ACCELER8OR

Nov 29 2011

The Impatience (And Genius) Of Jobs: An Interview with Walter Isaacson

I never felt a particularly intense curiosity about the life and personality of Steve Jobs until the night he died.  Oh sure, he was a sort of hip entrepreneur from the baby boom, so there was always a glimmer of interest — somewhat along the same lines as the vague interest I would have in the life of Richard Branson.  But my tastes in favorite biographies would tend to the more extravagant; a Timothy Leary or a Keith Richards or an Antonin Artaud or a Salvador Dali (and I must confess to a taste for the occasional bio of a power mad dictator).   Entrepreneurs, however extravagant or autocratic in their realm, would come up short in terms of satisfying whatever perverse delights in abused privilege, eccentricity, cosmic ambition and/or mighty flame-out I might hope to find in my favorite biographies.

But on the night Jobs passed, I took a look around my home and realized that my world is intimately suffused with the ghost of Jobs’s creativity — all those beautifully designed complex and total-package mechanisms for communication and creation are deeply woven into the proverbial fabric of my life.  Plus, he was one of those successful acidheads whose embrace psychedelic veterans like myself like to wave as a banner against the clichéd assumptions the mainstream has about those who have dipped their psyches in that font of lucid vision and/or sensory overload (depending).

I immediately contacted Walter Isaacson to find out if I could get a copy of his then-upcoming official Steve Jobs biography for Acceler8or and interview him about it.

The bio did not disappoint.  While no one reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson would come away comparing Jobs’s excesses and temperament to, say, an original dadaist or a major 1960s rock god, by most lights, he had personality and artistic sensibility to spare — and his visionary sense of self and determined refusal to do anything any other way than his own — makes for a lively and compelling read.

Isaacson lets his own prose sparkle as never before — including a use of playful titles and subtitles.  It’s fun.

I conversed with Walter Isaacson via email.

RU SIRIUS: At the halfway mark in reading the book, my most prominent thought is…. nobody could emulate this guy – his behaviors or even his business strategies and methods — and expect to succeed in business.  More likely, someone else would get punched in the head fairly frequently.  So I guess to formulate this as a question: what do you think about this observation…  and… is Jobs the most unique dude you’ve ever covered as a writer and journalist? Would you compare him to anybody?

WALTER ISAACSON: Steve is by far the most intense person I ever met, and he’s filled with contradictions. Who can I compare him to?  NOBODY! He was more inspiring than anyone I ever met, and also the least filtered. “I’m a black-and-white kind of person,” he told me when urging me not to use a color picture of him on the cover of the book, and he even thought in black and white: You were a hero or a shithead. He could taste two similar avocados and proclaim one to be the best ever grown and the other to be inedible. Most of us have a filter, so that if our first reaction is that something sucks we pause or temper our words. Steve was brutally honest. That made him seem like an asshole at times. But it also ended up making him charismatic and someone who could create a loyal team.

RU. I’ve never seen Jobs’s acidhead hippie aspect foregrounded to this degree, particularly in the early part of the book.  It’s sort of a weird contradictory relationship to counterculture.  I have my own thoughts about this, but let’s start with yours.

WI: Steve represented the fusion of many strands. One was the hippie, counterculture, anti-authority, drugs, rock, rebel spirit of the late Sixties. Another was the hacker, wirehead, phone phreaker, geek hobbyist culture. You melded both of these when you launched Mondo 2000 in the 1980s. To these two cultural strands, Steve also added the entrepreneurial, startup, business mentality that was arising in the 1970s in Silicon Valley, especially after the advent of the microchip. He embodied a lot of contradictions. A seeker of Buddhist enlightenment who becomes a billionaire businessman. A misfit, acid-dropping, counterculture rebel who is a tough businessman. Someone with a new age and alternative spirit who also is a believer in technology and rational science. It all seems a bit weird, but it’s also kind of cool.

RU: Did you see any interest on his part in the political aspects of counterculture… aside from loving Joan Baez?  Did he ever reference the antiwar movement or civil liberties struggles or environmental issues or even the war on drugs, to your knowledge?

WA:  He didn’t seem all that interested in politics. His main interest was education reform. He really thought the school days should be longer; teachers should not have tenure, etc. He wanted to make ads for Obama in 2008, but wasn’t on the same wavelength as David Axelrod.

