which may explain why, as the Associated Press reported recently, Apple is looking to beef up its private security force.

Jobs the Miser?

Though he had accumulated a personal fortune estimated at $8.3 billion—largely though his Apple and Disney stock and stock options—Jobs was not a noted public philanthropist, at least not in his lifetime. For a brief period in 1985-1986, he set up a foundation, and was interested in supporting causes related to nutrition, according to an Andrew Ross Sorkin column in the New York Times. But he gave up the idea for lack of time. Jobs’ attitude, according to anonymous friends cited by Sorkin, was that he could do more good by focusing on his work at Apple. Many commentators agreed—”What a loss to humanity it would have been if Jobs had dedicated the last 25 years of his life to figuring out how to give his billions away, instead of doing what he does best,” Harvard Business Review blogger Dan Palotta wrote last month. But others drew unfavorable comparisons between Jobs and Bill Gates, who threw himself into philanthropy well before stepping down as Microsoft’s CEO.

The Wall Street Journal speculated in an article this week, however, that Jobs, ever protective of his own privacy, may have been giving anonymously to charitable causes all along, and that some or most of his fortune will now go toward cancer research or other priorities. And after the Sorkin piece, U2′s Bono wrote the Times a letter in which he praised Apple as a big giver to the Project (RED) campaign—and all but said that Jobs does more than you think, but privately: “Just because he’s been extremely busy, that doesn’t mean that he and his wife, Laurene, have not been thinking about these things. You don’t have to be a friend of his to know what a private person he is or that he doesn’t do things by halves.”

* * *

It’s no criticism to say that Steve Jobs was a complicated man. If you want to become an icon of industry, it’s practically a job requirement, as any biography of Henry Ford or Thomas Edison will attest. There’s also an old saying that if you want to make omelets, you have to break some eggs. Well, Steve Jobs’ omelets were so delicious that people literally lined up around the block to buy them—as Apple’s $76 billion cash hoard attests. It’s only right to mourn the master chef. But as we do, let’s not forget all the delicious complications.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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