x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The genius, and temperament, of Apple's guiding light

Apple products are coveted because they make great technology friendly. But Steve Jobs, who accomplished that, was not a friendly boss - just a great one.

In movies and on television, when characters sit down to work on a computer - and even when one is just there, in the background - it's almost always a Mac, despite the fact that in the real world, Apple's market share for desk and laptop computers is in the single digits. In the fake movie world, it's near 100 per cent.

Which makes sense, really: Apple products, like attractive people, are fun to look at, and so the people in charge of these things make sure to put lots of both of them on screen.

And not just on screen. Apple gear dominates other trendy places, too. In the painfully fashionable coffee shop near my house in Venice, the hipsters all use Apple products. Some will be typing on the MacBook Air; some will be poking out text messages on an iPhone; some will be editing music or video on a MacBook Pro; some will be reading on an iPad; and some will manage to be doing three of these things all at once.

That's the superficial legacy of Steve Jobs, Apple's impresario and guiding spirit, who has just died of pancreatic cancer. He transformed little boxes of wires and widgets into objects of sleek irresistible beauty. He made it cool to be a computer geek.

We knew Mr Jobs had been struggling for years with health problems, but when news of his death spread - via iPhone and iPad, on Twitter and Facebook apps - it still brought a lot of the man's fans, like me, up short.

Anecdotes and biographies poured out over the web, recounting Mr Jobs' remarkable life - the out-of-wedlock son of a Syrian Muslim father and a conservative Christian mother, given up for adoption to an Armenian American family; the high-school dropout; the man who co-founded Apple, was fired from it and hired back; the man who ultimately transformed it into one of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world. In that torrent of memories it was easy to overlook what made Steve Jobs such a powerhouse of a businessman: He was tough, on himself, and everyone around him.

"In a meeting with Steve, you have to be prepared for his questions," a friend who spent years at Apple told me. "All of his possible questions, from how long a product will take to build to how it might be shipped to whether it should come in blue. When he asks a question, you have to be prepared." If you aren't, said my friend, deep into an Angry Steve flashback, "it's not good."

Stories of Steve's temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn't thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in a lift when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve screaming for it to be lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve's furious email exchanges with journalists, bloggers, even customers who had happened to email him just when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat.

And somehow, in the midst of all of that, he started a movie studio, Pixar, and produced some of the most lasting and powerful animated movies ever made, like the Toy Story trilogy and the magnificent Up.

He didn't accomplish all that by being a nice-guy kind of boss, but it's hard to keep that in mind when you enter any of the gleaming Apple stores, each a beehive of purposeful, slightly scruffy young people milling around in T-shirts.

An Apple Store is such a friendly place. Friendliness - ease of use and slick design - is a big part of the Apple brand. Apple Computers say "Hi." Your grim, beige UNIX-based terminal at work, or your heavy black Dell at home, don't say "Hi." It says "ILLEGAL MODE IN KERNEL 1009A5 RESTART" or whatever.

Macs are user-friendly, but Apple wasn't a user-friendly place to work. Apple's engineers and designers didn't love coming to work despite Steve's insane temper and unpredictable rants; they loved coming to work because of those things. They knew he was trying to do great things, trying to revolutionise an entire market, trying to give the public incredible technology in a beautiful package. You can't do that without being demanding, uncompromising, and just a little bit nuts.

Walking by my local Apple store a few hours ago, in the rainy Santa Monica night, I saw dozens of people gathered outside, lighting candles and leaving flowers. It's odd to think that a corporate CEO could have such an intimate personal relationship with consumers. Steve Jobs did, though. Pity he's the only one.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood