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Steve Jobs in a Box

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Steve Jobs in his office at Apple in 1981.  

And yet the respect accorded Jobs is nearly universal. The employees he’s flagrantly abused later concede that he inspired their best work. The fellow bigwigs he’s derided later admit that he was right. His obnoxiousness, Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, has said, “comes from his high standards ... He has no patience with people who don’t either share those standards or perform to them.” What’s maddening about his mammoth self-regard is that, all too often in Acts One, Two, and Three, it has been justified.

Now, however, Jobs is departing from classical structure and undertaking an Act Four. With the iPhone, in particular, he is hurling Apple into foreign waters. His motivations for doing so aren’t difficult to discern. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion cell phones are sold worldwide every year; in terms of scale, ubiquity, and relevance, it’s the mother of all consumer-electronics markets. The chance to upend this sprawling industry, bend it to his will, is one that Jobs, being Jobs, finds irresistible.

Apple’s competitors, by contrast, find the prospect of the iPhone terrifying. “The entire fucking Western world hopes that it’s a case of imperial overstretch,” says the CEO of one of the planet’s largest communications companies. “But everybody is quietly saying, er, what if people want to buy a $500 phone? What if, er, people have been waiting for a device that does all these things? What if this thing works as advertised? I mean, my God, what then?”

The emerging consensus, in fact, is that the incumbents’ dread is warranted. That Jobs is about to do it again—to unleash another object of overwhelming, consciousness-drenching, culture-shifting desire. That Apple’s past is merely preface to a period of increasing and metastasizing dominance.

But what if that consensus is wrong? What if Jobs and Apple have peaked? What if, in terms of power and influence, it’s all downhill from here? These suggestions might seem incredible, but half a century of high-tech history indicates otherwise. What that history imparts is that it’s precisely when the mighty seem invincible that their humbling is close at hand. For proof, just ask the folks at Sony. Or ask Bill Gates. Or, for that matter, ask Jobs himself—although his memory, at this moment, may be a bit cloudy on the subject.

Ten years ago, on an August morning in 1997, I boarded a plane in San Francisco for Boston, where, at the summer MacWorld trade show, Jobs would make it apparent that he was, in effect, running Apple again. I was doing a piece about him and had been laboring mightily, futilely, for weeks to get him to agree to see me. I trundled onto the plane, took my seat, and, whoa, discovered Jobs sitting directly in front of me—being interviewed for six hours straight by a journalist for Time. When the plane touched down at Logan, I introduced myself and asked if he might have time to chat in the next few days.

Jobs: “Sorry, man, I’m not doing any press right now.”

I don’t imagine he much cared for the story that I eventually produced, not because it was especially harsh toward him—it wasn’t—but because of its pessimistic view of his prospects for rescuing Apple. “Years of gross mismanagement, infighting, and mounting losses have gone a long way toward erasing what was left of the Apple myth,” I opined. “In all probability, Apple is destined to become, at best, a break-even company.”

This view, it should be noted, was far from unique, even among Jobs’s admirers. Jean-Louis Gassée, a raffish Frenchman whom Jobs had enticed to Apple and who rose to be its chief of product development, informed me that Jobs was “the most powerful person I’ve ever met. The word charisma—in the true, Greek sense—applies. He has the power to open up your chest and put his fingers inside you.” (Gassée also related a story about going shopping with Jobs years earlier at Hermès in Paris for a gift for Brooke Shields: “He asked if I could tell him how to keep his hair from falling out.”) But when I pressed Gassée on whether he believed that Jobs could save Apple, he answered glumly, “No.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the mistake we skeptics made wasn’t overestimating the depths of Apple’s problems; Jobs told friends the company was 90 days away from bankruptcy. Our error was underestimating him. But it’s worth pointing out that Jobs’s genius, his handle on the warp and weft of American consumer culture, hadn’t been much in evidence the previous ten years. His post-Apple computer venture, NeXT, had built a high-end machine, the design of which was pure Jobs: a stone-smooth ebony cube. But the NeXT box was astronomically expensive and sold in numbers so small they could be tallied on an abacus. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)


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