Steve Jobs: The Story Of The Man Behind The Personal Computer
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The movie "Steve Jobs," with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin based on the best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson, opens today in New York and LA. Today on FRESH AIR, we'll listen back to Terry's 2011 interview with Isaacson and hear what our film critic, David Edelstein, thinks of the film. But let's start with an excerpt of an interview Terry recorded with Steve Jobs himself. They spoke in 1996.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
From what I've read, it sounds like you were really the advocate for having a mouse on the Mac. Why did you push for that and what was the argument against it?
STEVE JOBS: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I went to Xerox PARC, Palo Alto Research Center, in 1979 and I saw the early work on graphical user interfaces that they had done. And they had a mouse, and it was obvious that you needed a pointing device and a mouse seemed to be the best one. We tried a bunch of other ones subsequently at Apple and a mouse indeed was the best one. We refined it a little bit.
We found that, you know, Xerox's had three buttons. We found that people would push the wrong button or be scared that they were going to push the wrong button, so they always looked at the mouse instead of the screen. So we got it down to one button so that you could never push the wrong button, made some refinements like that.
The Xerox, you know, mouse cost about $1,000 a piece to build. We had to engineer one that cost 20 bucks to build. So we had to do a lot of those kinds of things. But the basic concept of the mouse came originally from a company called SRI, through Xerox and then to Apple. And there were a lot of people at Apple that just didn't get it. We fought tooth and nail with a variety of people there who thought the whole concept of a graphical user interface was crazy, but fortunate...
GROSS: On what grounds?
JOBS: On the grounds that it either couldn't be done, or on the grounds that real computer users didn't need, you know, menus in plain English, and real computer users didn't care about, you know, putting nice little pictures on the screen. But fortunately, I was the largest stockholder and the chairman of the company, so I won.
BIANCULLI: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. Jobs died in 2011, the same year our next guest, Walter Isaacson, released an authorized biography titled "Steve Jobs." That's also the name of the movie about him opening today in New York and LA. Isaacson describes Jobs as the greatest business executive of our era, having revolutionized six industries - personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computers and digital publishing. You could even add a seventh - retailing. Jobs chose an esteemed biographer to write his story. Isaacson is the author of biographies of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. This interview was recorded in 2011.
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GROSS: Walter Isaacson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Steve Jobs wasn't the inventor of a lot of the products that he's known for. He didn't literally design them. Would you explain exactly what his role was in creating things like the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone? Choose one example.
WALTER ISAACSON: Steve Jobs didn't invent anything outright, but he invented the future by putting together remarkable inventions and ideas. For example, he walks into Xerox PARC in the 1980s, early 1980s, and sees this graphical user interface that Xerox had created. Xerox didn't know what to do with it, but instead of having...
GROSS: Explain what a graphical user interface is.
ISAACSON: Instead of having those little, awful C-prompts that you and I remember of a green line on sort of a black screen, and you have to do command-execute, that sort of thing, you have what we see today on all computer screens, which is icons and folders and documents. And you use a mouse and you click on them.
All of that was invented at Xerox PARC, but Xerox ended up producing a computer that was totally worthless with it, and Steve Jobs made an arrangement with Xerox. They invested in Apple. And he went and he took that concept, and he improved it a hundredfold.
He made it so that you could drag and drop some of the folders, and you could do all the double-clicking. He invented the pull-down menus, along with this Macintosh team he had in the early 1980s. So what he was able to do was to take a conception and turn it into reality. And that's where the genius was, was connecting art with technology.
GROSS: He even got involved with colors and, you know, with how the computer physically looked, what color it was. One person he worked with complained that there were 2,000 shades of beige that were available, but Steve Jobs wanted to create his own because the other 2,000 shades of beige weren't good enough. I think this was for the Apple II.
ISAACSON: This is, yeah, one of the original computers they did. And he just obsessed over the color, the color of the screws, the finish of the screws, even the screws you couldn't see.
His father taught him, when he was a young kid and they were building a fence or a cabinet, he would say even the parts unseen should be beautiful because although nobody else will know, you will know whether or not you used great craftsmanship.
And so even with the original Macintosh, he makes sure that the circuit board, that all of the chips are lined up properly and look good. He made them go back and redo the circuit board. He made them find the right color, have the right curves on the screw, and even the sort of curves on the machine, he wanted it to feel friendly.
