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Steve Jobs in a Box

It’s a stunning box, a wizard object with a passel of amazing features (It’s a phone! An iPod! A Web browser!). But for all its marvels, the iPhone inaugurates a dangerous new era for Jobs. Has he peaked?

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Illustration by Default  

He saunters out onstage, and the first thing you think is, man, Steve Jobs looks old. The second thing you think is, no, not old: He finally looks his age. Well into his forties, Jobs appeared to have pulled off some kind of unholy Dorian Gray maneuver. But now, at 52, his hair is seriously thinning, his frame frail-seeming, his gait halting and labored. His striking facial features—the aquiline nose, the razor-gash dimples—are speckled with ash-gray stubble. A caricaturist would draw him as a hybrid of Andre Agassi and Salman Rushdie. The senescence on display is jarring, but it’s also fitting. After three decades as Silicon Valley’s regnant enfant terrible, Jobs has suddenly, improbably, morphed into its presiding éminence grise.

The stage in question is at the Four Seasons in Carlsbad, California, where Jobs has come this afternoon in May for The Wall Street Journal conference “D: All Things Digital.” Dressed in his customary uniform—black mock turtleneck, faded 501s, running shoes—Jobs sits across from Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg, who commences with a simple question: Having recently changed its named from Apple Computer to Apple Inc., exactly what business is the company in?

“We’ll very shortly be in three businesses and a hobby,” Jobs replies, projecting the mildest affect he can muster—yet still the crowd is goggle-eyed, as if Bono were in the house.

The cliché of Jobs as rock star is, of course, hoary to the point of enfeeblement. From the start of his career—which is to say, for his entire adult life—he has radiated a mesmeric presence, his “reality-distortion field.” But as Jobs makes clear today, Apple’s reality is no longer in need of much distortion. On the back of the first two businesses he names, the Mac and the iPod-iTunes tandem, Apple racked up $21.6 billion in sales in the last twelve months, and $2.8 billion in profits. Its stock price has doubled in the past year; last month, AAPL was named to the S&P 100, making it a bona fide blue chip. With what Jobs dubs a “hobby,” Apple TV, the company has invaded the sanctum sanctorum of living-room entertainment. Then there’s that third, impending business, which revolves around a gorgeous sliver of palmtop gee-whizzery that you may have heard about: the iPhone.

Ten years ago, when Jobs retook the reins at Apple, the suggestion that the company would be where it is today would have seemed a fantasy—or a joke. Apple was bleeding cash, bleeding talent, bleeding credibility. Its laptops were literally bursting into flames. Its war with Microsoft had devolved into a self-lacerating pathology. Today the Mac is, albeit slowly, gaining ground on Windows. And the iPod, which in less than six years has sold north of 100 million units, has Microsoft choking on its dust.

Mossberg notes this astonishing achievement and inquires of Jobs how many copies of iTunes software are in circulation. At least 300 million, Jobs answers, prompting Mossberg to follow up: “Does the scale of this surprise you?”

Nodding sagely, Jobs responds, “The scale of a lot of things we’re doing surprises me.”

The Steve Jobs story is one of the classic narratives—maybe the classic narrative—of American business life. Its structure has been rigorous, traditional, and symmetrical: three acts of ten years each. Act One (1975–1985) is “The Rise,” in which Jobs goes into business with his pal, Steve Wozniak; starts Apple in his parents’ Silicon Valley garage; essentially invents the personal-computer industry with the Apple II; takes Apple public, making himself a multimillionaire at age 25; and changes the face of technology with the Macintosh. Act Two (1985–1996) is “The Fall”: the expulsion from Apple, the wilderness years battling depression and struggling to keep afloat two floundering new businesses, NeXT and Pixar. Act Three (1997–2007) is “The Resurrection”: the return to Apple and its restoration, the efflorescence of Pixar and its sale to Disney, the megabillionairehood, the sanctification as god of design and seer of the digital-media future.

The consistent thread running through all three acts is Jobs’s singular persona. His messianism has been present from the start: “He always believed,” says Wozniak, “he was going to be a leader of mankind.” Yet the most common descriptor applied to him, by friends and foes and even Jobs himself, is “asshole.” (Running neck-and-neck for second are “genius” and “sociopath.”) His abrasiveness is legendary and omnidirectional. Asked by a writer from Wired, “If you could go back and give advice to your 25-year-old self, what would you say?,” Jobs erupted, “Not to deal with stupid interviews—I have no time for this philosophical bullshit!” Given an early glimpse of the Segway high-tech people-mover, he bellowed, “I think it sucks,” then later called the company’s founder, trashed his CEO as a “butthead,” and said his marketing chief “should be selling Kleenex at a discount store in Idaho.” Implored by the government to take part in the federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, he snapped at the United States assistant attorney general, Joel Klein, “Are you going to do something serious? Or is it going to be dickless?”


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