Insights on the writing of Steve JobsDecember 27, 2011: 10:53 AM ET
Walter Isaacson shares new information on his best-selling biography of the Apple founder.
FORTUNE -- Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs has topped The New York Times bestseller's list for eight consecutive weeks now. Earlier in the month I interviewed Isaacson for a sold-out audience of the Commonwealth Club of Northern California in San Francisco. For all that has been written about Isaacson's book and for all the people who have read it, there is plenty left to say.
* As a "backward-looking biographer," Isaacson has made what appears to be a conscious decision not to judge Steve Jobs's behavior. Isaacson did more than any other writer to document how Jobs treated other people. Yet he clearly states that Jobs's accomplishments outshine his shortcomings. I predict this debate will pick up in intensity, especially as Jobs's behavior comes to be equated with Apple's (AAPL) behavior, and the business community dissects the company's way of doing business as opposed to the man's. (Shameless self-promotion, and thanks to Isaacson for repeatedly pointing this out: I will discuss this topic in my upcoming book, Inside Apple, to be released Jan. 25, 2012.)
* Jobs told Isaacson he thought he'd continue to beat his cancer, partly because he'd beaten it for so long. Citing his belief that his doctors would continue to find new targeted therapies, Jobs likened himself to a nimble frog. "There'll be more. I'll get to the next lily pad," he said.
* Isaacson says the one topic Jobs refused to discuss was philanthropy. He also says Jobs didn't return a call from Bill Gates when his longtime foe called to ask him to join the Giving Pledge Gates hatched with Warren Buffett.
* Asked what he left out of the book, Isaacson says he omitted some particularly hurtful material. That's interesting, given the amount of raw personal material he included. Asked a couple times how Jobs's family reacted, Isaacson tersely says he "can't speak for them." His terseness likely is telling.
* Isaacson used Dropbox, the hot Silicon Valley company, to store his manuscript. He's also a night owl, composing mostly between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., when nobody called or emailed.
Walter Isaacson: Thank you very much. It's great to be back at the Commonwealth Club, which somehow seems to have grown since I was last here--and moved to the Mark Hopkins, how odd!
Adam Lashinsky: There's a reason why the Commonwealth Club has grown, since you were last here, and that's because you're here.
WI: Well, no, it's because of Steve Jobs.
AL: Yeah, fair enough. Well, Walter, I do want to say to you in a career of superlatives, congratulations on a superlative accomplishment.
WI: Thank you very much. Adam and I worked together at Time, Inc, and Adam has been covering Apple. He's all over the footnotes of this book, by the way, some of Adam's great stories at Fortune, which soon will be expanded in this great upcoming book.
AL: Thank you. Thank you for those footnotes, by the way. I appreciate it.
WI: Well, Steve once said that good artists copy, great artists steal. And us hack journalists, we give credit where credit's due and we footnote.
AL: We borrow! We don't steal.
WI: We borrow, but we footnote. Yes.
AL: So, I solicited questions ahead of time from my network, and we will be inundated with questions from the floor very shortly. The overwhelming majority of the questions of people who have already read your book, want to talk about Steve's personality. So, I'd like to start there. I've seen in your previous interviews that you have described him as petulant. My observation on that is that when my five-year-old daughter refuses to put on her shoes before going to school, she's being petulant.
WI: Right. There's a big difference!
AL: You do not describe a petulant man in this book.
WI: Well, you know, he had a passion, a petulance, an impatience. I do think it was connected to the artist's sensibility, that wanted to really make insanely great products. And he was kind of binary, either something was insanely great, or it totally sucked, and nothing in between, and I do think that that leads you to be brittle, rather impatient, sometimes brusque. Somebody just walked up to me at one point. I don't think he'll get in trouble, but he said, "I work at Apple and I sort of met Steve Jobs." I said, "How?" He said, "He cut in front of me in the cafe to grab some food." I said, "Did he say 'I'm sorry'?" He said, "No." You know, but that's Steve. That was Steve. You can't separate that from the fact that he was a total genius, he made awesome products. And I hope the narrative of the book is, you will look at a guy who admits to being really tough, rough on people, a jerk at times, but as it goes along he develops and inspires a team that becomes incredibly loyal to him--and over and over again, whether it's the Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, just makes awesomely great products. So, you can't separate the personality from the perfectionism, the passion, that made these products.
AL: So, let's run with this seemingly superficial anecdote for just a moment. I mean, cutting in line in front of somebody in the cafeteria is not nice. It's repugnant behavior. It's the kind of behavior we teach our children not to do. And in your book you have far stronger anecdotes: telling his PR woman at midnight, after she's gone out to find him the kind of flowers that he wants, that she looks like shit. That is just not admirable behavior.
WI: Let me tell you that if you were listening, of the 1,000 adjectives for Steve nice, kindness, would not be up there. If you want nice and kindness--I wrote biography of Ben Franklin, buy it. But I write the biography of the people I'm writing about. And I'd say, "Why are you that way, Steve?" And he'd say, "This is who I am, this is the way I am." And people say, well, you know, he didn't put a license plate on and he sometimes parked in the handicap, or he cut in line. He actually seemed to live as if the normal rules didn't apply to him. That's not what you want to teach your 6-year-old, or for that matter my 21-year old. But it also leads you to be the type of person you can celebrate--and here's to the misfits, the crazy ones--you know, the "Think Different" ad. And if you believe the rules don't apply to you, sometimes you're able to bend reality. You're very nice, I'm pretty nice at times--I would never have been able to make the iPad. So, you've got to just live with the whole package there. I'm not defending being not nice.
AL: I understand.
WI: I'm just saying, I could have sugarcoated it. Like, you've written in the Fortune stories anecdotes that are just as bad. But you don't want to sugarcoat a book, you want it to be brutally honest. He would say to me... I'd say, "Why are you this way to people?" He said, "I'm brutally honest, because the price of admission to being in the room with me is I get to tell you your full of shit if you're full of shit, and you get to say to me I'm full of shit, and we have some rip-roaring fights. And that keeps the B players, the bozos, from larding the organization, only the A players survive. And the people who do survive, say, 'Yeah, he was rough.' They say things even worse than 'He cut in line in front of me,' but they say, 'This was the greatest ride I've ever had, and I would not give it up for anything.'" So you've got to see both sides. Sometimes people say, "It's really bad, he cuts in line," or, "He doesn't have a license plate." I say, wait a minute, we're living in a world where people intentionally made collateralized debt obligations with junk in it that destroyed people's earnings, and they still get celebrated. This is not evil, this is just being a tough, petulant person. If you want real evil, there are people in this world who still get on the cover of Fortune Magazine, who really do bad things.