The original Macintosh, he wanted it to look like a human face but not a Neanderthal face. So he made the top a little bit narrower. And if you remember the old Macintosh, it does look like something friendly, something smiling at you.
GROSS: So did this obsessiveness drive his team crazy?
ISAACSON: It drove them crazy, but they became very loyal. It's one of the dichotomies about Jobs is he could be demanding and tough - at times, you know, really berating people and being irate. On the other hand, he got all A-players, and they became fanatically loyal to him. Why? Because they realized they were producing with other A-players truly great products for an artist who was a perfectionist and frankly wasn't always the kindest person when they failed. But they knew that, you know, he was rallying them to do good stuff.
GROSS: You say that starting in 1981, the Mac team gave out an award to someone on the team who best stood up to Steve Jobs.
ISAACSON: Absolutely, and this is typical of Jobs is that he could push people, but he loved to be pushed back. He loved to get into arguments. And so the first year, it was won by Joanna Hoffman, a woman who's from a Central European background. And, you know, she would always just tell Steve no.
At one point, she goes storming up the stairs and tells everybody I'm going to just stab him because he's, you know, making up projections that will never work. And she won it again the second year. But the third year, this new woman, Debbie Coleman, decided she was going to try to win the award, and she did.
Steve loved it, and both Joanna Hoffman and Debbie Coleman got themselves promoted. So as tough as he was as a boss, he liked people to be tough under him.
GROSS: Now, why did he want Apple to have its own operating system, one that would only run on Apple products?
ISAACSON: Jobs was an artist. It was like he didn't want his beautiful software to run on somebody else's junky hardware, or vice versa - for somebody else's bad operating system to be running on his hardware. He felt that the end-to-end integration of hardware and software made for the best user experience. And that's one of the divides of the digital age because Microsoft, for example, or Google's Android, they license the operating system to a whole bunch of hardware makers.
But you don't get that pristine user experience that Jobs as a perfectionist wanted if you don't integrate the hardware, the software, the content, the devices, all into one seamless unit.
GROSS: So how did this work for and against Steve Jobs?
ISAACSON: It was not a great business model, at first, to insist that if you wanted the Apple operating system, you had to buy the Apple hardware and vice versa. And Microsoft, which licenses itself promiscuously to all sorts of hardware manufacturers, ends up with 90 to 95 percent of the operating system market, you know, by the beginning of 2000.
But in the long run, the end-to-end integration works very well for Apple and for Steve Jobs because it allows him to create devices that just work beautifully with the machines - for example, the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. They're all seamlessly integrated.
GROSS: My favorite example in the book, I think, of how much of a control freak he was with his products, Steve Jobs is asked by a real, like, Apple fan to autograph an Apple keyboard. And then Jobs insists on removing certain keys that were added to the keyboard during his hiatus from Apple, after he was ousted, before he returned.
So the person who wanted the keyboard autographed had to remove the function keys - the F1, F2, F3, F4 keys - and had to remove the cursor keys. So... (Laughing)
ISAACSON: Steve Jobs was insistent that everything be perfect, and he didn't like cursor keys because he wanted people to use the point-and-click graphical operating system. So he said there should be no cursor keys on the keyboard. After he leaves, they put them on. So when that student asked him to autograph it, Steve himself takes out his car keys and pries off the cursor keys and the function keys that he thinks are superfluous on the keyboard of the Macintoshes that were being built after he left. And he says, I'm improving the world one keyboard at a time.
BIANCULLI: Walter Isaacson, author of the biography "Steve Jobs," speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry’s 2011 interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs. A new movie based on his book, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, opens today in New York and LA.
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GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about Steve Jobs' relationship with Bill Gates; incredible rivals, but early on, they were going to collaborate. What was the nature of the original collaboration?
ISAACSON: Well, Microsoft, founded by Bill Gates, made some of the original software for the Apple II - software called BASIC, which, you know, is sort of an easy programming language. And what Steve Jobs wanted when he was coming up with the idea of this beautiful new Macintosh that would have this almost playroom-like graphical design and interface was to get Microsoft to write word processing software, spreadsheet software, everything for the Macintosh.
