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Book review: 'The Second Coming of Steve Jobs'
(IDG) -- Apple's chief executive officer (CEO) Steve Jobs is "a control freak, egomaniac, and fearsome tyrant". In 1985 he was fired from Apple, the company he co-founded, because of this. In 1997 he returned, and rescued Apple from almost certain death. He saved Apple by the same means for which he was booted out. Herein lies a large part of the fascinating Steve Jobs enigma.
Alan Deutschman's 'The Second Coming of Steve Jobs' sets out to solve this enigma - "to discover the deep sources of his character and motivation; what makes him exceptional as well as what makes him real... Where he got his unusual ideas about leadership, management and the creative process... How he had been changed by his years of wealth and celebrity and by his years of struggle and failure."
Deutschman, who talked to nearly one hundred people who have known and worked for Jobs, believes that his subject "succeeded in becoming the Jackie Kennedy Onassis of business and technology - ubiquitous as a symbol of his times, but little known as a human being". Steve is "a pop-culture icon, a media hero, a role model, a sex symbol, and teen heartthrob" - quite different to most nerdy computer types, and hence the intense interest in the man turned icon.
From ground zero to high hero
'The Second Coming' starts in 1985, when Steve was exiled from Apple, and goes through to early this year, when he officially became Apple's chief executive.
According to his "closest friends" - although really close friends don't spill the beans to unauthorized biographers - post-Apple, Steve had thought of asking NASA if he could fly on one of their space shuttles. He would have ended up on the ill-fated Challenger. He thought about living in Soviet Russia, or maybe running for Senate. Clearly, Steve was at an end so loose that he could have drifted as far from reality as the Newton's handwriting-recognition later would for Apple. Some of his pals even feared that he'd kill himself. Deutschman sums up Jobs' "lost weekend" thus: "He suffered a midlife crisis at 30, and compressed it into three months - an over-achiever even at personal trauma".
The rest of the book looks at Steve's NeXT venture, his role in the unbridled success of Pixar - his "hobby" that made the blockbusters, Toy Story and A Bug's Life - and his return to Apple. In the chapter called 'Crises', NeXT - Steve's forlorn attempt to beat Apple's Mac at its own game - becomes a "horrendous flop". And even Pixar - which would become the source of Jobs' salvation - is a "miserable mess".
Steve's eventual return to Apple - by selling the NeXTStep operating system to his old company as the eventual foundation of Mac OS X - was a turning point that followed swiftly on the tail of Pixar's amazing success stories. But despite his desire for revenge on the company that booted him out - "we're going to kick their ass," he told NeXT employees - Steve had apparently secretly yearned for a return to Apple as far back as 1987.
It is well known that Jobs has a legendary temper ("his penchant for turning on his colleagues with a wicked tongue"), and also that he is the most charismatic man in the whole computer industry ("He is seductive to the nth degree," says a former employee). Deutschman calls these opposing sides of Jobs' personality 'Bad Steve' and 'Good Steve'. Many people working for Steve - whether at Apple, NeXT or Pixar - would ride his "hero-s--head roller coaster", where one day Steve would say you're great, and the next he'd say you "sucked".
As Deutschman points out, muck sticks longer than honey - and Steve's reputation soon became more enfant terrible than admirable wunderkind. 'The Second Coming' is full of stories of Steve screaming at those employees he thinks aren't aiming at the same level of perfection as he is. Some are funny, but the overall effect paints a rather grim picture.
One great story that I hadn't heard before relates to Steve's persistent phone calls to senior Apple figures shortly after his return. Developer relations manager Heidi Roizen is so unnerved by Steve's calls that she ignores them. She advises Apple board member - and all-round tough-guy - Bill Campbell to do the same. Campbell replies: "I tried that. But then Steve would come over to my house." "Don't answer the door," says Roizen. "I tried that," says an exasperated Campbell, "but my dog sees him and goes berserk".
There was nearly always reason behind the madness, and this was usually Steve's desire to get the best results. When he was Bad Steve, Deutschman asserts, he didn't seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions, so long as he pushed for greatness.
"He got his people to push themselves extremely hard, to strive manically and often to improve the technology far beyond what they had thought was possible... He was the corporate superego, the surrogate parent they all wanted so much to please."
Deutschman suggests that Jobs could have learnt his domineering management 'skills' from a weird-thinking guru called Werner Erhard who locked his pupils in a windowless hotel ballroom and subjected them to intense verbal abuse "saying they were all 'a--holes' and making them cry and shake hysterically".
On the other side of the scale, a Newsweek reporter tells how she watched the first Think Different TV ad with Steve, who cried at its powerful imagery. "That's what I love about him," she says. "Steve was genuinely moved by that stupid ad."
Physician heal thyself
USA Today reports that Jobs sees this book as a "hatchet job". It's not quite that - but, over the 300 pages, Deutschman commits many of the crimes that he accuses his subject of. The author himself alternates suddenly between being charming about Jobs and being horrible. 'Humiliating people isn't nice' is Deutschman's message. Yet he jokes that, by the age of 44, Steve has "a bit of a tummy... and a small bald spot". Big deal.
'The Second Coming' is also intrusive. It talks about Steve's relationships with girlfriends in the same interrogative tone as it does his business dealings. The book includes stories about his kids' lives that would test UK laws on privacy. Freedom of information is all well and good, but we don't need to know about Steve's boat trip with his six-year-old son - no matter what one nothing incident tells us about his protective instincts.
And Deutschman tries to show up Steve for quite ordinary wishes: having a nice home, being vegetarian, dating beautiful women, and desiring success. In one paragraph, he even seems to pour scorn on Jobs for "enjoying hobnobbing with celebrities, and attending glamorous events". Is it a crime to enjoy such a lifestyle?
In the final chapter, 'Being Steve', Deutschman lists ten theories about what makes up Steve's "mesmerizing, if frustrating, personality.
And, after reading 'The Second Coming', Steve Jobs remains an enigma because, for all his second-hand anecdotes and gossipy research, Deutschman doesn't crack the code. This unauthorized biography is an interesting, fun read (especially on the beginnings of Pixar), but don't expect to understand the man any better than you did beforehand.
For all his flaws, Steve Jobs is very good news for Apple. It's his vision that made the Mac a reality, and his input that keeps it real today. If that means he has to shout at people, fine. He deserves his billions and icon status much more than he deserves his reputation as a bully. If his personality at times seems crazed, maybe that's because to Macintosh users everywhere, Steve Jobs is as "insanely great" as the iMac, NeXTStep and Toy Story 2.
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