Why Apple feels the need to defend Steve Jobs?

The normally unforthcoming executives at Apple have been praising a new book about Steve Jobs in recent days, using the opportunity to also diss Walter Isaacson’s three-and-a-half-year-old biography of their former boss as an unfair portrayal.

As if Steve Jobs needed defending.

Becoming Steve Jobs, written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Photo: Random House Publishing
Becoming Steve Jobs, written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Photo: Random House Publishing

Apple’s co-founder, savior, and mega-star knew what he was getting into when he asked Isaacson to tell his story. By the time Isaacson agreed to take the case in 2009—Jobs had already asked multiple times, the author has said—the former editor of Timemagazine had established himself as a critically and commercially acclaimed biographer. Jobs, who was already well into his losing battle with pancreatic cancer, surely knew Isaacson would delve into his darker sides. After all, Isaacson hadn’t steered clear of Benjamin Franklin’s extramarital activities, or Albert Einstein’s imperious side, in previous books. We learn, for example, in the Einstein biography that the physicist once wrote to his wife requiring her to “stop talking to me if I request it.”

In a Q&A on Amazon.com, posted soon after the release of Steve Jobs, Isaacson said that Jobs “urged me not just to hear his version, but to interview as many people as possible. It was one of his odd contradictions: he could distort reality, yet he was also brutally honest most of the time. He impressed upon me the value of honesty, rather than trying to whitewash things.”

“Steve knew that Walter was a credible biographer and that he’d get to the truth—and that’s precisely why Steve chose him,” says Andy Cunningham, a consultant who was Jobs’s public relations handler during his early years at Apple and at his second startup, NeXT Computer. “I don’t think Steve ever denied his faults. He knew what kind of person he was.”

To a great extent, so did everyone else. It has been reported many times that soon after co-founding Apple, Jobs lied about the paternity of his eldest daughter Lisa, claiming in court documents that he couldn’t be the father because he was infertile. (He later accepted responsibility, and she spent much of her childhood living with Jobs). There were countless stories of his poor treatment of employees during his early years at Apple, as well as the public humiliation of his ouster from the company in 1985. Add to the list Jobs’s participation in the backdating of stock options more than a decade ago, which turned out to be far more onerous than backdating by executives at other companies who were forced to resign or even sent to prison.

By then, Jobs’s skin was plenty tough. Cunningham says that while she worked for him, he never complained, not even privately, about any of the Apple books that came out at the time, including former Apple Chief Executive Officer John Sculley’s Odyssey. Sculley’s co-author, former BusinessWeekeditor John Byrne, confirmed that Jobs “behaved as though the book never existed” and never commented on it publicly. Ironically, the most incisive and incriminating portrayal of Jobs, who was adopted, was surely in A Regular Guy, a 1997 novel by his biological sister. Mona Simpson has never spelled out how much the main character—a dashing, famous, young tech entrepreneur from Palo Alto, Calif., with an illegitimate daughter and strange dietary habits—was based on Jobs, but it was enough that she ran the manuscript by Lisa Brennan-Jobs to make sure it accurately depicted her relationship with her father. Nevertheless, Simpson and Jobs became extremely close, and she was among those who werewith him when he died.

Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, told Isaacson when he first began working on the book, “Be honest with his failings as well as his strengths,” according to 60 Minutes. “I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully.”

No doubt, Jobs was far more protective of Apple’s reputation than he was of his own. He could be surprisingly accessible for off-the-record phone calls, especially when Apple was still on the comeback trail and needed all the help it could get. But he was just as famous among reporters for suddenly cutting off access for some minor offense when it came to his company.  (He certainly didn’t appreciate a story I wrote about “Antennagate” in 2010, which he publicly called “a total crock” during a press conference to address complaints about the iPhone 4’s calling performance; Fortunately for me, he didn’t hold that grudge for long.)

When Jobs did complain about coverage of him, he usually didn’t do it in print. In 2005, he banned all books by publisher John Wiley & Sons from Apple’s stores in advance of its publication of the book, iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business. During the backdating scandal, he did speak anonymously with reporters; even then the context was less about his concerns for his reputation and more about the high legal and business stakes—including the possibility that he’d be forced to resign if found guilty.