So he goes and visits Bill Gates. They have what I call in the book a binary star system relationship, meaning the gravitational pull of the other affects the orbit. So they have interlinked orbits for almost 30 years. So Gates loves the Macintosh, and he goes down and puts a whole team on it, and they create Word and spreadsheets and Excel and others for the Mac and become one of the biggest software developers for the Mac.
One of the things that Jobs then worried about was that Bill Gates and Microsoft would take the idea of a graphical interface and make their own operating system that copied some of the look and the feel because back then, Microsoft was making an operating system that had all these command lines and C-prompts.
And indeed, Bill Gates decides, of course, like any other computer manufacturer, we should go this graphical route, to show - you know, let people point and click at folders and icons on the screen. So he does begin to create Windows, and that drives Steve Jobs to distraction.
He thinks that he's been ripped off by Microsoft. And indeed, even though you can't copyright the look and feel of a computer, I understand Jobs' feelings, which was he had helped create this beautiful interface. And Bill Gates said, well, you broke into Xerox PARC and stole it; we broke in and saw the Xerox machines as well, and - not broke in, but we saw the machines as well. Everybody's going to do graphical interfaces.
So there are really two sides of that story, and I can understand both sides. But it did become a real source of friction where Jobs just simply felt that Bill Gates didn't come up with anything inventive and just sort of took the ideas that the Macintosh had and created Windows.
GROSS: So do Apple and Microsoft continue to work together after Jobs feels so ripped off by Windows?
ISAACSON: Yes, they do, but there are all sorts of lawsuits where Apple’s trying to sue Microsoft for Windows, for stealing the look and feel. Apple loses most of the suits. But they drag on, and there's even a government investigation.
So by the time Steve Jobs comes back to Apple in 1997, the relationship is horrible between Apple and Microsoft. And when we say that Jobs and Gates had a rivalry, we also have to realize they had a collaboration and a partnership. It was typical of the digital age, which is sort of both rivalry and partnership.
And one of the first calls that Steve Jobs makes when he comes back to Apple in 1997 is to Bill Gates, saying come, we have to talk because we have to resolve this problem, and we have to get you making great software for the Macintosh computer again instead of suing each other.
GROSS: And is that what happened?
ISAACSON: Yes. And Apple had been negotiating with Microsoft for months and months with hundreds of pages of some sort of settlement of all their lawsuits. And Jobs just does what he often does, which is focus and simplify. And he says, here's all we need to do - a commitment that you'll make software for the Macintosh, an investment by Microsoft in Apple and let's just resolve everything.
And they do it within a few weeks, just walking around, talking with Gates and one of Gates' top deputies. And they cut through all the clutter and are able - Steve Jobs is able to announce a deal at the end of - in 1997 at MacWorld in Boston.
GROSS: So when Jobs returned to Apple in '97, after he was ousted in '85, Apple was not in very good shape. Did this…
ISAACSON: It was about 90 days away from bankruptcy.
GROSS: So did this pact that Jobs and Gates arrange help save Apple?
ISAACSON: Yes, absolutely, and it gave everybody confidence that there would be new Apple operating systems, that there would always be software for it. And I think that - Bill Gates says in my book they always liked working with Apple and with Steve.I think there was sort of a joy that they could collaborate again.
GROSS: Gates and Jobs are two, like, the two giants of the, you know, computer and software world. How would you compare their approaches to their work and what drove Jobs and what drives Gates?
ISAACSON: Right, they were both born in 1955. They're both college dropouts. But, you know, Steve Jobs dropped out to sort of eventually wander off to India and seek enlightenment and really got into the counterculture, experimented with drugs.
You know, Bill Gates drops out to form a software company. And he was much, you know, sort of more driven and smart when it came to the mental processing power you need to create and code software. Steve Jobs was more intuitive, operated in a much more volatile manner as opposed to sort of the sharp, crisp meetings that Bill Gates would have.
In the end, I think the biggest difference is that Jobs was very much a genius when it came to aesthetics, design, consumer desire. And Bill Gates was a genius when it came to - here's a business model that can work with great operating systems. And he was much more of a focused businessperson than Jobs was.
