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BW Businessworld

Profiling The Paradox

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By now, unless you have spent the entire last month outside of planet Earth, with no access to any of the Earth media, you would know that the late Steve Jobs was a product and design genius obsessed with perfection. Despite the saturation in media coverage, it is hard to appreciate just how much of a perfectionist he was, and the level of his obsession; how unpleasant a person he was or how competitive he could be until you read Jobs' authorised biography by Walter Isaacson.

Early in the book, Isaacson describes one episode that led to a huge disagreement between Jobs and Mike Scott, who had been brought in to be Apple's president. It was over the case of Apple II. The Pantone company, which used to specify colours for Apple's plastic, had 2,000 shades of beige. None of them was apparently good enough for Jobs.

This obsession continued throughout his life — indeed it kept getting worse. He insisted on pristine white and special steel while building one of his factories, completely ignoring the practical issues, cajoled and persuaded glass maker Corning to create "Gorilla Glass" for one of his products, and drove people nuts by rejecting design after design, even if it was for the carton that would be thrown away the moment it was unpacked.

Jobs could be ruthless and brutal, too. Once he got an idea into his head, it was hard for him to let go even if all evidence pointed to the contrary. Consider his idea that if he followed a completely fruit-based diet, he would not need to bathe. Despite the body odour he developed, it was hard to persuade him to have a wash.

His best ideas were often stolen from others. On the other hand, he developed them into products that others could not even imagine.

It is hard for any author to capture the essence of someone as complex as Jobs, but Isaacson does better than most because he has unearthed micro details of Jobs's life. The result is a series of interesting stories ranging from his appreciation for design to his bad behaviour, and his relationship with parents, friends, and children.

For a man who professed not to care about money, Jobs could be greedy and petty. When he came back to Apple, he said publicly he would work for a $1 salary, while harassing the board to keep revising his already generous stock options. He apparently gypped his friend and partner Steve Wozniack out of his fair share of the money he made from an Altair contract, though it was Woz who did much of the work. Then, he insisted on a partnership with a 50 per cent share, though he had not created anything yet, and it was Woz who had built the computer. (But making it popular was Jobs's work.) When Apple went public, Jobs did not give options to one of its best friends — Daniel Kottke.

Some of the most interesting bits in the book deal with his relationship with Bill Gates. When the two first started working together, Jobs was the king — Apple had over a billion dollars in revenues, while Microsoft was still a struggling start up. Jobs had a certain contempt for Gates. On the other hand, Gates was one of the few people strong willed enough not to be intimidated by Jobs. At one point, when Gates revealed plans to have a graphical user interface in Windows, Jobs called him over, and raved and ranted that Gates and Microsoft were thieves. Gates remained unflustered until the tirade ended. He then remarked: "Well Steve, it seems to me that we have this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV and found that you had already stolen it." Over the years, Jobs and Gates would be rivals, collaborate, lend each other a helping hand — while holding a poor opinion of each other. To be fair, Gates admired Jobs' ability to understand how people interacted with products and also the beautiful products he made, even though Jobs thought Gates had sold his soul for money.

Despite the rich details, there is a feeling at the end of this huge volume that the biographer did not capture the essence of Jobs properly. There are glimpses of his various facets, but the entire persona never comes through. Perhaps, it is impossible to fully understand someone as unusual as Jobs. The book is a great read for details about Jobs life — but it actually does a better job of fleshing out supporting characters such as Woz, Mike Markkulla and John Sculley (both former CEOs of Apple) and even Gates, than it does in explaining the paradox that was Jobs.

Author's Details:
Walter Isaacson is the CEO of the non-profit organisaton Aspen Institute. He began his career in journalism at The Sunday Times before becoming CEO of CNN, and was the managing editor of Time magazine. Isaacson is the author of several biographies including Einstein: His Life And Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 14-11-2011)