So why the sudden push by Apple and its executives to criticize the Isaacson book while praising the latest biography, Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli? CEO Tim Cook is quoted in the book as saying that Isaacson “failed to capture the person.” Senior Vice President Eddy Cue expressed the same sentiment via Twitter, as did design chief Jony Ive in a speech last year.

From a business perspective, it makes no sense to be picking this fight just weeks before the launch of the Apple Watch in April, says Bob Borchers, a former iPhone marketing executive who is now chief marketing officer for Dolby Labs. Because it was designed almost entirely after Jobs’s death in 2011, “the Watch is considered by most people Tim’s first product, so it would be counterproductive to bring the Steve story back into the fold.”

The PR offensive is “purely an emotional issue, not a business issue,” says marketing consultant Regis McKenna, a longtime friend of Jobs who worked closely with him in the 1970s and early ’80s. While Isaacson’s book was almost universally considered far more positive than negative, he understands why Cook, Cue, and Ive felt so strongly about it having fallen short of their expectations. Call it an artifact of the perfectionism Jobs demanded for Apple’s products, he says. The executives “all take it personally, because they are all a reflection of Steve,” he says.

Those executives may well see this as their last, best chance to influence how Jobs is perceived in the future. While they probably had little choice than to talk to Isaacson—he was Jobs’s hand-picked biographer, after all—they agreed to speak to Schlender and Tetzeli after Jobs had died. Schlender, in particular, was a familiar and friendly face. He’s an artful writer who has covered Apple for more than 20 years.

“This is now the Apple-authorized biography,” says Borchers. “It’s the book that everyone is going to rally behind as the one true story, because people close to Steve felt the Isaacson book didn’t reflect the Steve they knew. There’s a desire to have the last word be one that was positive and truly represented who they felt he was.”

Apple declined to comment and didn’t make Powell Jobs or any of the executives available for an interview.

There’s another possible explanation, says Cunningham. Maybe the sudden offensive against Isaacson’s book isn’t about the book at all, but about the movie due out in October that’s based on that book. That’s right smack in the middle of the annual migration of shoppers to Apple stores for the newest iPhone.

There are two potential causes for concern for Apple, said Cunningham. First, the movie will deal with three relatively ancient events: the introductions of the Mac in 1984, the NeXT workstation in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. It will be harder for Apple to control a narrative that happened long ago, when the company was so different. Cook joined Apple just a few months before that iMac event. Both Ive and Cue figured hugely in the day’s announcements; Ive oversaw the design of the iMac, and Cue pulled off a hugely successful remake of Apple’s online store, also announced that day. But neither of them played a prominent role in the keynote; they won’t in the movie, either, judging from Universal Studio’s press release.

Instead, many of the characters with sizable roles are people who had a decidedly mixed relationship with Jobs. One is Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s one-time girlfriend, mother of Lisa, and author of a painfully personal, recent book about her relationship with him. Then there’s Avie Tevanian, the software genius behind Apple’s MacOS who grew tired of Jobs’s refusal to share more limelight with him in the years before he left in 2006. Oh, and Sculley, who fired Jobs.

Walter Isaacson, chief executive officer and president of Aspen Institute, talks about his book, Steve Jobs, in 2013. Photo: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg
Walter Isaacson, chief executive officer and president of Aspen Institute, talks about his book, Steve Jobs, in 2013. Photo: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg

Cunningham will also be one of the major characters, she tells me during a phone interview. As with many of Isaacson’s sources, she was interviewed by scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin at the Palo Alto Four Seasons hotel a few years ago, and last year she was contacted by the actress who will be portraying her, Sarah Snook.

Cunningham says she greatly admired Jobs that working with him was “a great gift.” She was his closest public relations handler during the 1984 launch, still broadly considered by many as the best keynote in tech history. She says that for people who understood and were motivated by Jobs’s singular approach to putting “a dent in the universe,” his barbs and insults were the price of admission. Although he fired her seven times, she says, “he changed my life.” Still, she was on hand for some of Jobs’s most classic enfant terrible moments, and she hasn’t been afraid to retell them.

“Maybe Apple doesn’t like what’s happening with the movie,” she says.

The article originally appeared in bloomberg

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