GROSS: So now, we talked a little bit about Jobs' relationship with Bill Gates. What about his relationship with Google? Like, for example, you say Jobs was really angry when Google started going into the phone business and developed the Droid. Why wouldn't he expect that Google or another company would try to, you know, copy and improve on, if they could, the iPhone?
ISAACSON: I think there was an unnerving historic resonance from what had happened a couple of decades earlier, which is Microsoft takes the graphical operating system of the Mac and starts licensing it around. Suddenly you have Google taking the operating system of the iPhone and mobile devices and all the touchscreen technology and look and feel and building upon it and making it an open technology that various device-makers could use.
So it was the same type of thing that had happened earlier, and Steve Jobs felt very possessive about all of the look, the feel, the swipes, the multi-touch, you know, gestures that you use and was driven to absolute distraction when Android's operating system, developed by Google, used by many hardware manufacturers, started doing the exact same thing.
Would you expect that to happen? Yeah. That's the way things happen in this world. But it also - would you expect Jobs to be furious about it? He was furious. In fact, that probably understates his feeling. He was really furious. And he let Eric Schmidt, who was then the CEO of Google, know it. They had even a breakfast - coffee at one point in which Jobs says, I'm not interested in just your money. I want you to stop ripping us off.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more personally about Steve Jobs' life. When he was I guess in his 20s, that's when he started being interested in Zen Buddhism. He spent time in India. So he was really interested in the Buddhist view of life. Yet, you say he was driven by demons. What do you think some of those demons were?
ISAACSON: I think that he felt slightly apart from the world because of his adoption - being adopted, meaning he was part of the world he lived in but also separate from it. He felt somewhat chosen because his adoptive parents, when he said whoa, the girl across - when he was 6 years old, the girl across the street from him said, oh, you're adopted; that means your parents abandoned you and didn't want you.
So he runs in to see his adoptive parents, the people he considers his real parents, and they say, no, no, no, you're special. We specially picked you out. You were chosen by us. And that helps give him a sense of being special and chosen.
So I think everybody's driven to some extent by, you know, the things in their background. But for Steve Jobs, it was particularly intense, and he felt throughout his life, he told me that he was on a journey. And he said, the journey is the reward. That was one of the Zen, you know, phrases that he loved to repeat. But that journey involved resolving some of the conflicts about his role in this world, why he was here, you know, what it was all about.
BIANCULLI: Walter Isaacson, author of "Steve Jobs," speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. His book is the basis of the film "Steve Jobs," which opens today in New York and LA. We'll hear more of their conversation and another excerpt from Terry's 1996 interview with Steve Jobs himself after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Back with more of Terry's 2011 interview with Walter Isaacson. He’s the author of the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, the book on which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin based his screenplay of the new movie, also called "Steve Jobs." The film opens today in New York and LA. Walter Isaacson, in addition to chronicling how Jobs revolutionized personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computers and digital publishing, also wrote about Jobs’ personal story. When we left off, Isaacson was describing how being adopted left Jobs feeling abandoned by his birth parents and chosen by his adoptive parents.
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GROSS: Who were his biological parents, and why did they give them up?
ISAACSON: His biological parents were a Syrian graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, a guy named Abdul Fattah Jandali, who had come over from Homs, Syria, and ended up in a relationship with another graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Joanne Schieble, and she got pregnant. They went to Syria together, actually, during the summer, and she comes back pregnant. She's from a very tight-knit Catholic community near Green Bay - or in Green Bay, Wis. And so she goes out, doesn't - they can't get married. Her father is a strict Catholic, and he's dying. So she decides...
GROSS: He threatens to disown her if they get married.
ISAACSON: Yes. He also felt that way about previous boyfriends who weren't Catholic, so I don't think it had anything to do with being Syrian, necessarily. It was just that he was a strict father who was, you know, very upset when his daughter was having relationships, especially with people who weren't part of the Catholic community. She goes out, then, to San Francisco and finds a kindly doctor whose job it was to take unwed pregnant women under wing and help them give birth and then help arrange for private adoptions.
GROSS: So she insisted that the adoptive parents of her baby be college graduates.
