Ever wondered why on-off switches are an anathema to Apple devices? Because of the iconic co-founder's belief in afterlife, as captured in ‘Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson. To Jobs – who was about fifty-fifty on believing in God, because he felt there was more to our existence than meets the eye – the on-off switch perhaps symbolised death, as if, ‘Click! And you're gone.' He liked to think that something survives after you die, because “It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures… Maybe that's why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

Harsh honesty

Many have wondered how, behind a company that makes products that mean so much to most people, there was someone as mean as Jobs. Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or wilfully bypassed it, narrates Isaacson. “This is who I am, and you can't expect me to be someone I'm not,” was the explanation that Jobs would offer.

In the author's view, Jobs could actually have controlled himself, if he had wanted. “When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.”

A snatch of Jobs-speak informs that he did not think he run roughshod over people. “But if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It's my job to be honest,” defends Jobs.

Advising one to be able to be super honest, Jobs notes, “Maybe there's a better way, a gentlemen's club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words, but I don't know that way, because I am middle class from California.”

Designer dad

Growing up with Paul and Clara Jobs – a high school dropout with a passion for mechanics and his salt-of-the-earth wife who was working as a bookkeeper – the couple who had adopted him soon after birth, the child Steve learnt many profound lessons. Not only that he was ‘chosen' and ‘special,' rather than just ‘abandoned,' but also that craftsmanship is important. “Steve, this is your workbench now,” Paul had told him when marking off a section of the table in the garage. “I thought my dad's sense of design was pretty good, because he knew how to build anything. If we needed a cabinet, he would build it. When he built our fence, he gave me a hammer so I could work with him,” Jobs would reminisce.

Fifty years later the fence still surrounds the back and side yards of the house in Mountain View, informs Isaacson. “As Jobs showed it off to me, he caressed the stockade panels and recalled a lesson that his father implanted deeply in him. It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. ‘He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn't see.'”

An interesting sidelight in the book is about how Paul's craftsmanship helped fulfil the signed pledge the couple had made when Steve was adopted – that a savings account would be funded to pay for the boy's college education. “My college fund came from my dad paying $50 for a Ford Falcon or some other beat-up car that didn't run, working on it for a few weeks, and selling it for $250 – and not telling the IRS.”

Building inspirations

The ‘original vision for Apple' was the house where the family lived, built by real estate developer Joseph Eichler, whose company spawned more than 11,000 homes in various California subdivisions between 1950 and 1974, one learns. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of simple modern homes for the American ‘everyman', Eichler built inexpensive houses that featured floor-to-ceiling glass walls, open floor plans, exposed post-and-beam construction, concrete slab floors, and lots of sliding glass doors, describes Isaacson. “Eichler did a great thing. His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people. They had awesome little features like radiant heating in the floors,” Jobs would admire, during one of his walks with the author around the neighbourhood.

Isaacson reports that the appreciation for Eichler homes instilled in Jobs a passion for making nicely designed products for the mass market. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn't cost much,” he said as he pointed out the clean elegance of the houses. “It was the original vision for Apple. That's what we tried to do with the first Mac. That's what we did with the iPod.”

First principles

You can find many nuggets of design gyan in the chapter titled ‘Design principles', which opens with a section on Jony Ive, the head of the company's design team. From almost quitting Apple, Ive stayed back after listening to Steve announce that the company's goal is not just to make money but to make great products.

Ive and Jobs would soon forge a bond that would lead to the greatest industrial design collaboration of their era, writes Isaacson. “Ive was a fan of the German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who worked for the electronics firm Braun. Rams preached the gospel of ‘Less but better' - Weniger aber besser - and likewise Jobs and Ive wrestled with each new design to see how much they could simplify it.”

Simplicity, explains Ive, is not just a visual style; it is not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. “It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep… You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

Management lesson

For company bosses, a key takeaway is an insight of Jobs about why decline happens in companies like IBM or Microsoft. “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important,” he traces. “The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they're the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.”

Examples that Jobs mentions are of John Akers at IBM, who was “a smart, eloquent, fantastic salesperson, but he didn't know anything about product” and Ballmer in Microsoft, so much so that Jobs did not think anything would change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.

“I hate it when people call themselves ‘entrepreneurs' when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on,” frets Jobs. “They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That's how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before.”

Right fit as an iLearn product, even for those who proclaim iKnow.


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