AL: Fair enough. We're not even...
WI: Not you, you've never been on the cover.
AL: I shouldn't have agreed to that so readily, right? I'm not focused on the cover subjects of Fortune, other than Steve Jobs, for the moment. I don't think there's any question that we admire Steve Jobs and Apple for what he accomplished and what the company accomplishes. The question is, should we and do you as his biographer admire him for this side of him that is--I want to say not admirable. But that's the question I'm asking you: Being hurtful to people for no apparent reason, is different from being tough in a business meeting about the quality of your ideas?
WI: Well, if you ask, do I admire it? No. Do I think it's necessary to be a good boss? No. Is my book supposed to be a handbook or a how-to book on how to be a good boss? No, that's your book.
AL: I know, I've struggled with it.
WI: Mine is just a biography. He once said to your editor, Andy Serwer, at Fortune, and John Huey, when he was trying to kill a story that you may have worked on at Fortune about his cancer treatment and everything else. And he finally said, "What do you have in the story?" And Serwer told him what's in the book. And he finally said, "Well, wait a minute, you've discovered that I'm an asshole? Why is that news?" So, he was self-aware, he was tough. I say at the very beginning, the introduction, he's not a saint packaged for emulation, but he's a true genius who was able to connect creativity to technology, create a team that he drove like crazy, and those who were part of that team became loyal and incredibly good. He took a company 90 days away from bankruptcy in 1997 and by the day he retired it was the most valuable company on Earth. He also cut in front of people in the cafeteria line.
WI: Don't cut in front of people! And by the way, if you get a chance to make the most valuable company on Earth, do that, too.
AL: So, one last pass at a similar topic and then I'll move on. Do you think that he imprinted this element of his personality onto the company? Apple has a reputation for roughing up its partners, its suppliers, even its customers from time to time, and so clearly this has been successful. So, secondly, should we admire them as a company for this, for when they behave badly the way he behaved badly--and will it last?
WI: Yeah, I'm not sure. Just like you won't accept the premise that bad people have never been on the cover of Fortune, I won't accept the premise that--
AL: I just don't want to discuss it!
WI: --Apple is a bad company. I can look at, over the years, from Microsoft on, companies that--you know, AT&T (T)--have run afoul of the Justice Department and anti-trust. I do think he's actually created a company where its main signature is that the people there care about product more than profit, and they care about connecting the humanities, the beauty and design, connecting that to technology and engineering. On the last day at Apple for Steve Jobs, he goes into the board room to turn in his resignation as CEO. It's a pretty moving scene, he's quite ill at that point. And at one point they're joking, somebody on the board starts joking about Hewlett Packard and how HP had gotten out of the tablet business that day, and was messing up the personal computer line business, didn't know what they were doing. And Steve says, "Wait a minute, let's not joke about that. Bill Hewlett gave me my first job when I was 13, growing up in the Valley, and he and David Packard thought they had made a company that would last for generations. They made a company that wasn't just making oscillators or instruments, or then calculators, or then computers, they were making a company that would keep making great products generation after generation--and those bozos there screwed it up. That is what we don't want to have happen at Apple." I do think at Apple you have engrained in the DNA not just being tough on suppliers, but driving engineering to make a product as insanely great as it can be. I love Amazon (AMZN), for example. The shirt I'm wearing--I order my clothing from Amazon. But they didn't go insanely great when they made the Kindle Fire. They didn't sit there the way Johnny Ive and Tim Cook and Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall would do, over and over again saying, "No, we have to start over, the curve is not perfect. This button isn't exactly right." We live in a country in which people sometimes cut corners, believe it or not. Even people on Fortune Magazine's cover cut corners occasionally.
WI: Apple is not a perfect company, but it aims really to make products that are as close to perfect as you can get. And by the way, my book is pretty tough, I'll hope you'll say honest, at least, on the flaws of both Apple and Steve.
AL: No question.
WI: So, I'm not trying to flak for it. But I just think we have to put it in perspective that he was intense, he was driven, he was almost insanely driven, but it was insanely driven because he wanted to leave behind not only good products but a company that made good products.
AL: Did he have a vision of how well the company would do without him, and what's your opinion of how well the company will do without him?
WI: Well, actually, your opinion is more important. I mean, you're writing future, and I'm just a biographer. I actually think Steve thought, and I thought, because he does have a bit of a magical way of thinking, meaning he feels he can bend reality to his desires--I think he thought he was going to outrun the cancer. He had done so for eight years, he was on targeted therapy after targeted therapy. And I think even this summer, he said, "There'll be more. I'll get to the next lily pad, I'll outrun the cancer."
AL: He used that expression, lily pad?
WI: Lily pads. And he even said to me, on our last meeting--he was very ill, and resting. And after a while he looked up at me and said, "You know, there can be parts of your book I don't like." It was kind of more of a question. I said, "Yeah." I was kind of looking forward to engaging him... He said, "Well, don't worry. I wanted an independent book, I didn't want it to feel like an in-house book. But I'm not going to read it for a year, I'll read it a year from now." And his way of magical thinking is so extraordinary, that I remember sort of smiling and thinking, OK, that means he will get to the next lily pad; he will be around for another year, two years, three years. And he had a way of making you believe, and most of the time it worked. Starting at Atari, when he told Was, Steve Wozniak, "You can make this in four days," when they were doing "Breakout," one of the video games. Woz said, "No, it's going to take four weeks." And Steve said, "No, no, no. You can do it in four days." And Woz said, "Well, that was a reality distortion field, and I did it in four days." I went up once, you've probably dealt with him, too, a really great CEO in this country, Wendell Weeks, who runs Corning Glass. Steve Jobs when he does the iPhone decides he doesn't want plastic, he wants really tough glass on it, and they don't make a glass that can be tough like they want. And finally somebody says to him, because they were making all of the glass in China for the fronts of the stores, says, "You ought to check with the people at Corning. They're kind of smart there." So, he flies to Corning, New York, sits there in front of the CEO, Wendell Weeks, and says, "This is what I want, a glass that can do this." So, Wendell Weeks says, "We once created a type of process that created something called Gorilla Glass." And Steve said, "No, no, no. Here's how you make really strong glass." And Wendell says, "Wait a minute, I know how to make glass. Shut up and listen to me." And Steve, to his credit, shuts up and listens, and Wendell Weeks describes a process that makes Gorilla Glass. And Steve then says, "Fine. In six months I want enough of it to make--whatever it is--a million iPhones." And Wendell says, "I'm sorry, we've actually never made it. We don't have a factory to make it. This was a process we developed, but we never had a manufacturing plant to do it." And Steve looks at him and says what he said to Woz, 20, 30 years earlier: "Don't be afraid, you can do it." Wendell Weeks tells me... Because I flew to Corning, because I just wanted to hear this story. Wendell Weeks tells me, "I just sat there and looked at the guy. He kept saying, 'Don't be afraid. You can do this.'"