ISAACSON: That was the one stipulation she made. Both she and the father of the child, you know, believe very much in education. And in the end, they at first put - the baby, Steve Jobs, is given to a lawyer and his wife. Actually, both of them, I think, are lawyers. But for reasons that are slightly unclear - Steve said it's because they wanted a girl. Whatever it may have been, Steve is taken out of that family and instead is adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. And he never went to college, in fact, dropped out of high school. He was a repo man, a guy who repossessed cars, you know, for a finance company, been in the Coast Guard. His wife was a, you know, daughter of Armenian refugees. And so when Steve got placed with that family, his biological mother balked at first at signing the adoption papers, but finally did so when the Jobs family made a pledge that they would start a college fund and make sure that Steve went to college.
GROSS: So there's a really interesting story about Steve Jobs finding out who his biological parents are. First, he finds out about his mother. How does he find that out?
ISAACSON: He writes - he wants to find who his biological mother is in the mid-1980s, and he discovers on his birth certificate that there's the name of this doctor. He calls the doctor up in San Francisco. This is the one who had sheltered Joanne Schieble when she was having the child and says I'd like to know who my biological mother is. And the doctor says, I'm sorry, all my records were destroyed in a fire. I can't tell you who that is.
The doctor actually wasn't telling the truth. And that night, the doctor writes a letter, says to Steve Jobs, to be delivered upon my death. And it says who his biological mother is. In one of those coincidences of Steve's life, the doctor dies pretty soon thereafter. And Steve Jobs gets this letter. It says the name of his mother. His mother is then living. He finds a detective. They find that she's now living in Los Angeles. And he contacts her through the detective, the lawyer, and then meets her. And she is very loving and also explains sort of tearfully that she didn't really want to give him up. And he says don't worry, everything turned out OK. I just want to thank you.
GROSS: And then how does he find out who his father is, his biological father?
ISAACSON: So his biological mother says there's something I have to tell you, which is you have a sister, a sister that I didn't put up for adoption, born a year - two - a couple years later. And the sister is Mona Simpson, now an incredibly famous and great novelist, then a struggling and aspiring novelist working for George Plimpton's magazine, The Paris Review, in New York.
GROSS: And her best-known book is called "Anywhere But Here."
ISAACSON: Which, "Anywhere but Here" describes sort of the wandering track of her and her mother, Joanne Schieble, the - Steve's mother, biological mother, as they travel across the country from Wisconsin and eventually end up in Los Angeles. And the mother, shall we say, is delightful but very, very quirky. So it should not surprise you to know that the mother - and the mother gets a lawyer involved - contacts Mona to say you have a brother. But instead of saying your brother is Steve Jobs who used to be at Apple Computers, just left Apple and is, you know, a famous and rich person, simply says, you have a brother. And I'm not going to tell you who he is, but he's famous. He's rich. He used to be poor. He has dark hair, whatever.
And so at The Paris Review, for the next few days, they're all trying to guess who this lost brother of Mona Simpson is. And they finally decide it's John Travolta, probably. That was sort of the most popular of guesses. But Joanne Schieble arrives in New York. They, I think, go to the St. Regis Hotel. Steve Jobs is introduced to Mona Simpson, and they bond totally for the rest of their lives because, as Steve often says, it was just a pleasure to find that I had a sister who was also an artist.
GROSS: At this point, he can find out who his father is - biological father. And it turns out it's somebody who he already had some connection to. So tell us who - what that connection was between Steve Jobs and his biological father.
ISAACSON: It's one of the astonishing sort of coincidences of Steve's magical life, which is Mona Simpson, the sister, helps track down the lost father, Jandali, the Syrian graduate student, and finds that he's running a coffee shop in Sacramento, Calif. And so tells Steve - Mona goes to meet and find Jandali at the coffee shop. And Steve says don't even tell him about me because Steve doesn't really want to meet him. He feels, you know, the guy abandoned Mona, abandoned him. There's no reason to meet him.
So Mona goes to the coffee shop and Jandali gets, I think, probably rather emotional. They talk for a long time. He says that they had had another child, but we’ll never hear from him again. And Mona's kind of aghast and doesn't say anything. And then Jandali says I used to run a really great restaurant, you know, near Cupertino. I wish you could have seen me then. Everybody used to come to that restaurant, even Steve Jobs used to come to the restaurant. Mona, of course, looks shocked and doesn't say well, Steve Jobs is your son. And Jandali looked at her and says oh, yes, Steve Jobs. He was a good tipper.
