On Steve Jobs, and His Temperament

Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs has been known for two things: turtlenecks and tantrums. Nick Martens examines the idiosyncratic mind behind Apple and how the company’s recent missteps reveal truth behind its leader.

Monday showed me a milder side of Steve Jobs.

In the myth of Jobs, the Apple CEO carries reputations both as genius and maverick, but unlike John McCain he deserves the latter. Andy Hertzfeld’s great chronicle of the original Macintosh’s development, Folklore.org, is chock-full of anecdotes of Jobs’s chaotic behavior. Like this infamous account of Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” when he convinces the team to set the Mac’s release for early 1982, two years before they actually finished it. Or his capricious oversight of the computer’s industrial design, wherein he orders a complete redesign after seeing a nice food processor, only to return to the original model a week later. Or when he shouts “shut up!” at Hertzfeld for revealing to Bill Gates a secret about the Mac’s innovative mouse interface (a scene reproduced, with less drama, in the B-movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, starring Noah Wiley, a.k.a. “The Poor Man’s Keanu Reeves,” as Jobs – skip to 3:00).

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Stories like these followed Jobs back to Apple in the late 90s. His diagnosis of the company’s financial troubles upon his return was, “The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!” And as recently as last month, he began a phone call with New York Times reporter Joe Nocera with, “You think I’m an arrogant [fuck] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong” (Expletive mine).

So, I felt a little buzz of excitement when I saw this Twitter post from Apple commentator John Gruber: “Little birdie tells me that Steve Jobs just reorg’d the MobileMe division. Sure would like a copy of that email.”

I knew what he meant. Apple recently launched – on the same day – a new iPhone, a major update to the phone’s operating system, an application store for the phone, and an overarching internet syncing service called MobileMe. It was meant to be a landmark in Apple’s history, a day when masses of new customers experienced their first glorious Apple encounter thanks to the affordable iPhone 3G.

But it didn’t happen that way. Sure, millions of people showed up to buy the phone, but the process was much sloppier than promised by Apple’s core philosophy, “it just works.” Instead of basking in a ray of positive press, Apple faced news reports about interminable lines, activation errors, and glitchy software. MobileMe was hit hardest; its email system dropped offline for days, and when it returned some users had lost messages they thought were safe. It was a mess.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Jobs must have seen that his company had spoiled one of the most promising PR opportunities imaginable. I, like Gruber, wished I could see his reaction. To steal a phrase from Hertzfeld, I assumed Jobs had unleashed “a torrent of merciless criticism.”

Here’s Jobs’s email:

It was a mistake to launch MobileMe at the same time as iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0 software and the App Store. We all had more than enough to do, and MobileMe could have been delayed without consequence.

Not what I expected. What happened to the callous, reactionary Jobs? His email is measured and understanding, almost perfectly sympathetic. It’s exactly what you’d want to hear if your insane ambitions amounted to something less than an immovable object in the face of the unstoppable force of deadline.

And I think this is what people don’t get about Jobs and his success. The tales of his erratic vitriol are the flashy and widespread, but he couldn’t have turned 1996’s desperate, directionless Apple into 2008’s corporate messiah just by yelling at people for a decade.

Hertzfeld tells stories about how Jobs bragged to a reporter that a certain star employee’s time was worth six times that of an average worker, or how Jobs used philanthropic arithmetic to calculate that reducing the Mac’s start-up time meant literally saving lives. Jobs may be infamous as a hothead, but his inspiring, if quirky, leadership is even more remarkable.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.