WI: Wendell Weeks said he called his plant in Kentucky that was making glass for LCD screens, and said, "Start the process now, and make Gorilla Glass." That's why every iPhone in your pocket and iPad has Gorilla Glass made by Corning. This is the reality distortion field that is, I submit, part and parcel of a guy who doesn't believe the rules apply to him, even the rule about never cut in line.
AL: And of course Corning uses this in their marketing now, they market Gorilla Glass for other customers. You've put your finger on, you've crystallized something for me just now about entrepreneurs: they ask people to help them do things that no one else thought could be done. I don't know if you've ever heard this, I read somewhere that Henry Luce once heard that the Donnelley plant in Chicago could do color printing, only nobody was doing color printing for magazines. I think it was when he wanted to start Life?
AL: It wasn't for Time originally, it was for Life. And they said, "No, no, we can't do that." He said, "Yes, you can. We're going to do it very soon," and they did it.
WI: Right. Right. It's the epigram to my book, it was the line at the end of the 1997 "Think Different" ad--in fact, at the funeral his daughter read it--"Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels." And the last line is, "And those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do," and that's what Steve Jobs was.
AL: Walter, I think one of the great discoveries from your book about his personality is that Steve Jobs cried all the time.
WI: I was surprised.
AL: Why? Did you get to understand why he was so emotional?
WI: He was very emotional. I realize that if you're trying to understand the artistic sensibility, the rules don't apply to me, the intensity, part of that is a deep, deep emotionalism. You know, I just mentioned "Here's to the Crazy Ones." He is recounting to me the story of Lee Clow, an ad executive for Chiat\Day coming in 1997, helping to write the "Here's to the Crazy Ones," and by the end of recounting it to me I look up and Steve is crying. He said, "I just get so emotional when I think of artistic purity." And whether it was people he knew or products he created, or Johnny Ive's unbelievability, he would get choked up. Now, I think that emotion is conveyed in some of the products. In fact, it's even conveyed, as his earliest mentor Mike Markkula taught him--impute, which is a horrible word--but just means convey the emotions surrounding your product. So even the packaging, as you know, and you've probably written--Steve Jobs has designed patents, in his own name, along with other people from the company, in just how you open the box to find your iPod, and how it's cradled, because that's an emotional experience. And if you want to understand when he died why everybody, from the people at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, to in Indonesia, all of a sudden paused and started building shrines to him, is that I think people felt emotionally connected to him because he made products that had that emotion in them.
AL: Was there any topic or question that you asked him about that he wouldn't discuss?
AL: Really? And one of the questions is, did he discuss with you what he intended to do with his wealth, beyond give it to his family?
WI: No. I've asked. And it was the one thing I couldn't crack. I don't know what he did philanthropically, what he did was not public--what he was going to do philanthropically. I think it's quoted that he was not exactly praiseworthy of people who talked a whole lot about philanthropy. Or Bill Gates' Giving Pledge: When Bill Gates was calling him and calling him to do it, he said, "Nah, I'm not going to do that."
AL: He turned down Gates on the Giving Pledge?
WI: Yeah. I mean, that was an odd relationship.
AL: Right. And Gates called, not Buffet, by the way, because they divvied up the list, I understand?
WI: And Steve didn't return the call.
AL: Did not return Gates' call!
WI: But Gates then calls--just, really, a couple of months ago when Steve was sick--and makes it clear that he doesn't want to talk about the Giving Pledge any more, that he wanted to talk. They had had--like a binary star system, the gravitational pull of each other had affected each other's orbits. They had had ups and downs for 35 years, as being the stars of the Digital Age. Both born in '55, both college drop-outs. And I think it was about four hours that Gates just sat there with Steve Jobs, talking and reminiscing; rivalries, but also the respect. It was Microsoft who came to the rescue of Apple in 1997, when Steve came back, and invested in it, and made great Microsoft products for Apple. And so there was an appreciation, an affection. But also they represented two very distinct views of the Digital Age, which is, Apple was end-to-end integrated, the hardware and the software were connected, whereas Microsoft, like Android, could be licensed out to any piece of hardware. And in the end Bill Gates said something very nice to Steve; you know, saying, "Look, I never thought the end-to-end model would work, but you made it work." And afterward Gates said to me, "What I didn't tell him was it only works if there's a Steve Jobs there who's passionate for the perfection, and can really drive to make this end-to-end, tightly integrated model work." And so I told that to Steve, thinking it was a gracious thing of Bill to say. And Steve said, "What a jerk! He could have made it work if he had tried, but he just had no taste."
WI: You know, you want your book to come there at the end and be great, and wrap it up; the heavens will part; the lights to shine, the angels to sing. But Steve was Steve. I did say, "Well, you told Bill that his model worked, as well," meaning the licensed-out model. He said, "Yeah, his model works, too, as long as you don't care about making crappy products!"
AL: Did he ever comment on Gates' career shift into philanthropy?
WI: He said he's much happier in philanthropy because he didn't care that much about making great products. Steve actually liked Bill Gates--
AL: No, I get that.
WI: --in a way and respected Bill Gates. An essence of Steve Jobs is that you would do a head snap three or four times an hour when he would say something brutally honest. And it wasn't like he didn't like Bill Gates. He would just say what he really thought, which is, "Bill Gates is better at Philanthropy. He never cared that much about making great products." Now, that's unfair. I think Bill Gates--I mean, Microsoft--has made great products. But Bill Gates never had the artistic passion, the desire to make it so beautiful, to link the humanities and technology, in the way Steve was driven.
AL: I asked you if there was anything that he wouldn't discuss. A similar question: What did you not get to put in the book that you wish you had put in the book, or what did you not research that you wish you had?
WI: Actually, the things I left out intentionally. At a certain point... I mean, I've given you some things about how Steve could say tough things. I know he kind of admired Bill Gates, but he's going to say tough things even when you're supposed to be sort of tearfully thinking about 35 or 40 years. There were times when I had to balance, especially when it came to the personal, the family, or whatever, or people--gee, I could put that in, but the enlightenment it would give to the reader is less than the hurt it would cause to some people reading it. So, near the end there was a lot of stuff I slashed out. Also, I think Simon & Schuster didn't mind getting it down to 650 pages, so I left some stuff out.
AL: If you had written 1200 pages, people would have read every last word.
WI: I'm not sure my publisher would have published them, though.
AL: Now, of course, you did put quite a bit in about his family life, and this was a complete revelation to almost everyone, including many people who worked with him. And so, a question from the floor: Steve said he wanted the book to be written for his kids to read; however, both he and his wife said they wouldn't read the book. Will his kids actually read the book and learn something?
WI: I can't speak for them. I have no idea. He had four great kids. Once again... It's like your talking about, well, he's rough on the people he works with. Yeah. But connect that to what happens: he gets a loyal, top notch team that's insanely loyal to him and really stands by him. He was not always the world's greatest family person, but he was home at dinner every night. He didn't travel, he wasn't on the celebrity circuit. He was around that kitchen table every night, and in the end he has four very loving children. Unlike people who brag about what great parents they are, and their kids probably don't speak to them half of the time, he has four loving kids, had four loving kids, and a marriage that was truly great, and a sister, Mona Simpson, who was devoted to him. So in the end you have to judge people by the outcome, as well.
AL: A related question from the audience: Can you talk, more than you did in the book, about the love story between Steve and Laurene, and what it was like to live and co-parent with this genius?
WI: As I said... It was very interesting to go to their house. They had a really normal, nice kitchen but a big, long wooden table, and not a whole coterie of live-in servants, or anything else. They ate dinner every night together, lots of interesting conversation. The essence of Steve Jobs, I think, when it comes to products, profession, and his personal life is that there were many strands to him. One was sort of the counter culture, hippie, alternative, romantic, ethereal strand--and sometimes a little crazy and flaky--and there were people he went out with and all who fit that pattern. And then he's got the scientific sensibility, hardcore, just down to earth business side. And Laurene, in my mind, and what I tried to show in the narrative of the book--after dating Joan Baez and many other people--she's the perfect synthesis. What he does is he always synthesizes. She's romantic, she's ethereal, she's beautiful, but she also went to Stanford Business School and Penn and worked at Goldman Sachs. So you get somebody who synthesizes all sides of Steve, which is why it was a good relationship.
AL: What has been her reaction to the book?
WI: As I say, I'm going to let every member of the family and every friend, and every person who worked at Apple--I haven't gone polling people and saying I'll speak for them.
AL: There's a lot of interest in your craft, so I'm going to fire some short questions at you.
WI: Our craft.
AL: Well, thank you, that's kind of you, but I'm going to stick with your craft for now. Jobs was into calligraphy and fonts?
WI: Loved them. Yeah.
AL: Can you tell us what font you used to write this book?
WI: Yeah. I used Caslon. William Caslon was a printer in England who created a serif font in approximately the 1740s, I think, and Benjamin Franklin, when he decides to be a printer, sails over to England--
AL: You have a history with calligraphy, also.
WI: --and brings back Caslon fonts. If you get the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, it was from the Caslon set of fonts. Now, the Caslon in this book, obviously, is a little bit different than that--it's a modern version of Caslon. I do think fonts are very important. And what happens when he does the Macintosh--everybody knows the graphical user interface that was originally developed at Xerox PARC--but the more important thing is the bitmap display, which means every single pixel on the screen is mapped to a certain part of the microprocessor. So you can make instead of just those horrible ASCII texts, for those who remember that--green phosphor letters--you can make beautiful fonts. You can make different serifs, font serifs, script. And so, when they did the Mac Susan Kare was the person that he brings in, from Philadelphia, a young designer, to design the fonts and also the icons, the famous trash can you still see, and everything else, and she named them after the stops on the Philadelphia mainline--Overmont, all these. And he looked at them, and he thought they were beautiful. But he said, "They can't be named after rinky-dink cities like this. These are world class fonts, we have to name them after world class cities," which is why if you go on Apple you pick Geneva, or New York, or whatever it may be. But even the spacing: When he's paid $100,000 to have the next logo for NeXT Computer. Paul Rand, who did it, who was a great designer--he said, "I want you to design a business card for me." It was "Steven P. Jobs." And they fought over whether the period after the P should be under the P, which is what you could do with bitmap displays, or if it should be right afterward, which was the normal way of doing it. And they fought so badly that Paul Rand would not surrender, and Steve Jobs had it done his own way. This is the passion for detail and perfection that is usually considered a micromanaging passion, but he does connect it, too, to the broad vision. And the broad vision is... I mean, look, the whole desktop publishing industry comes out of the fact that he cared about fonts.
AL: What kind of computer did you use to write the book?
WI: Many. I am addicted to the iPad. It is very hard for me to type on the iPad a lot--like, a lot of chapters. I had a Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, and I'll admit a Dell that was part of the Aspen Institute thing. And fortunately with everything being in the cloud, this is the next great move in computing, meaning once I realized every time I stored whatever I was writing--I could put it in Dropbox and then arrive in San Francisco with a different computer and call it right back up wherever I was--and certainly iCloud will do that, as well--it almost didn't matter whose device and what device I was using.
AL: And do you have a favorite place to write?
WI: Well, at the place I write, which is the office in my house in Washington, D.C.
AL: So you like to write at home?
WI: At home, at night. I am fortunate to be married to a morning person. I always recommend a couple things: people who are morning people should marry people who are night people; people who like Venice should marry somebody who likes Florence, because it's a different sensibility. I started work every night at nine PM and would try to work until two or three in the morning.