But Mona never says to Jandali Steve Jobs is your son. But she goes back, reports this conversation to her brother, Steve. And Steve says oh, yeah. The guy who ran that restaurant, I remember him. He was a fat, balding Syrian guy. And Steve decides - you know, he had met him a couple of times, I think shook his hand at the restaurant. And Steve decides, no, I don't ever see that guy again and doesn't.
GROSS: So he never meets him. I mean, he met him before, but he never meets him as his son.
ISAACSON: No. Never after that meets him.
BIANCULLI: Walter Isaacson, author of the biography "Steve Jobs," speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography of and titled "Steve Jobs." A new movie based on his book, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, opens today in New York and LA.
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GROSS: Steve Jobs didn't ask to have any control over the biography you were writing of him. He didn't even want to read the manuscript before it was published. But when he saw the cover, he wanted to change it. What was the original cover? What didn't he like about it?
ISAACSON: The original cover put in the catalog, or an early database, had sort of an Apple logo with a young picture of Steve. And it was kind of slightly gimmicky. And it had a title, "iSteve," that was definitely gimmicky, that both my daughter, my wife, a lot of friends said, oh, that's far too gimmicky.
And it was one of the times he got really angry at me. He said, well, I'm not going to cooperate anymore because - and there were some words I can't use on the air. He said, you know, this stinks, but he said it in stronger language. And then he said, you know, I will keep working with you and giving you interviews but only if you let me have some input and, you know, into the design of the cover. It took me about one or two seconds to think, wow, that's a great offer. Here's a guy with the best design taste I've ever met.
ISAACSON: So I said, great. Sure. And it's the only thing he focused on. I think he kind of believes nobody's really going to read the book, but they are going to see the cover. And he felt that people - he told me. He said, people will somehow think I've been involved with the cover of this book and the design of it because they know my passions in that field, so I have to be. And so I said, sure. And I put it in the book itself, in the introduction, just so everybody knows, you know, that was an involvement of his in this book.
GROSS: So did he choose the photograph?
ISAACSON: We spent a lot of time on the photographs that - it was the photograph I wanted. It's a wonderful Albert Watson photograph taken in - you know, for Fortune magazine in 2009, I think, or it appeared then. I think there were four or five photographs. That's the one I strongly preferred, along with the one on the back, which is a Norman Seeff portrait taken for Rolling Stone, in January of '84 it ran, and him holding the Mac.
That got juggled quite a bit, but he finally approved and said, yeah, OK. Those are the two best pictures. And he also suggested it be in black-and-white, that it be a shiny, glossy cover - I mean, that there'd be a high-quality paper and stark whiteness and a good gloss coating on the cover. So those were the inputs he had on the cover, but he never asked to read the book. But I never quite understood why his legendary desire for control did not extend to wanting to control the book. And when I'd ask him, he'd say, well, it's better if it's an independent book. That's probably better in terms of establishing the credibility of the book.
GROSS: So when you use your Mac or iPhone or iPod, iPad - I imagine you have that stuff, especially since you've been writing about Jobs - what do you see differently about your computer or your devices because you've talked to Steve Jobs so many times, because you got to know him so well?
ISAACSON: I see the depth of the simplicity. I see the fact that when I go on an interface on a different machine, one that's not an Apple machine, I might have to hit a button that says start in order to shut down a machine. And I think that's not intuitive. But if I'm looking at the interface on my iPhone and I don't quite know how to do something, I'll touch what I think intuitively is probably the way to do it on the menu, and boom, magically, it always - or often seems to work. So that intuitive nature of the design and how he would repeatedly sit there with his design engineers and his interface software people and say no, no, no. I want to make it simpler. I want to make it easier. I've appreciated that.
And I also appreciate the beauty of the parts unseen. As I said before, his father taught him that the back of the fence, the back of a chest of drawers should be as beautiful as the front because you will know the craftsmanship that went into it. And so somehow, it comes through the depth of the beauty of the design when I'm, you know, using my iPad, for example.
GROSS: Well, Walter Isaacson, thank you so much for talking with us about Steve Jobs. It's been really interesting, and I really appreciate it.
