A Lifetime of Regret: A Post Mortem of Steve Jobs the Movie

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As the credits rolled by, I sat in the theater for several moments in silence. I had just seen a film about a person who actually existed, and whom I’d met personally in Pittsburgh in 1989, that had completely misstated every crucial fact and event in his life. I was awestruck.

Later, after I’d left the theater, I realized that perhaps I was being harsh. After all, Steve Jobs is a difficult person to portray. The two previous movies, the documentaries, the Isaacson, Schlender, Young/Simon and Brennan books all lead most people to the conclusion that Steve Jobs was a dick. Not to everyone, not all the time, not to people who were in a position to help him reach his goals, but all in all, the picture painted is not pretty. Stealing from his best friend Steve Wozniak, sticking it to close buddy Daniel Kotkke, verbally abusing waitresses and smoothie ladies, getting some poor HR schlub fired from her job at Google for trespassing unknowingly on an illegal and collusive “don’t hire from us” agreement between the two companies, denying Lisa’s paternity, giving one day’s notice to a group of people laid off from Pixar, terrorizing employees in the Apple elevators, the list goes on and on. Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs was attacked bitterly by many in Jobs’ inner circle as an unfair portrayal, but no one has disputed his facts. Walter apparently remembered that writing a biography that omits the uncomfortable truths about the subject is the act of a flack, not an author.

I suspect some of the reaction to the books and movies is enabler’s guilt. I can’t remember ever reading about one of Steve’s friends or colleagues telling him to cut it out and stop being a bully while he was picking on someone weaker than himself. If someone had on occasion,  I suspect Jobs’ biographies would read differently. (There’s a lesson here for all you brilliant young entrepreneurs; if you want people to write nice things about you, beat up on someone your own size. At least when you’re in public.)

I was also surprised to read that Laurene Jobs objected to Sorkin’s opus and tried to prevent it from being made. I don’t understand this. This movie creates an alternative reality version of Jobs which omits most of the nasty stuff and portrays him as

Lifetime Steve
Steve Jobs by the end of “Steve Jobs”

fundamentally misunderstood, perceptive, funny and in the end, a Rehabilitated Great Dad. (And in all fairness, at his death, Lisa inherited millions.) Why isn’t she thrilled?

Of course, to achieve this rehabilitation, Sorkin and Boyle had to create a character with all the credibility of a three dollar bill. The film stinks of phoniness and deception and this, I believe, accounts for its box office failure. I didn’t want to pay $16 for a well-directed, written, and acted Lifetime movie. I get those for free at home when either my wife or daughter seizes control of the remote.

This leads to the question “Well, Rick, if you’re so smart, how would you have made an excellent movie about Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Apple that wasn’t a fatuous soap opera?”

To answer that, we’re going to have to circle back to slots in a box, the ones Wozniak’s so passionate about in the film, and toy train switches. Yes, I know, Apple and IBM were never open source purists, but the practical result of their business decisions was to create two flourishing hardware standards and, in the case of Apple, two companies named “Apple.“

The first Apple was switch master Steve Wozniak’s company. Let’s call it Apple One (A1) and it existed for 20 years. Wozniak didn’t run A1 on a day to day basis, but it was his vision and skills that drove the Apple II and its myriad clones to grab a 30% share of the early PC desktop market, not to mention nurturing the company with the mother’s milk of revenue during the Macintosh’s arid early years. A1 affirmed Wozniak’s open system dream and in the late 80s the company, had it been willing to license the Macintosh hardware and software, could probably have supplanted the IBM standard and pushed aside Windows.

Apple, however, flinched from following its switch master’s path. While Steve Jobs may have been gone, his alluring vision of the Unearthly Garden still resonated at Apple. The company abandoned attempts to create industry standards and walled the Mac off from the rest of the industry. For computers, it wasn’t a tenable strategy, and by 1996 Wozniak’s A1 was crumbling.

Woody didn’t make the cut in “Steve Jobs”

In the meantime, hobbyist Steve Jobs wasn’t doing any better. Following in the footsteps of the Lisa and the original Mac, NeXT, the Pixar computer, and RenderMan were sales flops. (Woody and Buzz didn’t flop. I wondered why the movie ignored Jobs’ Pixar stint, which made him his first billion, but realized that if they’d brought it up, they would probably have had to throw in at least a few bars of You’ve Got a Friend In Me into the soundtrack and that would have spoiled the movie’s zeitgeist.) When Apple rehired him, it was an act of desperation, not conviction. Steve Jobs had produced some very successful cartoon films about talking toys, fish, cars, rats, etc., but he had no track record of technology creation and success. Wozniak did.

And Jobs’ first years back at Apple weren’t particularly stirring. When he took over effective control of the company in 1997, yearly revenues were $9B and by 2001 had shrunk to $5B. Of necessity, he fired a great many people, trimmed the product line, and brought in some designers to build a series of mediocre performing but fun-to-own lower end computers. Apple also designed a laptop that looked like a toilet seat. The engineers then polished up a series of higher-end systems that helped the company hold onto its traditional graphic artist base. The walls around the Apple garden were patched and repaired, but for four years all that Jobs could accomplish was to help Apple hold on to about 4% of the PC market and remain a lovable but somewhat quaint oddity in the computing firmament.

In 2001, all this changed. That was the year Steve Jobs founded a second company on the bones of the first. Let’s call it Apple Two (A2), and its purpose was to erase Wozniak’s legacy.

A2 was a consumer electronics firm, and in 2001 it released its digital music player, the iPod. In combination with Apple’s download music business, the product was a mega hit. Jobs followed that up with the iPhone, which is probably the most popular and profitable consumer product ever created. And in addition to phenomenal sales, the iPhone and iOS accomplished something no other company had ever achieved—drive Steve Ballmer and Microsoft out of a market in which one of its OSs (Windows Mobile, 42% market share in 2007; >3%, 2016) had established a dominant position.

Jobs’ last triumph was the iPad, the first successful tablet computer. By 2011, he had taken the company from yearly revenues in 1997 of $9B, with a loss of $1B, to $108B in 2011, the year of his death. I’m going to give him complete credit for 2012 and 2013 as well, with the final tally being $171B, $37B of that profit. Apple regularly trades places with companies such as Google and Exxon for title of World’s Most Valuable Company and has a cash pile of over $200B. No turnaround in business history has ever achieved such results.

How did Jobs do it? What changed?


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