The prophet of Palo Alto

Written by James Mathew | Updated: Oct 30 2011, 07:43am hrs
As my black-and-yellow taxi halted at the traffic signal in Bandra where the road forks towards Navi Mumbai, I fished out my iPad and returned to the Haunted Manor. A half-clad beggar girl of five or six was outside, standing on her toes, her eyes glued to the glowing screen. I held up the tablet so she could see it better, and the kid clapped and whooped with joy. A boy, slightly taller and similarly clothed, appeared and lifted his baby sister by her waist so she could get a better view. In no time, a gaggle of kids had gathered, cheering and pointing. The signal turned green and my taxi pulled away.

For a few fleeting moments, the prophet of Palo Alto had brought simple joy to a bunch of beggar kids, giving them a peek into the walled gardens of Apple loved by millions across the world.

* * *

Perhaps those kids had real parents who fed and clothed them, but Steve Jobs clearly had less luck. In the early-1950s, Abdulfattah Jandali of Syria had fallen in love with Joanne Schieble of California. Pregnant at 23, Joanne moved to San Francisco where she gave birth to a boy and put him up for adoption. The orphan would one day build the planets biggest technology corporation, invent new business lines and change the face of music, movies, computing and communications in ways unforgettable for ages to come. He would stumble and fall on the way, would be humbled by fate and humiliated by humans, and would return from the wilderness to reclaim his crumbling kingdom and nurture it to prosperity.

Steve Jobs: The exclusive biography by Walter Isaacson is a riveting story of the Count of Cupertino, the only authorised biography of the man whose name is synonymous with innovation. Elegantly written and devoid of the breathless hyperbole which infests books on Apple and Jobs, it stands out among the tonnes of literature on the subject. It is a tale of how one mans convictions and craziness bent reality and changed the world, in ways we will never fully understand. For this reason, Steve Jobs is a recommended reading for anyone with the capacity to marvel at the indomitable power of human will.

Under his adoptive middle-class parents Paul and Clara Jobs, Steve grew up as an ambitious kid, focussed, full of intensity and tough to handle. Some of his mischiefs include bursting crackers in class and displaying a large curtain showing a middle-finger at an event. Both got him suspended.

Jobs developed a passion for design from his dad who was a machinist. He would turn out to be a maniac for perfectionin his life and in the products he made. His friendship with Steve Wozniak, a quintessential nerd who was five years older, blossomed into school-level pranks, phone hacking exploits and later, the founding of Apple.

A year after he badgered his parents into sending him to the most expensive college around, Jobs dropped out, but stayed in the campus and slept in friends rooms. His spiritual mentor was Robert Friedland, a senior student who had served prison time for drug possession. Get-togethers were a communal cocktail of youth, music, drugs and spirituality, and Jobs perfectly blended in. He took to vegetarianism, meditation, fasting, LSD and eastern spirituality. The child of counterculture listened to Bach, Beatles and Bob Dylan, read The Autobiography of a Yogi and dreamt of enlightenment.

Isaacsons book throws light on Jobs first daughter, whom he refused to accept for a long time. Conventional wisdom has it that Jobs abandoned his blood, but the truth seems more complex. Jobs had a close relationship with Chrisann Brennan during their times at Friedlands farm. However, they drifted apart and Chrisann started dating another guy. However, she would occasionally stay over at Jobs house, like many of his friends. Old flames were rekindled, and Chrisann became pregnant. Jobs wouldnt accept that he was the father, though she knew better.

This oddity of the abandoned Jobs abandoning his own daughter makes sense in the light of Isaacsons observation that Jobs brain ignores inputs it does not want to process, a pattern repeatedly manifested in his inability to furnish his house, or decide whether he should be CEO, or whether he should marry Tina or Laurene or whether he should undergo cancer treatment. In his personal life, Jobs tragically lacked the intensity he so effectively displayed at work. He would studiously ignore a problem hoping it would go away.

Jobs joined gaming company Atari which let him work nights when the office was empty, because no one wanted to work with the unwashed, unkempt and stinking hippie. After a while, though, he left to search for Neem Karoli Baba, his guru in India. Jobs went around barefoot in North India, unwashed, unkempt and sporting long hair. Occasionally, he suffered from dysentery and other illnesses, aimlessly wandering and surviving often on the milk of human kindness. After he returned to California, he went barefoot to Atari in saffron robes to find if he could have his job back, which he did.

Future lay beyond Atari. Wozniak and Jobs set out to make a computer, sowing the seeds of Apple Computer in the fertile soil of Silicon Valley. Its first computer gained modest success with a niche audience. The second iteration Apple II was a giant hit, and the two youngsters were on Cloud Nine. Apple was on a roll.

Jobs saw himself as the rebel, the underdog, the outsider, and expected to see himself in his company. Piratesnot navy! he intoned. Some of his cohorts put up a black skull-and-bones pirate flag atop the Macintosh building to convey the spirit.

