Manjoo: The New Steve Jobs Biography Offers Gossip, but Not Insight

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 25 2011 6:45 PM

Jobs the Jerk

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the Apple CEO is full of juicy tales about Jobs’ ego, but it doesn’t explain what made him tick.

Steve Jobs
The new, authorized biography of Steve Jobs only goes so far

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

In the aftermath of his resignation and then his death, the Web erupted with stories about Steve Jobs—anecdotes from friends, employees, and rivals that were meant to burnish our image of the Apple co-founder as an otherworldly genius, a guy whose quirks and bruising personality could be excused by his admirably fanatical devotion to making world-changing products. There was the (alleged) time he asked engineers on the original iPod team to stay up all night fiddling with the headphone jack so that it made a more satisfying clicking sound, for example, or the morning he called up Vic Gundotra, a Google executive, to complain about the shade of yellow in the icon for Google’s iPhone app. Several of these stories implied that deep down, the hard-charging CEO was really a very nice, down-to-earth guy. Not long ago, a family standing outside Apple’s headquarters stopped Jobs to ask him to snap a group photo. Jobs saw that they had no idea who he was, and he happily, and carefully, composed a nice shot. See? Despite what you’d heard, such stories suggested, Steve Jobs wasn’t so hard to get along with after all.

It turns out, though, that he was much worse than you ever suspected. There are several admiring Steve Jobs stories in Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s much-anticipated authorized biography, but they’re overshadowed by the many, many more instances in which Jobs comes off as a world-class jerk. Jobs was rude, mean, abusive, and often neglectful to everyone in his life; the people he hated got it bad, but the people he loved sometimes got it worse. Some of this isn’t surprising. Jobs’ arrogance, his monumental self-regard, his irresponsibility, and his unremitting cruelty to those who failed to live up to his expectations have always dogged his image. During his life, Jobs did express regret for some of his actions—including abandoning his first daughter, Lisa, for several years after she was conceived out of wedlock. (He continued to suggest that he might not be her father even after a paternity test proved he was.)

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But Isaacson has compiled so many instances of personal and professional thuggery—and so many from Jobs’ later, allegedly “mellower” years—that even longtime Jobs admirers (a group in which I count myself) will struggle to like the guy in this book. I suspect that Jobs wouldn’t have minded this portrayal. “I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out,” he told Isaacson, and clearly he didn’t care what people thought about him. (Anyone who didn’t like him was probably a “bozo,” his favorite put-down; “fucking dickless assholes” was his best.)

Yet Jobs also said that he wanted a biographer to make sure that his kids had some sense of who he was, and to be able to explain the choices he’d made. And that’s what’s so odd, and disappointing, about this book: Isaacson conducted more than 40 interviews with Jobs, but the CEO seemed unwilling to reflect on his life with any real depth. Even when he was dying, Jobs wasn’t in the mood to analyze his strengths, his weaknesses, his victories, or his mistakes.

He embodied so many contradictions—he was enamored of anti-materialist, Buddhist philosophy yet became the most successful materialist of his day; he celebrated freewheeling hacker culture yet locked down everything he made—but Jobs doesn’t care to explain, or even address, many of them. Key questions go unanswered; for instance, Jobs doesn’t say what he learned during his exile from Apple that allowed him to be so spectacularly successful when he returned in the mid-1990s. He also doesn’t explain his penchant for corporate secrecy—why did hiding his innovations become such a huge part of his marketing plan? And how did he develop his signature product-unveiling presentation style? He doesn’t say.

When friends and colleagues offer theories about Jobs—several say that both his genius and his cruelty stem from the fact that he was put up for adoption by his biological parents—Jobs dismisses them. He can’t explain even the smallest of his quirks. Why did he refuse to have a license plate on his car? He admits that his initial reason, privacy, became moot in the age of Google Maps. So in the end he didn’t have a plate “because I don’t.” Illuminating!

Isaacson tries valiantly to add some depth to the profile. In addition to the theme of parental abandonment, the author noodles on the idea of Jobs’ detachment from reality: He was so bad to people, and so good with products, because he was able to focus on his work like nothing else in the world mattered to him (which, perhaps, was true). Jobs “feels that the normal rules of social engagement don’t apply to him,” Jony Ive, Apple’s longtime design chief, tells Isaacson; perhaps that’s why he parked in handicapped spots, was rude to every waiter he ever encountered, and believed he didn’t have to bathe. (There’s been some talk of a movie based on Isaacson’s book, but it’s hard to see how any screen treatment could improve on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

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