How Accurate Is Jobs?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 16 2013 1:03 PM

How Accurate Is Jobs?

jobs_kutcher
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in a promotional photo for Jobs

Open Road Films

Today sees the release of Jobs (formerly jOBS), in which Ashton Kutcher plays the part of late Apple founder Steve Jobs. The film focuses on Jobs’ life from the time he dropped out of Reed College in 1971 to his rehiring as CEO of Apple in 1997, a decade after he was ousted from the company. The movie is not outright hagiography, but it clearly aims to please Apple fans.

So how accurate is it? The breakdown below draws on Walter Isaacson’s biography as well as other previous reporting.

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The undergraduate years
Jobs begins with a bedraggled and barefoot Kutcher tramping through the campus of Reed College, and the first segment of the film details his cavalier college life, when, for instance, he cheated on his girlfriend to score acid and then dropped said acid in the middle of a wheat field. We also see him audit calligraphy classes. An extended montage depicts a trip to India and his return as a more mature man, and we also learn that he feels deeply insecure about being put up for adoption as a child.

This is basically accurate. Jobs dropped out of Reed, counted LSD as “one of the two or three most important” experiences in his life, and frequently said that his excursion to India instilled many of the spiritual and meditative values he applied to Apple’s business philosophy. (He also had a penchant for walking around barefoot; Kutcher copies his loping gait—and his delicate hand movements—pretty well.) He credited those calligraphy classes with helping to inspire the design principles that later made Macintoshes so desirable. And his adoption was a sensitive issue for him, especially in his younger days.

The creation of Apple
In the film, Jobs visits the home of old friend Steve Wozniak and glimpses Woz’s latest project: a computer kit that can be hooked up to a video monitor. Jobs sees the potential, and lassoes Woz into presenting the project at the Homebrew Computer Club. They find a willing retailer in the crowd, Paul Terrell, and make 50 units in their garage with the first Apple employees. A couple hundred phone calls later, Jobs procures funding from multimillionaire investor Mike Markkula and the company is incorporated.

A few facts fall through the cracks in this depiction, though the basic narrative is true. Jobs did prod Wozniak into commercializing the Apple I Computer—which Woz made singlehandedly—but he didn’t suggest pitching Woz’s computer kit to Homebrew. Wozniak has railed against these early scenes, claiming that “a more accurate portrayal would be myself in the Homebrew Computer Club (with Steve Jobs up in another state and not aware of it) being inspired by liberal humanist academics from Berkeley and Stanford and other places speaking of these high social goals.” Woz was a tech whiz and Homebrew regular; Jobs was, as usual in their relationship, the one who saw the commercial potential of the product. Their first pitch, as depicted, didn’t go very well, but Paul Terrell did indeed stay behind and agree to order 50 units for $500 each.

Personal life
Jobs often attracted criticism for the cold manner in which he treated friends and family. In the film, we see Chrisann Brennan, an on-and-off girlfriend, tells Jobs she is pregnant right after Markkula has pledged his investment. Jobs, fearing the burden of responsibility at such a crucial business juncture, denies paternity and disowns the child. Brennan isn’t seen again.

Though the scene is half-baked in the film, the story is largely accurate. Jobs was 23 when Chrisann became pregnant, and in court documents he denied paternity, claiming he was sterile. After DNA tests proved him wrong, he criticized the accuracy of such testing, and claimed that Chrisann had been sleeping with multiple partners at the time of conception. Jobs later conceded that he was the father of the child, named Lisa, and would mend their relationship somewhat: She lived with him in her late teens, and he paid for her to go to Harvard and bought a home for her and Chrisann when they were struggling. Jobs also named his first project upon incorporating Apple the Apple Lisa, after his estranged daughter, though he denied the connection at the time.

The movie also depicts Jobs’ strained relationship with Daniel Kottke, the college friend with whom he traveled to India. Though Kottke was one of Apple’s first employees, he didn’t possess Wozniak’s technical skills or Jobs’ work ethic, and so was increasingly consigned to the fringes of Apple’s workstaff—a descent that culminated in Jobs’ refusal to grant Kottke any “founders’ stock” before the company went public. This is all true. (The film does have Jobs ditch Kottke at a lunch meeting so he can confer with his lawyers and bar Kottke from cashing in on company stock, and that particular scene may be have been invented for the movie.)

The Macintosh
In the film, we see Jobs—relying on his vision, drive, and relentless perfectionism—convince the down-and-out Macintosh team that their project will change the world. Jobs’ motivational skills were no doubt critical in the Macintosh’s creation, but far more important was his infamous visit to Xerox PARC. Jobs convinced Xerox executives to reveal some of their R&D technology in exchange for the opportunity to buy Apple stock. The Xerox Alto, the machine he viewed, could be called the grandfather of all PCs: Its mouse-driven graphical use interface (which employed bitmapping, allowing for much better rendering) opened the doors for viable personal computing. The Macintosh would feature both bitmapping and a mouse—and though Apple’s product was far superior, and featured numerous innovations of its own (overlapping windows, for example), its basic template was lifted from the Xerox model. Jobs himself said Xerox “could have owned the computer industry,” but “had no clue what a computer could do.” Jobs ignores this aspect of the Macintosh’s creation entirely.

Apple’s firing and re-hiring of Jobs
In the film, Jobs’ boorish leadership style and domineering personality begin to take their toll on the Apple board, which has the sole priority of ensuring consistent revenue for the company. After taking Jobs off the Lisa project and re-assigning him to the Macintosh division, they allow him to hand-pick the next CEO. He lures John Sculley, former head of PepsiCo, with a now legendary pitch: “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” The two start out on good terms, but their relationship becomes a power struggle. The board sides with Sculley, strips Jobs of his power, and essentially banishes him from the company. Jobs takes the firing in stride, founding NeXT Inc., and Apple ends up bringing him back on board almost a decade later, after declining revenues put them months away from bankruptcy. Upon his return, he meets a young Jonathan Ive, the now-famous designer of many of Apple’s most popular products.

This is largely accurate, but Jobs is misleading in a couple of places during this stretch of the film. It strongly implies that Sculley’s reign was full of dipping revenues, when it was actually one of the most profitable in Apple’s history. Though Sculley was responsible for some ill-advised price increases on products such as the Macintosh, he also oversaw the launch of System 7 and the PowerBook, two massive successes. The film also chooses to omit Jobs’ business ventures besides NeXT. (Among other things, he bought a little company called Pixar.)

Sharan Shetty is a writer for Brow Beat. You can follow him on Twitter

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