Apple II sales boomed, ensuring a thumping success for the companys IPO in 1980 and creating over 300 millionaires. At the tender age of 25, Steve Jobs was worth $256 million.

Sudden wealth makes some uncivil and ostentatious, but not Jobs. Since he was already uncivil and never ostentatious later, one feels his riches did not change him much. Money gave more leverage in business transactions and offered the freedom to do more. But for this Zen Buddhist, money was no end in itself neither for himself nor for his corporation.

A visit to a Xerox R&D centre changed the course for Apple Computer, and computing in general. Jobs watched a graphical user interface under development, and went back to build what became the Macintosh. Launched in 1984, the Macintosh was a game-changer, the first computer for the masses with a mouse. The industry followed with a new generation of computers with mice and windows, despatching command line computers to the trash can of history.

Barely a year later, Jobs was fired. His tantrums, management and manipulation were becoming a source of constant headaches. In mid-1985, the Apple board, led by its CEO John Sculley ousted Jobs from the company he founded. For the messiah of Macintosh who dreamed of a new revolution in computing, it was the end of Part One.

Jobs, as Isaacson saw him, is a deeply sentimental person. He rants, raves and humiliates his people, but he is also one who quickly breaks down in tears he cannot hide his emotions, be they positive or negative and he is least embarrassed about it. I always cry, Jobs confesses to his biographer. One day, Jobs reads to Isaacson an emotional letter he wrote to his wife Laurene at their wedding anniversary, and sobs uncontrollably. Jobs chokes when he speaks of Tina Redse, his girlfriend from three decades back. When he talks of spirituality and the purity of transcendental music, tears run down his cheeks.

After his exit from Apple, Jobs formed NeXT, which aimed to sell computers for the education market. It did not take off. He bought George Lucass animation studio Pixar, but it did not seem to have a future either. He built a high-tech, robot-driven, designer factory to build thousands of NeXT computers, the orders for which never came. His offices reflected his ideals of minimalist Zen Buddhism and Bauhaus aesthetics, but the business was faltering. Even when his ventures were going to pieces, Jobs kept the flag of perfection flying high.

Fortune favours the brave and the patient. After a decade of aimless wandering, Pixars Toy Story launched to a world-beating record, giving breathing room for Jobs. The company went public soon, and it was a success as well. More was to follow. In 1997, Apple acquired NeXT for $430 million, bringing Jobs back into its fold. History would unfold soon.

Apple was then on the brink of bankruptcy, and Jobs went to work with a vengeance. With the captain in command and all hands on the deck, the pirate ship gathered steam. Jobs launched the eye-catching iMac in 1998, and Apple turned a profit. The first iPod came out in 2001, followed by several iterations. The iTunes Music Store debuted in 2003, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. In a decade, the company launched a blitz of coveted productsinsanely greatproductscreating entire new industries and business lines.

As we read Isaacsons book, we realise that Jobs was not a vendor of gadgets; he was an artist. He found God in the details of design and perfection. When the doctors made him put an oxygen mask while he was choking, he said it looked horrible. When his cancer specialists showed him Microsoft PowerPoint slides, he complained it could be shown better with Apples Keynote. He saw everything in binary terms: You were either brilliant or a bozo. The products were insanely great or they sucked. No grey areas for this man.

Throughout his life, Jobs would get what he wanted. He could charm his partners when wanted, and he could chew them up when he felt like it. For someone who was among Americas richest, Jobs led the life of a monk. He would fast for days at a stretch, and then resume his diet of fruits and carrot juice.

Esquire called Steve Jobs legacy so large that its uncertain, his success so comprehensive that it precludes successors. The Economist called Apple A company which might last a 100 years. At his death, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said Jobs was insanely great, repeating a favourite phrase of Jobs and doffing his hat to the genius of the man.

The neuro-endocrine cancer cells killed his pancreas and liver, and ultimately the man himself. Jobs lost weight and hair, his skin cracked and he became a ghostly shadow of the charming handsome young man who once launched the Macintosh to a rapturous crowd. Perhaps it was a tribute to his troubled parentage that when Jobs died, the Apple community felt it had lost its father its members never met. Even as a young man, Jobs would say that he wouldnt live long. Some of his predictions had gone wrong, but on this one, he was bang on.

* * *

During one of his interactions, Jobs forwarded Isaacson a Forbes article. The writer was in rural Colombia, where he was reading a novel on his iPad. A poor stable boy was curious, and the writer handed over the iPad to him, and he instantly started playing with it, swiping screens and tapping icons, even playing a simple pinball game.

Steve Jobs has designed a powerful computer that even an illiterate six-year old can use without instruction. If this isnt magical, I dont know what is, he signed off, a homage to the elegant, intuitive interface unique to all Apple devices. I suspect the stable boy will forever remember the tablet he saw when he was six. I also suspect the beggar kids in Mumbai will remember it as well, long after the tablets and their users lie buried under the earth.


STEVE JOBS: THE EXCLUSIVE BIOGRAPHY Walter Isaacson

Hachette India

Pp 656

Rs 799