RU:  One area where he contradicts most countercultural sensibilities was in his making Apple very much the opposite of open source and free software and all that.  What intrigued me in the book was that he seems not to be motivated so much by greed as by artistic sensibility.  He saw himself as an artist and he was the director of these creations — almost like Hitchcock making a movie.  It had to be just so.

WA: He really looked at himself as an artist. And he had the temperament of one. He was demanding, a perfectionist, and sometimes a control freak. He said he cared more about making beautiful products than about making a profit, and I believe him.

RU: For those of us who were around in the early days of digital culture, you could say Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in one breath… sort of like Lennon and McCartney.  So was Wozniak a fluke?  Did Jobs ever imply that he viewed it that way?

WA: Woz was not a fluke. Steve Jobs said he was 50 times better than any engineer he had ever met. He was particularly brilliant at a very specialized thing: designing circuit boards using the minimal number of chips. But the importance of that talent waned, and he did not care about the other aspects of Apple.

RU: Did he have a Sancho Panza… a partner outside of his family who sort of stuck by him?… or at least some career long accomplices about whom you could tell us a bit about their relationships?

WA: One of Steve Jobs’s longtime mentors was Mike Markkula, the first real investor in Apple. He became a mentor. He taught Jobs about focus and marketing and packaging. But he sided with John Sculley in the showdown of 1985, and when Steve returned in 1997 he asked Markkula to leave the Apple board.

RU: You were surprised that Steve asked you to write a biography and gave you free reign over it, given his love of privacy and control.  Did he ever waiver?  Any freak out moments when he tried to shut you down… or where you worried he might do that?

WI: The one thing I could never fully understand was why Steve Jobs did not insist on more control over the book. He kept saying he didn’t want to see it in advance. He said he knew I would write things that would make him mad, but he wanted me to be honest. He said he wanted to avoid any perception that it was an in-house book. He wanted it to feel independent. The only time he interfered was when he saw a proposed cover design and thought it was ugly. He asked for input into the cover. I agreed.

RU: What did you learn that surprised you most about his personal life as you researched the book?

WI: What most surprised me about his personal life was how it was connected to his professional life. He was intense and emotional in both. In both cases, he had a romantic new age side and a sensible, technological, rational, business side. These two sides ended up connecting in both his personal life and business life. In his personal life, the two strands connected in his marriage. It was both a romantic and rational marriage.

RU:  I indicated at the beginning of this interview that Jobs was so unique that no budding entrepreneur could benefit from emulating him.  But I wonder, what lessons are there in this bio for people who want to make world changing art or technology?

WI: The most important lesson is to have a passion for connecting art with technology. It was the lesson of the fusion of the hippie and tech geek of the early 1970s, as reflected in Mondo 2000, and it’s embodied in Steve’s life.

RU:  Have you had any interesting responses to the book — for example, was anyone shocked or dismayed by the LSD references… or anything else?

WI:  Some people responded to the book by focusing on, and being shocked by, his petulance. That misses the point. I tried to make the narrative a tale of how the petulant personality was connected to his passion for perfection — and how eventually he made that inspiring rather than off-putting.

RU: Do you think Apple can keep up the magic without Jobs?

WI:  Apple has been infused with Steve’s belief in connecting art to technology. Tim Cook and Jony Ive get it. So do the other members of his top management team. They can make it work.

Jun 20 2011

Apple, Google, and the Future of the Cloud

A packed house of over 5,000 software developers watched as Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the latest operating systems for the Mac computer and for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch at the recent Apple World Wide Developers’ Conference 2011. He also talked about a new service, iCloud, which stores content on remote servers and makes synchronization of multiple Apple devices, Macs, and PCs as easy as using Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes.

Here Steve Jobs introduces the concept of iCloud (video courtesy of CNET):

Cloud computing, where documents, data and more are stored remotely so you can access them from a connected machine like an iPad or a computer, is not a new concept.  It was most probably derived from the diagrams of clouds used to represent the Internet in textbooks and resulted when telecommunications companies made a radical shift from point-to-point data circuits to Virtual Private Network (VPN) services in the 1990s. By optimizing computer resource utilization through load balancing, they could get their work done more efficiently and inexpensively.

