Apple that fell far from the tree

Apple that fell far from the tree
Mercurial titan Steve Jobs (centre, back) mellowed considerably after settling down. He is seen here in 2005 on a family holiday in Mexico with (clockwise) wife Laurene Powell, daughter Eve, daughter Erin and son Reed.

Two Sundays ago, a woman in California reportedly threw out an Apple 1 computer worth US$200,000 (S$270,000).

That first-generation desktop computer, one of only 200 in the world, was among her late husband's belongings in their garage.

Californian recycling-plant boss Victor Gichun, to whom she offloaded the precious artefact, is now trying to track her down to give her half of the US$200,000 he received from selling the Apple 1 to a private collector.

The Apple 1 was assembled in 1976 by Apple co-founders Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and their friend Ronald Wayne, in the garage of Jobs' parents' house in Los Altos, California. They sold each of these prototype PCs for US$666.66.

The story of how the Apple 1 came to be takes up much of the first chapter of this beguiling new biography on Jobs, by American magazine reporters Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Tetzeli, who was lauded for his focused reporting on depression-hit Detroit for Time, is now executive editor for Fast Company.

Schlender covered technology, management and leadership for Fortune magazine for more than 20 years, before moving on to write for Fast Company.

Known for his incisive profiles of entrepreneurs, especially those in Silicon Valley, he first interviewed Jobs in 1986. As he tells it in the book, Jobs was struck at how hard Schlender worked to understand technology that they remained friends till Jobs' death on Oct 5, 2011. Jobs would often e-mail Schlender to tell him whenever he was elated or "hurt" by anything Schlender wrote.

Many in the IT and publishing industries sneered at Schlender and Tetzeli when they embarked on the umpteenth study on Jobs. To be fair, it was hard to see at first how they could possibly add anything fresh to a market crowded with such best-selling Jobs studies as iCon: Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act In The History Of Business; and most recently, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson's authorised biography on him.

But the naysayers reckoned without Schlender's ability to get even the most reticent people to spill, most notably Apple's chief design officer Jonathan Ive, whom Jobs considered his kindred spirit. Besides Ive, the authors interviewed afresh key people in Jobs' universe, 14 months after his death, such as his successor Tim Cook.

The ensuing book is, in fact, primarily the story of Jobs according to his Apple colleagues past and present, some of whom have tweeted that the book captures Jobs most accurately.

In essence, it charts compellingly Jobs' long journey of personal growth, from a hustling dropout to a business sage whom presidents and kings went to for advice - albeit a sage with still-dubious personal hygiene and who would not eat meat even though doing so might prolong his life.

Among the startling new facts about him in the book: Jobs told Disney chief Bob Iger that his pancreatic cancer had recurred, about an hour before both of them signed the historic US$7.4-billion deal for Disney to buy Jobs' animation studio Pixar.

Iger knew that news three years before Apple, and Iger's response to Jobs was: "We're buying Pixar, we're not buying you"; Cook's offer to give Jobs his liver, after Cook did tests to verify that his rare blood type matched Jobs'. In the book, Cook says Jobs' absolute refusal for him to do so proved that the latter was ultimately not as selfish as most people thought him to be.

As Cook recalls in the book: "Steve yelled at me only four or five times during the 13 years I knew him, and this was one of them"; After turning 50 in 2005, Jobs still could not bring himself to admit that he still had to learn about leadership from others, notably from Ed Catmull, chairman of animation studio Pixar which Jobs established in 1986; and At heart, Jobs craved a happy family life.

That was why he was a big fan of the Kona Village resort in Hawaii. Those who knew him expected Jobs to flee the rustic, family-friendly surrounds at first, but it became his sanctuary.

The overall portrait that emerges is that of a one-of-a-kind wunderkind who judged people too quickly, felt it almost his right to abuse and offend them and yet expected them to forgive him just as easily.

The book devotes an entire chapter to his bad behaviour, titled Blind Spots, Grudges And Sharp Elbows. As the authors show in fine detail, he seemed to learn nothing from running himself aground at the age of 30, when the man he handpicked to run Apple, namely former sugar-water seller John Sculley, sidelined him.

It is a wonder that Jobs could mount a comeback so powerful in 1997 that, with market capitalisation of over US$700 billion today, Apple is the most valuable company on earth.

So it is that this book cuts closer to the bone than Isaacson's account. That is saying a lot because although Isaacson declared that he liked Jobs, he disparaged Jobs without fear or favour in his book, mostly through the accounts of Jobs' daughter Lisa - who he long denied fathering - his biological mother Joanne Schieble and his sister Mona Simpson. Jobs only acknowledged his daughter a year after a DNA test he took showed that there was a 94.41 per cent that Lisa was his.

Simpson, in particular, gave Isaacson searing insights about the gulf of estrangement between her brother and their Syrian-born father, Abdulfattah Jandali.

Perhaps because the authors intend this book to focus on Jobs the businessman "who never wanted to be a businessman", they hardly dwell on his family.

Curiously, Schlender and Tetzeli also rise constantly to defend Jobs against even his most egregious failings. It is a schizophrenic approach that doubles as an unwitting homage to Jobs' very binary nature, one that many described as half genius, half a**hole.

The biggest bonus in this book is, however, the authors' fresh interviews with Bill Gates, Jobs' sometime nemesis.

Among Gates' observations on the master showman: "Steve created a management approach that worked for the type of product that he had been thinking about... So many of the people who want to be like Steve have the a**hole side down. What they're missing is the genius part." Gates considered Jobs' management style so unique that he told the authors that they should title their 17-chapter book Don't Try This At Home.

So, you may well ask, if this book is really a cautionary tale about one very flawed genius' search for meaning, what could one possibly learn from it? Answer: A lot about the nature of genius, but if I had to pick three, it would be these:

The key to unlocking this man of many contradictions was to respect that he lived to achieve his vision, with anyone and anything else a distant second;

People smarter than him were willing to work with him because he pursued a noble cause beyond his huge ego, that is, to enable everyone to enjoy the beauty of life easily; and

He inspired those who were with him to achieve what they first thought impossible.

All of which is powerful stuff from an apple that fell far from the tree.

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