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Steve Jobs defended his work with a barbed tongue

07/10/2011 12:12


The first time Steve Jobs ever bullied anyone was in the third grade. He and some pals "basically destroyed" the teacher, he once said.

For the next half-century, Mr. Jobs never let up. He chewed out subordinates and partners who failed to deliver, trashed competitors who did not measure up and told know-it-all pundits to take a hike. He had a vision of greatness that he wielded to reshape the computer, telephone and entertainment industries, and he would brook no compromise.

Maybe it is only the despair people feel about the stagnating American economy, but the announcement of the death of the Apple cofounder Wednesday seemed to mark the end of something: in an era of limits, Mr. Jobs was the last great tyrant.

Even in Silicon Valley, where corporate chieftains are frequently larger than life, and soul-enhancing technology is promised with the morning e-mail, there was no one quite like him. He used his powers to make devices that are beloved by their owners in a way that very few American products manage to achieve, especially these days.

"Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity in the bland, deflavorized culture of managed-by-committee corporate behemoths," the entrepreneur Perry Metzger posted on his Google+ page, Mr. Jobs "showed that the real path to excellence was excellence -- that you could do great things by, who would have imagined, being smart and having excellent taste and not ever settling for second best."

After his death became public, there was a waterfall of emotion on Twitter and blogs. Fans gathered outside Mr. Jobs's house in Palo Alto, Calif., and they placed candles and flowers in front of Apple stores everywhere. His house is in the center of town, easy to find and rather modest for a guy worth about $6.5 billion. He was planning another house, but even that seemed like it would be relatively restrained for a lord of Silicon Valley.

Where he was unrestrained was in his work. Stories of him forcefully telling Apple employees that a product was not good enough are legion. ("You've baked a really lovely cake," he told one engineer, adding that the hapless fellow had used dog feces for frosting). Make it smaller and better, he commanded. No element of design was too minor to escape his notice. (On a Mac interface: "We made the buttons on the screen look so good you'll want to lick them.")

Mr. Jobs castigated competitors, particularly Microsoft. Bill Gates's company, which dwarfed Apple in power and wealth during the 1980s and 1990s, was not even described as second rate; it was deemed third-rate. Worse, it was not even trying.

"The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste," Mr. Jobs said in a typical broadside. "They have absolutely no taste. And I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their products."

This is not the sort of unvarnished comment you ever hear the founders of Google, say, publicly expressing about Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, or vice versa. "We're mourning Steve because we don't have much of his passion and directness in corporate life these days," said Jay Elliot, a former Apple executive who has written a book about learning from Mr. Jobs's lessons in leadership. "He wasn't driven by the stock price."

Like many big tech companies, Apple has a formidable public relations staff, but Mr. Jobs was not constrained by this either. People knew his e-mail -- "sjobs@apple.com" -- and sent him queries and complaints. He often responded, if tersely. A persistent effort by a college student complaining about her inability to get information from the famously reticent P.R. staff finally elicited a testy "please leave us alone."

Mr. Jobs's self-confidence could sometimes be indistinguishable from arrogance and self-aggrandizement. At an Apple Halloween party during the wild early years, he reportedly came dressed as Jesus. (In a rare tribute for a lay person, Mr. Jobs's career was celebrated Thursday on the front page of the Vatican newspaper.) But it was an arrogance tempered by faith in the power of technology to improve lives.

The satirical newspaper The Onion underscored this point nicely in its news story on Mr. Jobs's death. The headline, modified here to replace an expletive, said: "Last American Who Knew What the Heck He Was Doing Dies."

Funny, but it is deep in the nature of Silicon Valley to challenge such sentiments. "I don't want to take anything away from the guy, he was brilliant and uncompromising and wonderful, but there's a level of adulation that goes beyond what is merited," said Tim O'Reilly, chief executive of the tech publisher O'Reilly Media. "There will be revolutions and revolutionaries to come."

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