a documentary film directed by Alex GibneySteve Jobs
a film directed by Danny Boyle
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader
by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
Crown Business, 447 pp., $30.00
Partway through Alex Gibney’s earnest documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, an early Apple Computer collaborator named Daniel Kottke asks the question that appears to animate Danny Boyle’s recent film about Jobs: “How much of an asshole do you have to be to be successful?” Boyle’s Steve Jobs is a factious, melodramatic fugue that cycles through the themes and variations of Jobs’s life in three acts—the theatrical, stage-managed product launches of the Macintosh computer (1984), the NeXT computer (1988), and the iMac computer (1998). For Boyle (and his screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) the answer appears to be “a really, really big one.”
Gibney, for his part, has assembled a chorus of former friends, lovers, and employees who back up that assessment, and he is perplexed about it. By the time Jobs died in 2011, his cruelty, arrogance, mercurial temper, bullying, and other childish behavior were well known. So, too, were the inhumane conditions in Apple’s production facilities in China—where there had been dozens of suicides—as well as Jobs’s halfhearted response to them. Apple’s various tax avoidance schemes were also widely known. So why, Gibney wonders as his film opens—with thousands of people all over the world leaving flowers and notes “to Steve” outside Apple Stores the day he died, and fans recording weepy, impassioned webcam eulogies, and mourners holding up images of flickering candles on their iPads as they congregate around makeshift shrines—did Jobs’s death engender such planetary regret?
The simple answer is voiced by one of the bereaved, a young boy who looks to be nine or ten, swiveling back and forth in a desk chair in front of his computer: “The thing I’m using now, an iMac, he made,” the boy says. “He made the iMac. He made the Macbook. He made the Macbook Pro. He made the Macbook Air. He made the iPhone. He made the iPod. He’s made the iPod Touch. He’s made everything.”
Yet if the making of popular consumer goods was driving this outpouring of grief, then why hadn’t it happened before? Why didn’t people sob in the streets when George Eastman or Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell died—especially since these men, unlike Steve Jobs, actually invented the cameras, electric lights, and telephones that became the ubiquitous and essential artifacts of modern life?* The difference, suggests the MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, is that people’s feelings about Steve Jobs had less to do with the man, and less to do with the products themselves, and everything to do with the relationship between those products and their owners, a relationship so immediate and elemental that it elided the boundaries between them. “Jobs was making the computer an extension of yourself,” Turkle tells Gibney. “It wasn’t just for you, it was you.”
In Gibney’s film, Andy Grignon, the iPhone senior manager from 2005 to 2007, observes that
Apple is a business. And we’ve somehow attached this emotion [of love, devotion, and a sense of higher purpose] to a business which is just there to make money for its shareholders. That’s all it is, nothing more. Creating that association is probably one of Steve’s greatest accomplishments.
Jobs was a consummate showman. It’s no accident that Sorkin tells his story of Jobs through product launches. These were theatrical events—performances—where Jobs made sure to put himself on display as much as he did whatever new thing he was touting. “Steve was P.T. Barnum incarnate,” says Lee Clow, the advertising executive with whom he collaborated closely. “He loved the ta-da! He was always like, ‘I want you to see the Smallest Man in the World!’ He loved pulling the black velvet cloth off a new product, everything about the showbiz, the marketing, the communications.”
People are drawn to magic. Steve Jobs knew this, and it was one reason why he insisted on secrecy until the moment of unveiling. But Jobs’s obsession with secrecy went beyond his desire to preserve the “a-ha!” moment. Is Steve Jobs “the most successful paranoid in business history?,” The Economist asked in 2005, a year that saw Apple sue, among others, a Harvard freshman running a site on the Internet that traded in gossip about Apple and other products that might be in the pipeline. Gibney tells the story of Jason Chen, a Silicon Valley journalist whose home was raided in 2010 by the California Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT), a multi-agency SWAT force, after he published details of an iPhone model then in development. A prototype of the phone had been left in a bar by an Apple employee and then sold to Chen’s employer, the website Gizmodo, for $5,000. Chen had returned the phone to Apple four days before REACT broke down his door and seized computers and other property. Though REACT is a public entity, Apple sits on its steering committee, leaving many wondering if law enforcement was doing Apple’s bidding.
Whether to protect trade secrets, or sustain the magic, or both, Jobs was adamant that Apple products be closed systems that discouraged or prevented tinkering. This was the rationale behind Apple’s lawsuit against people who “jail-broke” their devices in order to use non-Apple, third-party apps—a lawsuit Apple eventually lost. And it can be seen in Jobs’s insistence, from the beginning, on making computers that integrated both software and hardware—unlike, for example, Microsoft, whose software can be found on any number of different kinds of PCs; this has kept Apple computer prices high and clones at bay. An early exchange in Boyle’s movie has Steve Wozniak arguing for a personal computer that could be altered by its owner, against Steve Jobs, who believed passionately in end-to-end control. “Computers aren’t paintings,” Wozniak says, but that is exactly what Jobs considered them to be. The inside of the original Macintosh bears the signatures of its creators.
The magic Jobs was selling went beyond the products his company made: . . .