AL: And then get up at what time the next morning?
WI: I'm not a morning person.
AL: I see. Wow.
WI: I get up at 9:30, 10:00.
AL: Really? So this is your quiet time, this is when you can concentrate?
WI: Yeah. Yeah, because people aren't calling at midnight.
AL: Understood. From the floor: Will you release your interview tapes? I saw you on "60 Minutes"--smiley face.
WI: I mean, at some point everything probably will go to some archives, but it's going to be years from now. I'm going to have to figure out what, in my notes and things. You know, there are things in it that I know I'm not going to want to violate people's privacy with it. But there will be stuff, at least the notes, people will be able to see.
AL: And that reminds me: I think your book has been reviewed and commented on everywhere, overwhelmingly praising it, and there have been a few critical reviews, as well. I thought Joe Nocera's criticism, with a small C, was a very interesting one, in which he said, "You cannot write a biography of somebody and publish it two weeks after they died," and he praised your Einstein and Franklin books for having the distance. What's your reaction to that?
WI: Yeah, well it's very valid, because you are caught up, especially as I said since I thought I was writing it and he was going to read it, and he'd still be alive.
AL: Part journalism?
WI: Yeah. And so, you are thinking many things. You have the advantage of, you know approximately a thousand times more than you know about somebody who's been dead a couple of centuries. I mean, Ben Franklin flies a kite in the rain. We got one tiny mention in a letter and maybe something from the Pennsylvania Gazette that talks about it, and you recreate that scene; whereas, Steve Jobs resigns as CEO of Apple, I've got four people the next day each telling me every single detail of who said what, with about 20 percent variance in the stories. And you're trying to piece together... But you know a whole lot more. But what I did was just simply be a storyteller. I said, "Here, on the record." There's no off the record anecdotes, there's no anonymous quotes, and there's really no huge psychobabble analysis. It is just the stories and the tales. Steve Jobs starts his Stanford speech with the best line you can possibly have, which is, "I'm going to tell you three stories." Alex Haley once said if you want to get people to listen to you, start with the phrase, "I'm going to tell you a story." So, I did not do the grand theorizing. There will be many, many books over decades, probably a century from now people will be looking back at Steve Jobs. And this is maybe the first and second draft of history, but it ain't the final draft.
AL: And this is why, I think, your notes and the other documents that you have will be of great use to a future biographer.
WI: Yeah. I mean, I did 140 interviews, lots of notes. I also think at some point I could expand the book of things I left out and probably do a very annotated version, especially in the Digital Age where you don't have to worry about Simon & Schuster saying how many pages it's going to be. You can just pour out whole long passages of the interviews, and say, "Here's the backup material."
AL: Someone asks here in the room, will you write an epilogue or an addendum to take account for after his death.
WI: Yeah. And also to modify, talk about other people's judgments. And there are some mistakes in the book, and so just mention why the mistakes were made, and that sort of thing.
AL: Does one come to mind right now that you're thinking about?
WI: I saw Andy Hertzfeld last night, with Woz. He was with Wozniak; Hertzfeld, the old team.
AL: One of the inventors of the Macintosh.
WI: Yeah. Well, Wozniak was one of the inventors of Apple.
AL: No, I mean Hertzfeld.
WI: He said, "You've got something really wrong: you have Burrell Smith as mainly being a software engineer, and he's a hardware engineer." I said, "OK, I'll correct it." But he was kind of exorcised about it. I understand. There are also just differences of opinion of who said what to who. That's the way life works. As I said, I put nothing in off the record. You know where everything came from, but that doesn't mean everything's right.
AL: We're at a point where I want to remind our radio audience that you are listening to the Commonwealth Club of California radio program, and our guest today is the bestselling author Walter Isaacson discussing his book "Steve Jobs."
WI: That was good.
AL: Thank you.
WI: You're very good at this.
AL: Thank you very much!
WI: A career in radio.
AL: I sometimes get paid to do this.
WI: You have a face for radio, as well.
AL: As Jon Stewart says, settle down. Here me out on the entirety of this question, Walter. What will be your next book? This is from Louis, age 11.
WI: That's it? I thought I was going to listen to a whole...
AL: No, that's it.
WI: I was writing about Louis Armstrong, Louis, and I could never crack the code. I grew up in the same neighborhood as Armstrong, I played jazz. And I found out I knew everything about Louis Armstrong after many years of research except for who he was--meaning, was he happy? What was that smile? So now I'm thinking, and I haven't told my publisher or my agent so those of you on the radio, don't tell them yet because I haven't. I'm thinking of doing Ada Lovelace, who was Lord Byron's daughter, writer, a great mathematician of the 1840s, wrote the first computer algorithms for Charles Babbage's Differences Engine and the Analytic Engine; was the first person to come up with the concept that a computer, a computing machine, like the difference engine, could have software written for it to make it do things. And she also, like Steve Jobs, stands at the intersection of the arts and technology. And I also believe that women in technology will be this century's wave and I might as well get in on it, being a guy, and get Ada Lovelace, her moment in the sun.
AL: Why do you believe women in technology will be the next wave?
WI: Because I actually think that women have been left out for a long while of engineering and the sciences, and when you leave out a large part of the population, things change when suddenly they become part of it. And then, to get a little bit more personal: my daughter, my only child, is a computer science student, and she turned me on to Ada Lovelace many years ago when she decided to write a high school essay on her. All biography is basically autobiography, as she told me, meaning when I was writing about Ben Franklin I was writing about an idealized version of me, sort of a networking, publisher, yuppie type. I said, "Well, what was I doing with Einstein?" And she said, "Well, you were writing about your dad. You know, a kindly, Jewish engineer, a great man." I said, "OK, what was Kissinger?" And she said, "Oh, Dad, that was your dark side!"
AL: Your daughter really knows you!
WI: Yeah. And then she asks me, "OK, so what were you doing with Steve Jobs?" I said: "I don't know, a bratty kid who likes to connect art and technology?" And she looks up, and says, "Uh-oh." So, I figure I will do Ada Lovelace to make it up to her.
AL: And an indulgence for a book author: How does Walter Isaacson pitch his next book to Simon & Schuster? Do you make a phone call, or what?
