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One More Take on Steve Jobs

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Twenty-six years ago I met Steve Jobs. Even better, Jobs personally showed me how to use a mouse to manipulate the then-spanking new Macintosh computer, which I thought at the time was sort of toy-like, with its small gray screen and plastic body. Jobs and then-Apple Computer president John Sculley were at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan (views of Central Park, a shining black piano) unveiling this new computer to the tech media. I was a young reporter -- Jobs and I are roughly the same age -- and just as Jobs was accompanied by the stiffly adult former PepsiCo executive Sculley, I was there with my editor. How should I say this? Jobs was sort of a creep. He was dressed in mostly white, with floppy dark hair and a ridiculous bow tie; he hadn't yet defaulted to the black turtleneck. He treated a tight-lipped Sculley with ill-disguised contempt (perhaps he had reason to, perhaps not: Sculley of course has since been consigned to darkest hell by Jobs' hagiographers), which washed over us as well. He was edgy, arrogant and thin skinned -- though clearly proud of his humming little box. My memory of the 30-minute session has faded -- I had trouble using the mouse -- and I came away with one thought: The Carlyle was one swell joint.

We all know the subsequent Jobsian history: his exile from Apple, his time at NeXT and Pixar Animation Studios, his return; the remarkable stream of transformative and deeply satisfying, beautifully designed products that built upon the marvelous Mac, particularly its software: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. Little of this was visible in January 1985. Jobs was already an iconic figure, to be sure, though Apple was a small, if feisty player struggling against the hegemony of IBM, a situation he brilliantly exploited. He was a figure that contained contradictions and tensions, which only later became identified with Silicon Valley in general, and with technology sectors like IT and biotechnology. To the world beyond Silicon Valley, Jobs became the first popular hero of tech: part engineer (though he was more a brilliant synthesizer, borrower, packager and marketer than Edisonian inventor, a distinction lost in the recent hymns of praise), part poet, part social commentator -- a new age entrepreneur. He was, quite deliberately, a post-'60s figure -- the long hair, the tattered jeans, the beard, the screw-you attitude -- although he consciously established genealogical ties to Silicon Valley's origins, particularly to that seminal garage that spawned Hewlett-Packard. He and his founding partner, Steve Wozniak, emerged from their own garage in the '70s prepared to assume a mantle that only they seemed to think existed.

Jobs brought to Silicon Valley a certain countercultural ethos. He was never a short-sleeved engineer like Robert Noyce at Intel; he wasn't a Stanford graduate; he wasn't personally connected. He was essentially self-invented; he was his own greatest product. He always characterized Apple's products as part of a process of liberation, of revolution, that ran back to the '60s -- born in 1955, he came of age slightly after the '60s -- again, his image of shattering IBM's dominance (and later that of the WinTel world) was built on a base of millennial optimism. This was a greater leap than it now seems. After all, whatever his appearance, Jobs needed a company, a business, to produce those liberating products. The '60s spirit militated against the soul-deadening constraints of organizational life, even if the company was small and new. After Apple went public in 1980, Jobs quickly gained wealth and power -- two other challenges to the free-floating, go-with-the-flow philosophy. Product development required discipline and management; and while there are many stories about Jobs' short temper, abrasiveness and ambition (see Mark Zuckerberg), the evidence of Apple today suggests that he learned quite a lot over the years how to inspire, retain and drive talented people.

What Jobs also discovered, or simply knew in his bones, is that there were aspects of Silicon Valley culture in the '70s and '80s that were waiting to be harnessed by the right person with the right set of ideas. There was an intensely creative aspect of the engineering culture, though often sublimated by conservative, buttoned-down organizations. But the technology was exploding, driven by semiconductors. And there was a romance to entrepreneurship that had been buried beneath the prevailing stereotype in an era, fading in the '70s, fixated on large companies that entrepreneurs were fast-talking, fly-by-night operators. Jobs re-imagined the tech entrepreneur as a kind of hipster-like artist that could harness these powerful energies Silicon Valley was releasing -- and this might be the most important shift -- for the benefit not of the military (which had funded so much of early semiconductor development) or big business (that was IBM), but for consumers. It was about ordinary people, artists, writers and students, the masses. Apple helped lead Silicon Valley into consumer markets.

We now take all this for granted. We've lost much of the memory of the '60s and that rechanneling of energies from counterculture to business culture that Jobs helped pioneer is a very old story. The notion of the entrepreneur as a culture hero -- ironically given Jobs' predilections, an Ayn Randian figure -- has become ossified into cliché; everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. And, of course, great gusts of technological optimism have blown for three decades now; the marketing of technology has become a huge business in its own right. And yet we are still prone to these declarations of utopian liberation and progress (see social media), though not quite in the same way as when the cry was fresh, new and edgy, and certainly less than before the dot-com bust. But the wailing reaction to Jobs' retirement, with its personal, even religious, overtones (and Apple, as many have long observed, has always been something of a sect) suggests that the man still remains an iconic figure in what chillier souls might characterize as the market for clever gadgets. Fans still believe that Jobs has the ability to transform material things -- electronic products -- to a higher, more idealistic level, which, along with his personal history and his health problems, gives him the faint nimbus of saintliness.

The man deserves much of the praise he receives, though he is clearly no saint. Hard as it was to see in 1985, Jobs reinvented himself into arguably the greatest CEO of his era. Why arguably? Because what does that really mean? This has less to do with Jobs than the job of CEO. If you measure these things by shareholder value, Jack Welch at General Electric or Sam Walton at Wal-Mart may have led the parade. Even in Silicon Valley, Intel has been a dominant company longer than Apple; and IBM has transformed itself in a remarkable way; and Oracle under Larry Ellison has grown increasingly powerful in business software. But in a sense, Jobs is often judged by standards he invented and preached himself: transformation, revolution, liberation. These are squirrelly concepts too, and deeply arguable. But Jobs did adopt, develop and market tools and products that did transform the markets they sold into: The mouse and graphical user interface of the Mac changed the very nature of personal computing; iTunes reshaped the music business; the iPhone remade smartphones; and the iPad threatens to upend the desktop regime the Mac helped create. Jobs was then -- in that overused expression he helped usher into business -- a revolutionary. Maybe he's the only one.