Show Hide image

The great illusionist

A study of Steve Jobs, the visionary behind the success of Apple, doesn’t quite discover what drives

Inside Steve’s Brain: Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the Man Who Saved Apple
Leander Kahney
Atlantic Books, 224pp, £8.99

There are, said F Scott Fitzgerald, no second acts in American lives. Steve Jobs is already on his third or fourth. There used to be a popular collection of essays about the Model T Ford entitled The Machine That Changed the World. Any time soon, someone will blow the dust off that cliché for a story about the iPod. It has already been called “the perfect thing”, the title chosen by Steven Levy for his 2007 book about how this gorgeous, lapidary device changes the way we think. Ford rearranged geography with petrol, but Apple Computer’s iPod rearranges thought with electrons. The estimate is that sales will flatten at 500 million, by which point it will be the most successful electronic product ever.

And Apple Computer is the creation of Steve Jobs. Born on 24 February 1955, in the same year as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Jobs’s story-arc has a mythic, legendary dimension altogether different from the Seattle lawyer’s son, even though their destinies are as interwoven as Fibrox cable. Jobs, the illegitimate child of San Francisco graduate students, was given up for adoption to a working-class family living in Mountain View, California. At that time, Mountain View was fruit orchards; now it is Silicon Valley.

By every account – including his own: “I would absolutely have ended up in jail” – Jobs was a difficult, rebellious child. Saved from the California corrections system by a teenage interest in dismantling televisions, he developed a personal culture that mixed hippie-dippy Hare Krishnaism with hobbyist electronics. Jobs built his first computer in his bedroom in 1977. Apple went public in 1980, the biggest flotation since Ford in 1956. He was a multimillionaire by the time he was 25.

In 1984 Jobs launched the Macintosh, a synthesis of existing technologies and smart consumer design whose intuitiveness and cuteness were intended to undermine the galumphing corporate tedium of IBM, whose personal computers then led the market. The Mac was launched with Orwellian adverts, directed by Ridley Scott, pitching it as the thinking person’s choice in the office war against Big Brother.

Then, in 1985, even though Jobs had never actually been expelled from school, he managed to get expelled from his own company, stabbed in the front by a dull, suited CEO of the very type he had designed his business to subvert. In a huff, he went off to plot revenge and, incidentally, to found Pixar, the computer animation business that now dominates the sector. Although his enemies accused him of petulance and baroque arrogance, Apple, in his absence, lost confidence, became muddled, lacked direction and seemed doomed. There is much, it seems, to be said for petulance and arrogance.

By 1997, after a lost decade for Apple, he was back and all the rest is computer science fiction. In Steve Jobs’s second coming, Apple’s product line was hugely simplified and a commitment was made to fascination and to beauty. Fabulous products – colourful iMacs, stunning studio displays, the iPod, the iPhone – soon followed. As a youth, Jobs had been interested in calligraphy and he insisted a keen aesthetic sense be applied to every aspect of Apple’s business. So you get ravishing packaging and stores like modern art museums, products like jewellery and clever ads.

In a way that the glazed-eyed early modernists could not even have imagined, Jobs made the whole consumer experience into a work of art. Here, if proof were needed, are the benefits of total design. In 2004, however, he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal cancer. Apple guarded his privacy, as it generally does, and a happy reprieve followed – only for him to stop making public appearances early this year. Apple PR blames a “hormone imbalance” caused by (perhaps unorthodox) treatment stratagems.

Inside Steve’s Brain attempts to understand the psychology of this extraordinary man whose achievements combine elements of Ford, Edison, P T Barnum, Walt Disney, Akio Morita, Bob Dylan and Howard Hughes. In a sense, Jobs is the ultimate corporate personality, in that he understands and interferes in every aspect of Apple’s business. He identifies completely with the company he has created, something psychologists may attribute to a lost sense of belonging arising from his adoption. Yet, despite his visibility, he is secretive and rarely gives interviews.

So the question of what actually goes on in Steve’s brain is a matter of speculation. But some things are clear. Jobs is a 164GB exemplar of the creative type. He has a persuasive vision and will not be diverted from it. He charms and insults in turn. He is no respecter of authority. Numberless correspondents have described him as an “artist” and, rather as Picasso said, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal”, so there is very little new technology in any Apple product. Instead, you get masterful borrowings. The technology that drives an iPod was well established twenty years ago. The extinct Digital Equipment Corporation used to make one, but it was as ugly as a car battery.

Apple is a success because it makes beautiful machines that excite an almost unbearable itch to consume. Understanding this psychosexual physicality, Jobs himself says a design is good if you want to lick it. But, beyond that, Apple is something else. There is something of the Messiah about Steve Jobs and what he has created is not so much a business as a religion. It is a belief system and all its customers pay tribute in the form of premium prices for products that make them feel good. (I don’t listen to music but I have three iPods.)

So, what can we learn after a visit to Steve’s brain? Certainly, the primacy of the creative spirit. And that means cussed. Jobs used to sack people on the spot if they could not explain what they were doing there and then. He can be so difficult that it has been suggested he may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy”. Yet you could say the same about any successful leader.

In Kahney’s book you can find the perfect metaphor for Apple’s controlling genius: while computer nerds enjoy fiddling inside the box, Jobs insisted that the first Mac be entirely sealed. The screws holding its case together could be released only by using a rare, four-foot-long screwdriver. Kahney has not had access to a similar tool to get inside Steve’s brain, but he gives us a compelling tour around it.

Stephen Bayley was founder director of the Design Museum, London

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know