But leave it to Apple to bring the Cloud to the masses in a big way (although it was Google Docs in 2006 which really brought cloud computing to the forefront of public consciousness). While the jury is still out on whether Google docs is a serious competitor to Microsoft’s Office suite — researchers from Pennsylvania State University recently determined that the cost of running small workloads though may actually be more expensive for larger compute jobs, compared to the costs of running such work in-house — there are still many Google Docs success stories. And Google continues to enhance Google Docs with a recent upgrade including a new feature that lets users discuss shared documents in real-time.

Unlike Google’s cloud-based service, Apple’s iCloud uses the cloud “to orchestrate data streams rather than control them” according to a recent ZDNet article. The cloud is used as a central repository for apps, music, media, documents, messages, photos, backups, settings, and more. Both Apple and Microsoft have been exploring the idea of a “central hub” of our digital life and work for over 10 years, with a variety of devices relying on it to coordinate content.

For Apple, the packaging of the this hub in the form of the iCloud service is also a sound business strategy. The New York Times reports that Apple’s iCloud has the potential to wipe out some existing web services and entire businesses with the integration of iCloud, Mac OS X Lion, and iOS 5. These businesses include: Instapaper, Red Pop hardware iPhone camera button, BlackBerry Messenger and GroupMe, Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music, Google Docs and Google Chromebook, and Dropbox.

While Apple wants your data now, Google’s entire strategy and approach to the cloud is based on a future vision of the Internet with low-cost, ubiquitous Internet access — including fiber connections in offices and homes and super-fast mobile broadband all over the world. Here is a fun video explaining the concepts behind Google’s Chrome OS:

Despite the cloud’s potential for cost savings and “reducing the hassles of running in-house computer servers,” the LA Times reports that  it may not yet be as safe as advertised. Because data from hundreds or thousands of companies can be stored on large cloud servers, hackers can theoretically gain control of huge stores of information through a single attack — a process called “hyperjacking.” Security professionals said the many attacks recently in the news reflect both an increase in hacking activity and new pressure on companies to quickly disclose when they’ve been attacked.

A recent study by Baseline shows that while many organizations are still holding back, fearful of security hacks, lost data, or lost control, a growing number of enterprises are driving their business to the cloud. They interviewed several companies including Kelly Services, Lionsgate Entertainment, HarperCollins Publishers, GWR Medical, Imperial Sugar, WhitePages, Suncorp, and Dubset.  Their  findings reinforce the opinions of the CEO panelists at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, held in Boston in May. The panelists at the keynote address, “Opportunities and Strategies in the Digital Business World,” spoke about the cloud as a way to free up capital so companies could take advantage of new business opportunities.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer implicitly acknowledged the importance of the cloud services in a recent interview — Microsoft is set to announce their answer to Google Docs: the Office 365 online service. And Jan Muehlfeit, European chairman of Microsoft Corp., sees the future in cloud computing.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, as well as Facebook (where many people already store the major events and interactions of their lives on the cloud) seem to be betting their billions on a cloud-based future.

What might this future look like?  SF writer Rick Moss poses some fascinating possibilities and questions in his new novel, Ebocloud.  The “ebocloud” is an internet social network subdivided into tribes formed by shared affinities (think Facebook). The cloud addresses, as one character says, “the primordial urge for belonging” and the end of aloneness. The cloud learns from the actions and interactions of each of the members (called cousins) who are connected to the cloud with “digital tattoos” using brain-stimulating and brain-computer interfacing nanotubes.

Moss asks what happens if the interaction with the cloud became two-way? What if the cloud could begin to affect emotions? “The objective of the human-cloud collective is to facilitate a feedback loop whereby human sensory data and biometrics are uploaded to the cloud to be aggregated, analyzed and used in various applications, then redistributed back to the human participants,” says Moss in a recent interview for H+ Magazine.  He sees this interaction resulting in what he calls a “social singularity,” a transhuman superintelligence emerging from “the cloud” network.

While Moss concedes that the technology is not yet in place for such a social singularity, he considers his novel a warning to future application developers: “The likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, with their billions to burn on wild-eyed notions, could very likely spur technological leaps in these areas. It would be nice if these developers were at least aware of the possibility of a social singularity so that they don’t stumble into the phenomenon blindly. That could be tragic.”