In Praise of Bad Steve

Steve Jobs didn't change the world by playing nice



When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick died, the steely perfectionist who ground actors into submission died with him. Kubrick was a good man -- Matthew Modine once described him as "probably the most heartfelt person I ever met" -- but by all accounts, his shoots were crucibles for which the faint of heart need not apply. When he walked onto a set, Stanley Kubrick would get exactly what he wanted, and he would exact this vision without mercy. Upon his death, however, only a mythical Saint Stanley remained, a slightly taller Yoda with a slightly better complexion.

Part of this can be explained by decorum. No one wants to speak ill of the dead, and it's hard to casually reconcile the loving father and husband with the man who verbally flayed Shelley Duvall until her frail character in The Shining seemed Byronic in comparison. Still, revising the methods of such a genius is to diminish exactly what made his genius work. A Clockwork Orange didn't happen by accident. Stanley Kubrick made it happen, and though anyone could direct a Kubrick script, only the man himself could make a Kubrick film.

Last year a former Apple employee related his favorite Steve Jobs story to me. I have no way of knowing if it is true, so take it for what it's worth. I think it nicely captures the man who changed the world four times over. When engineers working on the very first iPod completed the prototype, they presented their work to Steve Jobs for his approval. Jobs played with the device, scrutinized it, weighed it in his hands, and promptly rejected it. It was too big.

The engineers explained that they had to reinvent inventing to create the iPod, and that it was simply impossible to make it any smaller. Jobs was quiet for a moment. Finally he stood, walked over to an aquarium, and dropped the iPod in the tank. After it touched bottom, bubbles floated to the top.

"Those are air bubbles," he snapped. "That means there's space in there. Make it smaller."

Steve Jobs was a genius, and one of the most important businessmen and inventors of our time. But he was not a kindly, soft-spoken sage who might otherwise live atop a mountain in India, dispatching wisdom to pilgrims. He was a taskmaster who knew how to get things done. "Real artists ship" was an Apple battle cry from the earliest days. Everyone, by now, knows about the Steve Jobs "reality distortion field" -- the charismatic Care Bear Stare that compels otherwise reasonable people to spend weeks in line for a slightly faster telephone. In his biography of Jobs, journalist Alan Deutschman described the Apple co-founder's lesser-known hero-shithead roller coaster. "He could be Good Steve or he could be Bad Steve. When he was Bad Steve, he didn't seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions so long as he pushed for greatness." When confronted with the full "terrifying" wrath of Bad Steve (even over the slightest of details), the brains at Apple would push themselves beyond all personal limits to find a way to meet Jobs's exacting demands, and somehow return to his good graces. And the process would repeat itself. "Steve was willing to be loved or feared, whatever worked." As Bud Tribble, Vice President of Software Technology at Apple explained. "It let the engineers know that it wasn't OK to be sloppy in anything they did, even the 99 percent that Steve would never look at."

That attention to detail makes Apple products unique and desired. Does any other company produce ubiquitous, mass-market devices that still feel so rare, and deeply personal? Steve Jobs did that.

His life was too short, but never wasted, and his impact reaches even those who've never touched an Apple product. He ushered in the personal computing era, and rallied from pancreatic cancer to show us a glimpse of the post-PC world. That didn't just happen; it was made to happen.

When Apple announced his resignation in August, the canonization began. Barrels of ink recounted all of the carrot and none of the stick. With the announcement of his death, coverage and conversations continue along those lines. That's to be expected, and like Kubrick, is set to become conventional wisdom. Steve Jobs was a good man who loved and was loved, and earned every accolade he's garnered. But he doesn't deserve a hagiography, and I doubt he would have wanted one. Apple wasn't built by a saint. It was built by an iron-fisted visionary. There are a lot of geniuses in the world, and a lot of aesthetes. But that's not enough. Sometimes it takes Bad Steve to bring products to market. Real artists ship.

Image: Reuters