WI: No, no, no. I go to lunch with Alice Mayhew, and hopefully I say two words, like "Benjamin Franklin." And they go, "Oh, yeah, that's cool." I'm kind of afraid, that's why I'm asking the radio audience not to tell Alice yet, kind of afraid they'll say, "What? A computer programmer from the 1840s nobody's heard of?" But I think I've earned the right to do somebody nobody has ever heard of. Not nobody, most people in this room have heard of Ada Lovelace. But she's not that well known.
AL: I'm going to jump around now with the time that we have left. From the floor: Do you think that Steve Jobs' extreme diet when he was young had anything--extreme would be a euphemism--do you think that had anything to do with his health problems later in life?
WI: To some extent. I think that when he was sick with the cancer there were multiple things happening that caused him to have trouble eating, among them was the fact that cancer has its signaling pathways that suppress the appetite, he was on painkillers. But he also had throughout his life... He had been a fruitarian. I mean, not just a vegan, but like all apples for a while. Hence... Well, obviously. And a mucusless diet from Arnold Ehret. I mean, he called them "my nutso diets." And I think that when you're sick... His doctors would push him: "You've got to get high quality protein." I write about in the book, and I'm obviously no doctor. I write about multiple things that have to get treated, when you have pain, of course when you've had a pancreatic surgery that cuts out part of you digestive system, where you're on different diets. And so, I don't try to over analyze it, I just say, "Here were the facts, here's what he was doing." I've seen blogs of people analyzing it and doctors saying it, but I don't try to do diagnosis from afar. I just say, "Here's what he did, and what he was doing."
AL: But if I remember correctly, you wrote that he had the notion that his periods of intensely difficult work caused--what was it, ulcers?
WI: Well, no, he said that he thought it may have caused his cancer. I don't think there's any medical validity to stress, or whatever, causing cancer. But as I say I'm just telling the story here and telling what he said, and someday doctors or researchers will say, "Well, that's--this."
AL: There is this strange dichotomy, there are many dichotomies and paradoxes about him. But for a man who was protein challenged and must have been protein challenged for years, he had incredible stamina--he could sit and talk for two and a half hours?
WI: He had a whippet-like intensity to him.
WI: Yeah, an emotionalism. Everything about Steve Jobs was intense. He did not do things in a moderate half-way way, and that included everything, and that's his personality.
AL: Two questions for you about Apple. Here's the first: After reading your book, I decided to sell some of my Apple stock.
AL: I'm reading here. It seems he was key to Apple's success. That's an understatement. Is he replaceable?
WI: That's what you're writing about.
AL: Yes, in part.
WI: Buy his book, I don't know.
AL: But what's your opinion?
WI: I just look backwards at a biography of a guy. I mean, I don't know any more than the market knows, and the market's kept the stock price up pretty well. If I thought I could out-think the market--I don't know, I actually wouldn't do so. I figure I'd be better off writing books than trying to out-think the market.
AL: A different take on this: Is there an anecdote you can share about the Apple organization after Jobs that highlights your belief that the distance between Apple and its competitors is sustainable?
WI: I do think that he has put a top notch team in place, and I do think that he did not try to replace himself by saying, "Who's the next Steve Jobs?" Tim Cook, as you know, is not at all like Steve Jobs, but he's an awesomely good CEO with a totally different manner. But when you connect him to Johnny Ive, who is the greatest industrial designer of our era, and to people like Scott Forstall, who is great with mobile operating system software, and Eddy Cue, who is great with the content stuff, and Phil Schiller, and many others, you have a team--and I don't play the stock market--that seems to me that it can continue with multiple people the vision that Steve had.
AL: I love the opportunity the audience gives me to ask impertinent questions, Walter. How many books have you sold to date?
WI: Simon & Schuster doesn't tell me. It has sold very well.
WI: But I truly know, every day, that it is selling well, because people are interested in Steve Jobs. It's not like, "Oh, let's buy Walter's latest book." It's like, "Let's buy a book about Steve Jobs!" So, I know I was very lucky and very fortunate to have him talk to me. I try to get out of his way a lot in the book. The very end of the book, the last chapter or so, a biographer's potion is maybe what Joe Nocera was saying, where I don't over analyze it. I just say I wouldn't be true to Steve Jobs if I tried to have the last word in the last chapter. And I just let him talk at length, page after page, about the legacy: why I was here on Earth, what I tried to do, why I tried to do it; why I was tough on people. Why was there a price of admission to being in the room? Let him explain it in his own words. So the book is selling well, but I know it's because of an interest in Steve Jobs, and I just happen to be fortunate. I mean, it's like nobody really says, "Gee, I'm interested in Boswell," they're interested in Dr. Johnson. I will perhaps be amusing, we'll find out. I'll try this. It is selling extraordinarily well in Chinese, in China, because young people in China are trying to figure out what to do. So, I was thinking to myself when I heard just yesterday some of the sales figures, I said, "This is great, I am now teaching a whole new generation of young Chinese students that they should drop out of college, take acid, defy authority--and cut in line, perhaps. And I am doing my best to help America's competitiveness in the 21st century, as millions of Chinese students take acid and drop out of college."
AL: You'll enjoy this one, and you're going to have to explain the question to the audience. The question from the audience is: Why didn't he buy Joan Baez the red dress?
WI: Joan Baez couldn't figure it out, either. So, he dated Joan Baez quite seriously. Understandably, I mean, she's a beautiful, talented, wonderful person. They met in the 80s. And Joan Baez loves to talk about him. Joan Baez, by the way, did play at the funeral "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." And boy, you know. And "Love is Just a Four-Letter Word," the Bob Dylan song that she did when you all were--actually, you are all old enough to remember when Joan Baez was touring with Bob Dylan.
AL: Some people in the room.
WI: Some people, not you. I'll explain who Bob Dylan was later.
AL: You're extremely kind to me.
