Five Small Stories About Steve Jobs

Lots of people who were closer to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs than I have written moving memorials to a man who, in an industry and a region where people love to say they want to change the world, actually did it. The Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad–and Pixar!–none of these would have happened, certainly not in the same culture-jolting way, were it not for Jobs’ imagination and determination.

Because I was busy enough watching Intel create the electronics revolution, chronicling Scott McNealy and Sun kicking Hewlett-Packard’s butt for awhile, and witnessing Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen birth the commercial Internet, I can’t share tales of watching the genesis of the particular revolutions Jobs sparked from a front-row seat. All I’ve got are a few small, even inconsequential tales of Steve Jobs from my brushes with him over the years. But I wanted to share them anyway in the hope that they add a little more color to the life of a man who brought so much to ours.

I met Jobs face-to-face for the first time just before he was to introduce, if I’m not mistaken, the NeXTcube computer in 1990. BusinessWeek writer Kathy Rebello and I visited Jobs to see the machine at NeXT’s offices in Redwood City, Calif. He was his usual charming self–and make no mistake, despite his well-deserved (and self-described) reputation as an asshole, he was very charming. And his enthusiasm was infectious even though I had doubts about whether he could widen NeXT’s wedge between Apple and Sun into a sustainable business.

I remember two things distinctly. One was his focus on the shape and design of the jet-black machine, which I recall him touching fondly. That love of good industrial design is something he clearly never lost.

The other thing I remember is that he nervously fingered the wedding ring on his finger. When I jokingly asked him if it perhaps it wasn’t fitting so well, he launched into a story about his grandfather, who was a machinist (if I remember correctly–though seeing that his adopted father Paul was a machinist, I wonder if I heard wrong). Anyway, he said his grandfather was operating a machine with his wedding ring on, and it got caught in the machinery, removing his finger along with it. So every time he felt the ring on his finger, it gave him a twinge.

Now, this was Jobs before his canonization as the savior of Apple, so perhaps it’s just an example of a CEO trying to make nice with reporters with a personal tale. Still, the story stuck with me precisely because it was such a human, uncorporate story to bother telling.

I also saw Jobs just a couple of times doing his famous product introductions. One was the introduction of the first NeXT machine at a huge gala event in San Francisco in October 1988, if I recall correctly, because BusinessWeek writer Katie Hafner needed help reporting on a NeXT story she was working on and I was the new guy getting sent to whatever needed doing. (She thought she was getting an exclusive, though Jobs apparently promised an “exclusive” to two other publications–vintage Steve Jobs.)

In demonstrating a built-in dictionary that could call up definitions with amazing speed, he said, “Hmm, what shall we look up? How about ‘mercurial’?” That was the most common descriptor of Jobs at the time, and his joke brought down the house. Like I said, he could be the most charming guy in the room when he wanted to conjur up his famous reality distortion field.

The next time I saw Jobs onstage was just three years ago in San Francisco at his introduction of the iPhone 3G at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, helping out my BusinessWeek colleagues and Apple aces Peter Burrows and Arik Hesseldahl. I hadn’t seen Jobs in person in many years, onstage or anywhere else. Of course I knew about his health issues, but as I liveblogged the event, it still struck me how frail he seemed:

Maybe it has been far too long since I’ve seen Jobs speak in person. But he seems a little laid-back, even tired?

As it turned out, this appearance kicked off another round of speculation on his health. Even without the benefit of hindsight today, it felt to me that, at the least, Jobs’ ability to carry Apple entirely on his shoulders was fading.

Update: Oh, how could I forget that photo shoot? For a special issue on Silicon Valley in 1997, BusinessWeek had somehow gathered many of the leading lights of the Valley at that time. I later wondered how on Earth we made that happen, but there’s Jobs on the left, dressed characteristically with more style than the rest put together.

I don’t remember much about Jobs’ behavior during the shoot beyond his huddling with his friend and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at one point. And maybe that was the point: While there was no doubt he had to be in that photo, he wasn’t yet Steve Jobs, the icon, he was the guy who had just returned to Apple after it bought NeXT and faced a huge uphill battle to save it. Still, he was Steve Jobs; I remember his letting the magazine know that he was annoyed about the photo because his white shirt stuck out from under his vest.

One last story: My wife and I used to frequent a small restaurant in downtown Palo Alto called Caffe Verona. One evening around 1999, more or less, we were getting coffee, and suddenly I noticed that ahead of me was Ellison. That was interesting enough, but then I saw him take his drink out to the small patio entrance–where sat Steve Jobs and his wife.

Being a reporter, and because I think neither recognized me in the dark, I took a seat outside a few feet away, hoping to overhear any juicy details about coming products, Silicon Valley gossip–whatever. Long after my wife went back inside to get warm, I kept nursing my cappuccino and pretending to read magazines. So what did I overhear?

A half-hour of talk about the details of macrobiotic diets.

It was a mildly funny story to tell for years afterward. After Jobs’ health issues, it became less funny. But I always thought it was significant for another reason anyway. Here was one (actually, two) of technology’s leading lights, and they somehow found time to pal around talking about everything but their businesses.

Ultimately, what I remember about Steve Jobs was not the showman, the icon, the visionary. I remember a real human being who just happened to change the world.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the perspective. When the day ends, we are simple human beings concerned about our health. The story about Jobs and Ellison is a poignant example of that.

    I will always remember the interview Gates and Jobs did, where Steve quoted ~the miles we have behind us are more than the years ahead. Those are not the right words but the sentiment is there. As I watched those two, I was struck by the memory that Gates had ‘invested’ hundreds of millions into Apple, kept it afloat, making it possible for Steve to have the success he did, that both of them knew it, and that somehow history had tossed that fact aside. It also got the DOJ off MS’s back about it’s monopoly.

    Thanks for these memories shared :D

  2. Cool story! But that’s the thing. He seemed to live in the real world, unlike some CEOs. Margaret saw him standing in front of his Palo Alto house on the day Pixar went public. He used to rollerblade the streets of Palo Alto at night.

  3. Nice stories. Posted this to my FB: My only encounter with Mr. Jobs was while waiting to be seated (or to get change from our check, I kind of forget now) at the Pizza Hut in Cupertino back in 1983. Lynne and I were standing near the counter and Mr. Jobs and a colleague came in right behind us. As he walked by, Jobs winked and smiled at Lynne and then wandered off with his lunch meeting pal into a part of the restaurant where no one was sitting. I thought: “Hey, that’s Steve Jobs.” Lynne just kind of smiled back.

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