Steve Jobs and me: Esther Dyson on her long, stormy, and admiring relationship with the Apple founder.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Oct. 7 2011 4:57 PM

“Really … Crummy”

Steve Jobs’ legendary attention to detail, and how it caused Apple’s success.

Steve Jobs posing with Apple Computer's iMac.
Apple Computer interim CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs posing with Apple Computer's new iMac during a media event in 1998

Photograph by John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images.

Normally, you need a distinctive first name not to need a last name, but in this—as in everything that he did—Steve Jobs was different. He was always just “Steve.”

In the personal-computing business—which moved from the bulky Apple II to the sleek and intelligent iPhone 4S (announced the day before Steve’s death)—Steve was the only true showman of what is now one of the world’s biggest industries. He inspired broad public enthusiasm for the quality of his products and his personal charisma. (Others have become “business” leaders, but only Steve became someone known and admired by millions—including the Romanian waiter at the British Airways lounge where I am sitting now.)

Advertisement

I first met Steve back in 1979 or 1980, at Ben Rosen's Personal Computer Forum. For some reason, it was held at the Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva (never again!). Regis McKenna, Apple’s public-relations agent for many years, set up the meeting. As I recall, the three of us sipped Diet Cokes, served by a Playboy bunny. Even then, as a world traveler who had spent serious time in India, Steve had a better sense of the world outside educated, middle-class America than most techies.

I’ll always remember his impact at PC Forum, which I later bought and ran from 1982 to 2007. He came many times in the mid-1980s and ‘90s. The rivalry between him and almost everyone in the industry was bitter. He and Apple were considered arrogant loners; they didn’t play nicely with others. (And, yes, he was occasionally rude to me as well, when I failed to earn his approval for one reason or another. That includes my last email from him, in September 2010, in which he called a particular app I had introduced to him "really ... crummy.")

Nonetheless, 30 or so years ago, a number of us gathered in a hotel suite to watch him being interviewed on television by Larry King. As he talked, compelling as ever, the mood in the room changed. He was no longer our competitor inside our market; he was one of us, outside in a bigger, alien world, explaining our immature little industry and products to a much broader public than we could ever reach—or influence—on our own. Our small industry had lots of its own stars, but only Steve had the charm and eloquence to be a star to the outside world. We cheered as he explained—in eloquent, simple terms, speaking for all of us—the effect that personal computers could have on people’s lives.

On the business side, he built a unique company, despite his own period in exile from Apple while a series of missteps almost destroyed the organization that he had built. In a world where people genuflect to the creed of “open systems” (and sometimes actually practice it), Steve insisted on being closed in order to control and deliver a unified, coherent experience to consumers. His obsession with detail was legendary.

His company reflects that singularity of focus. Apple still controls what apps you can buy, what content you can see, and most other aspects of the products that it sells. Despite its range of products, Apple has a single design team and centralized management, and has made only a few acquisitions over the years, most notably Siri, the source of much of the intelligence inside the newest iPhone. Apple’s goal has never been to amass market share, but rather to attract customers one by one through the singular appeal of its products.

But in the end, the point isn’t a battle over strategies. Openness is great, and a strategy I normally applaud: No single vendor is likely to be the best, so openness allows a broad range of suppliers to compete and differentiate so the best can emerge. The closed strategy makes sense only if you are the best. That is what Steve was.

Read this story at Project Syndicate.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.