WI: So, Joan Baez says to me, "And so, we go to the Stanford mall, we all know, and it's a Ralph Lauren store, I think, if I remember correctly. He says, 'There's a red dress you really should have.'" And she looks at it, she likes the red dress. And she says, "Oh, but I can't afford it." Now, Joan Baez was a famous singer, but troubadour singers at that point were not making what people who had just taken Apple public made. And Steve said, "Oh, OK," and bought himself a couple shirts and didn't buy her the dress. And she said to me, "I leave that in your hands, the mystery of the red dress: Why didn't he buy it for me?" Now, there are many reasons you can speculate, which is, maybe it would be condescending, maybe it would be--whatever. As I said, I'm just a storyteller and I hope a lot of the stories in the book you can chew on it and be like... One of the things about Steve is he always talked about life being the mystery, and in the end of his life, it's always a great mystery. But the great thing about Steve is he does leave us a lot of mysteries, or things we can chew on. And since Joan Baez can't figure it out, I won't pretend that I can figure it out.
AL: And here's one on the subject of wealth, and you get into it quite a bit in the book, this strange relationship he seemed to have with money. What I couldn't figure out and I wonder if he elaborated on to you at all is, why did he suddenly decide to build a luxury yacht, which was something more associated with his friend Larry Ellison, and did he plan to move back into the house in Woodside that he was spending a lot of money to renovate?
WI: No, he actually tore down the house in Woodside, had plans for a new house that was very minimalist in design, but then didn't go ahead with it.
AL: I see.
WI: But he did fixate on building this boat, which is now sitting in some Fed ship lot, half-built. And he showed me many, many times the exact perfection of the deck, how it didn't even curve; the Absolute Glass, that was just huge panes of glass on the top deck. Everything about it. I asked why and he said, "Look, some of our best family vacations were on boat trips that we took together. Us, the kids, four kids, family." And he even wanted me to take pictures. He wanted me to put pictures in the book of them, of him and his kids in Greece, when they chartered a yacht and took these trips. On the other hand, he wasn't the type of person who, after a few days on a boat--according to people who had been on a boat with him, he got a bit restless and a bit antsy.
AL: There's a shocker!
WI: Yeah, there's a shocker. Even I would, and I'm not inventing the iPhone at the time. And so, I don't think he truly was going to retire to that boat, and float on blue seas, and just be all... I think designing the boat was so cool to him. The beauty of that design... Just like over and over again he redesigned the Cupertino headquarters that someday Apple will build, he just wanted to keep perfecting the design. And one of his maxims was about life is a journey, and you keep doing things. But the journey is not about the destination, the journey is the reward--the journey itself is the reward. I think just the process of building this boat was the reward for him.
AL: You bring up the new headquarters. There have been business histories replete with companies that are riding high, building what are affectionately called edifice complexes...
WI: Yeah, our company of Time Warner.
AL: For example, right. There are more examples of that, than there are of great companies building beautiful new headquarters and succeeding: Was he aware of that irony at all?
WI: I think he felt his great legacy... I asked him, "What's your greatest creation: the iPhone, the iPad?" He said, "No. Apple--the company. Because anybody can create products, but Apple keeps creating great products." And it's hard, entrepreneurs want to create a great product and then sell out. Like Mark Zuckerberg. He's not just trying to sell out. He's doing the hard work which is building the company around the product, so you can continue to make great products. So, he felt that way about Apple. And believe it or not, as somebody in the Digital Age, he believed in face to face encounters, which is why when he created the Pixar headquarters there's one huge atrium, and pretty much to go to the bathroom you've got to go wherever your office is to that atrium area, so you keep running into people and having serendipitous encounters and face to face encounters. So, he wanted to do that with the Apple headquarters. He wanted it to be a statement, but he wanted it to be hugely simple. So, it's a perfect circle. Not one straight piece of glass in it, all curved glass. Lots of places where people will have serendipitous encounters. But it's supposed to really institutionalize that we are building a company for the future.
AL: Can you tell us anything about the movie that's going to be made?
WI: That's quite premature. In other words, I keep reading blogs about it, and blah blah blah. It's something I've held off on and held back from. I don't know if you remember from your days at Time, Inc., I was somewhat famous for being so clueless about movies. I mean, I never went to movies. For some reason it was the one blind spot--not one. One of my many blind spots is that I don't go to movies that much. I was always saying, "'Titanic,' that movie will never work. And Newsweek would put it on the cover!" So, I've not been involved, and it's sort of gone much slower than the blogs would let you believe.
AL: So, just to be clear, I don't know if it's blogs or more legitimate news reports, but I believe the reports have been that you have signed with Sony Pictures to--
WI: I don't want to get into that. I mean, "signed" makes it sound like... You've never seen that confirmed, or whatever.
AL: And we're not going to see it confirmed tonight? Understood.
WI: No, not tonight. No, no.
AL: What are your thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker painting Jobs not as an innovator, but as a tweaker of already existing technology?
WI: Well, I love Malcolm Gladwell, I love all of his works. He is the person who takes--like my storytelling, or listening to other people tell stories--to the next level, which is let me explain to you what it means, and he is really great at analyzing, having the insights of the next level. And in this wonderful piece in the New Yorker, which is--he's very kind--about the book, he takes it to this level of, Steve never invented anything but he'd just modify things, he would tweak them in a way. I understand where Malcolm Gladwell is coming from, and I think he's very good. I think the word tweaker is not the best word for what it did, it minimizes it. I mean, it is true that Steve did not just, say, take the Desk I, the graphical user interface. It was kind of invented at Xerox PARC. But at Xerox PARC--first of all, they put out a machine with it, the Xerox Star, that sold about seven copies in America, and it truly stank. You had the graphical interface. But you couldn't use--it was a three-button mouse that didn't do anything. And Steve said, "I want a one-button mouse that you can actually click on things and move them. You can take documents and put them into folders. You can double-click on folders and it will pop up. You can pull down menus." All of that, that ain't tweaking. That's like T. S. Eliot saying the shadow falls between the conception and the reality. That's a taking of something to a whole new level. And so, I think Steve really brought things to a new level and re-invented industries. The notion of the personal computer, that really is Woz and Steve. When you take the Apple II, and all of a sudden you can buy it in shops; the notion of the home computer for the rest of us that's not some complicated command line, that's the Macintosh. He transforms the music industry with the iTunes and the iTunes store, and the way we listen to music with the iPod--we don't listen to albums much anymore, but we've got 1,000 songs in our pocket. Transforms the telephone industry. Everybody tried a tablet. He didn't invent the tablet. Microsoft came out with eight different tablets, all with stylus's--nobody remembers those. So he doesn't invent the tablet, but the iPad. Whoa! There's a $2 billion industry that sprang up in one year of people creating iPad apps. It has transformed the publishing industry, the book industry, everything else. That, to me, is not tweaking, that is transforming industries. That said, I'm not ragging on Gladwell, because I think the overall concept of the piece was very smart. It's just I think he minimized the contributions by calling them tweaks.