ISAACSON: I appreciate being on with you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Walter Isaacson speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. His biography of Steve Jobs is the basis of a new movie, opening today in New York in LA, also called "Steve Jobs."
And now let's hear a little more of Terry's 1996 interview with Steve Jobs himself.
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GROSS: What do you think the state of the computer would be if it weren't for Apple? This is a chance, I guess, for a really self-serving answer. But, I mean, I'm really curious what you think.
JOBS: I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.
GROSS: Yeah, explain what you mean by that.
JOBS: You know, if you really look at the ease of use of the Macintosh, the driving motivation behind that was to bring not only ease of use to people so that many, many more people could use computers for nontraditional things at that time. But it was to bring, you know, beautiful fonts and typography to people. It was to bring graphics to people, not for, you know, plotting laminar flow calculations but so that they could see beautiful photographs or pictures or artwork. Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been, you know, a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience. That's the seed of Apple - you know, computers for the rest of us. And I think the sort of - the liberal arts point of view still lives at Apple. I'm not so sure that it lives that many other places. I mean, one of the reasons I think Microsoft took 10 years to copy the Mac was 'cause they didn't really get it at its core.
GROSS: What was the very first computer you had?
JOBS: I was very lucky. I was born in San Francisco, and I grew up in Silicon Valley. And I was able to go to NASA AMES Research Center nearby and play with the timesharing computer, which was a – you know, a loud mechanical terminal hooked up with a wire somewhere. And there was supposedly a computer on the other end of it. And I got a chance to, you know, program in FORTRAN and BASIC and . . .
GROSS: Those are the computer languages of the time.
JOBS: The computer languages of the time. And I was captured by it.
GROSS: How did you get into the business? What made you think this is going to be my life?
JOBS: I met my future partner in Apple, Steve Wozniak, when I was about - oh, I guess about 13 years old. He was the first person I met that knew more about electronics and computers than I did at the time. And we became fast friends and started to build electronic devices together. We built blue boxes together for a while, which were little devices that could allow you to make free phone calls everywhere - illegally, I might add. And . . .
GROSS: Oh, so you were a hacker.
JOBS: Yeah. Yeah. We built the first digital blue box in the whole world. It was wonderful. We had – our tagline, which – we put a little card on the bottom of each one - was he's got the whole world in his hands.
JOBS: And the reason we built a computer was that we wanted one, and we couldn’t afford one. We couldn’t afford to buy one. They were thousands of dollars at that time. We were just two teenagers. So we started trying to build them, you know, scrounging parts around Silicon Valley where we could. And after a few attempts, we managed to put together something that was the Apple I, and all of our friends wanted them, too. They wanted to build them. So it turned out that it took maybe 50 hours to build one of these things by hand, and it was taking up all of our spare time because our friends were not that skilled at building them, so Woz and I were building them for them. And we thought, you know, if we could just get what’s called a printed circuit board, where you could just kind of plug in the parts instead of having to hand-wire the whole thing, we could cut the assembly time down from, you know, maybe 50 hours to more like, you know, an hour. And so Woz sold his HP calculator and I sold my VW Microbus, and we got enough money together to pay someone to design one of these printed circuit boards for us. And our goal was to just sell them as raw printed circuit boards to our friends and make enough money to recoup our calculator and transportation.
And what happened was that one of the early computers - in fact, the first computer store in the world, which was in Mountain View at the time, said well, I'll take 50 of these computers, but I want them fully assembled, which was a twist that we’d never thought of. So we went and bought the parts to build 100 computers, and we built 50 of them and delivered them. And then we got paid in cash and ran back and paid the people that sold us parts for the parts.
And we had - then we had the classic Marxian profit realization crisis, which was our profit wasn't liquid. It was in 50 computers sitting on the floor. So we decided we had to start learning about sales and distribution so that we could sell the 50 computers and get back our money. And that's how we got into business.
And we took our idea to a few companies, one where Woz worked and one where I worked at the time. And neither one was interested in pursuing it, so we started our own company.
BIANCULLI: That was Steve Jobs in an interview with Terry Gross, recorded in 1996. He died in 2011. A new movie about him called "Steve Jobs" opens today in New York and LA. Next up, film critic David Edelstein will review that movie. This is FRESH AIR.