AL: It was a good headline, anyway. No, I think using the word "tweaker" in the headline was a grabber. Let's talk about a few people quickly. Would you explain, because it's gotten a lot of attention and I'm not sure that it's well understood, what you think Jonathan Ive meant when you quote him complaining about Steve not giving credit where credit was due?
WI: Well, they would walk through the design studio--and Jony Ive kept notebooks. I remember he told me that while we were walking through the studio. He said, "I have notebooks of where every idea comes from, because ideas are very fragile things." And even the touch screen technology Jony helped develop. He said, "We were holding off showing it to Steve because we didn't want him to jump on it until we knew we had it right." Yet Steve did have a way of saying that idea stinks, he actually used other words that begin with "S," and then three weeks later think it's the best idea in the world and sort of appropriating it. You have to see what Jony Ive--I mean, because I've quoted, and I think somebody's picked it up in a blog, or something. But the next two or three sentences of the quote are, "But if it hadn't been for Steve all these great ideas would have been left on the cutting room floor, nobody would have implemented them. I was at Apple having all these ideas before Steve came back. But it wasn't like Gil Amelio was saying, 'Yeah, let's do the iPod,' or, 'Let's make it this way.'" So that was his point which is that Steve would grab an idea and sometimes take credit for it, but before then and at other companies those ideas would have ended up as vapors if it hadn't been for Steve saying, "No, you can do it. We can make it." Unfortunately, it was a quote that has like four sentences and people stop after the first two. And it was a very poignant thing when he said it to me, because he got kind of emotional. And he said, "But if it hadn't been for Steve, these ideas wouldn't have mattered--they would have disappeared." And I think that's the key to understanding Steve.
AL: Setting those specifics aside, do you think he was a credit hog?
WI: You know, he was a great showman. I mean, among the things he invented was product unveilings. He does them for the original 1984, "The Mac!" "Well, hello! I am Macintosh--whatever--and it's great to be out of that bag! And let me introduce you to, somebody's like a father to me, Steve Jobs." So, it's great. Steve was not, though, a celebrity like the Hollywood types, who go around, and they're always preening and they're always at award ceremonies. So, it was an odd sort of thing. Of all the words I would use, credit hog is not one. But there was something deeper which was he'd hear an idea, and sometimes his way of testing it would be to say, "That's stupid. That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." I mean, over and over again, starting in the original Mac team, Bill Atkinson, the people who create the term "reality distortion field," they all say, "Steve will do that. He'll tell you the idea is stupid, stupid, stupid. And then, as you keep pushing back and explaining it, he'll then say, 'That's the greatest idea ever.'" And so that's the essence, not credit-hogness.
AL: Did he ever chew you out, or say unthoughtful things to you?
WI: Yeah, mainly on that book cover. I think you may remember that. About right when the iPad was about to come out, I fly into San Francisco. And you get off the plane, and the thing you least want to see on your iPhone, which is seven missed phone calls from Steve Jobs.
WI: So you hit "Return"--
AL: Walter, I wouldn't know about that.
WI: Yeah, well, it wasn't like he was returning my calls. It's like he was mad about something... And Simon & Schuster had put a cover sort of in the catalogue they were putting out two years ago. It had Steve in a red apple, "iSteve," and some day as to when it would be published. He said, "That is the ugliest thing--this has such poor taste," and it was actually words of one syllable that were stronger than that. "You shouldn't even come to the product launch, I never want to deal with you again. You have no taste," and whatever. Finally, he says, "I'm only going to keep dealing with you if you let me have some input into the cover." "Because," he said, "nobody is going to read your book, I'm not going to read your book. But I'll look at the cover--and I don't want it to be ugly." Now, it takes me about one and a half seconds to say, "Sure!" I mean, here's a guy with the greatest design eye of our time. That is basically Steve Jobs saying, "That's what the cover should look like." With a font that comes from the original Mac, the sans serif font, and the Albert Watson picture, and it's in color. And I said, "Shouldn't we do it in color?" He says, "No, I'm a black and white sort of guy: Things are either black, or they're white. It's a black and white cover."
AL: I'm terribly sorry to say that we have time for one last question, and so it will be the big atmospheric one. Of your three most successful books, biographies, Einstein, Franklin, and now Steve Jobs--am I right that those are your three most successful books?
WI: Yeah, but Steve is obviously...
AL: Yes, understood. So, to that point, you've sold more of these books than the others combined, perhaps. How do you think he will be treated by history compared with these other two people we already know are great men in history?
WI: Well, Einstein, I think, is in a different quantum orbit, to use a phrase that he came up with in the early 1900s, in terms of genius. I mean, just totally out there, the notion of general relativity. I think he's very much like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, people who can connect business to art to the humanities to creativity. Benjamin Franklin would have thought you were a Philistine if you didn't appreciate great art, love great literature, but also know science and engineering and technology. And nowadays sometimes we think--you know, you can go around saying, "Oh, I love Picasso. And I love the Serra at the MoMA--here in San Francisco--but I don't know science. And quantum theory, math, turns me off!" Steve, I think, connected it the way Ben Franklin did, the way Ada Lovelace did. And to me those are the people who make the dent in the universe, are the people who can connect the arts and the sciences, the humanities and the technologies, and that's been America's great strength. That's why I wanted to celebrate Steve Jobs, in the sense that one celebrates him. And that's where I put him, even with people who frankly probably cut in line--like Edison, not the nicest dude in the world. Walt Disney, probably not the nicest dude in the world. Henry Ford... But they had a way of making for all of us things that were beautiful.
AL: Well, I'll ask you to hold your applause. I want to extend all of our thanks to Walter Isaacson, author of the bestselling biography, "Steve Jobs." We also thank our audiences here and on television, radio, and the Internet. Tonight's program has been part of the Commonwealth Club's Good Lit. series, underwritten by the Bernard Osher Foundation. I would like to remind you that Walter will be available for a brief period after we adjourn tonight to sign yet more books. I am Adam Lashinsky. And now this meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California, the place where you're in the know, is adjourned.