Steve Jobs: A Computer Icon On Life, Death And Apple
Originally published on Tue October 25, 2011 1:35 pm
When Steve Jobs was 6 years old, his young next door neighbor found out he was adopted. "That means your parents abandoned you and didn't want you," she told him.
Jobs ran into his home, where his adoptive parents reassured him that he was theirs and that they wanted him.
"[They said] 'You were special, we chose you out, you were chosen," says biographer Walter Isaacson. "And that helped give [Jobs] a sense of being special. ... For Steve Jobs, he felt throughout his life that he was on a journey — and he often said, 'The journey was the reward.' But that journey involved resolving conflicts about ... his role in this world: why he was here and what it was all about."
When Jobs died on Oct. 5 from complications of pancreatic cancer, many people felt a sense of personal loss for the Apple co-founder and former CEO. Jobs played a key role in the creation of the Macintosh, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad — innovative devices and technologies that people have integrated into their daily lives.
Jobs detailed how he created those products — and how he rose through the world of Silicon Valley, competed with Google and Microsoft, and helped transform popular culture — in a series of extended interviews with Isaacson, the president of The Aspen Institute and the author of biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. The two men met more than 40 times throughout 2009 and 2010, often in Jobs' living room. Isaacson also conducted more than 100 interviews with Jobs' colleagues, relatives, friends and adversaries.
His biography tells the story of how Jobs revolutionized the personal computer. It also tells Jobs' personal story — from his childhood growing up in Mountain View, Calif., to his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism to his relationship with family and friends.
In his last meetings with Isaacson, Jobs shifted the conversation to his thoughts regarding religion and death.
"I remember sitting in the back garden on a sunny day [on a day when] he was feeling bad, and he talked about whether or not he believed in an afterlife," Isaacson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "He said, 'Sometimes I'm 50-50 on whether there's a God. It's the great mystery we never quite know. But I like to believe there's an afterlife. I like to believe the accumulated wisdom doesn't just disappear when you die, but somehow it endures."
Jobs paused for a second, remembers Isaacson.
"And then he says, 'But maybe it's just like an on/off switch and click — and you're gone.' And then he paused for another second and he smiled and said, 'Maybe that's why I didn't like putting on/off switches on Apple devices.' "
'The Depth Of The Simplicity'
Jobs' attention to detail on his creations was unrivaled, says Isaacson. Though he was a technologist and a businessman, he was also an artist and designer.
"[He] connected art with technology," explains Isaacson. "[In his products,] he obsessed over the color of the screws, over the finish of the screws — even the screws you couldn't see." Even with the original Macintosh, he made sure that the circuit board's chips were lined up properly and looked good. He made them go back and redo the circuit board. He made them find the right color, find the right curves on the screw. Even the curves on the machine — he wanted it to feel friendly.
That obsessiveness occasionally drove his Apple co-workers crazy — but it also made them fiercely loyal, says Isaacson.
"It's one of the dichotomies about Jobs: He could be demanding and tough and irate. On the other hand, he got all A-players and they became fanatically loyal to him," says Isaacson. "Why? They realized they were producing, with other A-players, truly great products for an artist who was a perfectionist — and wasn't always the kindest person when they failed — but he was rallying them to do great stuff."
He relays one story about Jobs that shows, he says, how much he was able to connect great ideas and innovations together. In the early 1980s, Jobs visited Xerox PARC, a research company in Palo Alto that had invented the laser printer, object-oriented programming and the Ethernet. Jobs noticed that the computers running at PARC all featured graphics on their desktops that allowed users to click icons and folders. This was new at the time: Most computers used text prompts and a text interface.
"Steve Jobs made an arrangement with Xerox and he took that concept [of the graphical user interface] and he improved it a hundred-fold," says Isaacson. "He made it so you could drag and drop some of the folders; he invented the pull-down menus. ... So what he was able to do was to take a conception and turn it into a reality."
That's where Jobs' genius was, Isaacson says. Jobs insisted that the software and hardware on Apple products needed to be fully integrated for the best user experience. It was not a great business model at first.
"Microsoft, which licensed itself promiscuously to all sorts of manufacturers, ends up with 90 to 95 percent all the operating system market by the beginning of 2000," says Isaacson. "But in the long run, the end-to-end integration system works very well for Apple and for Steve Jobs. Because it allows him to create devices [like the iPod and iPad] that just work beautifully with the machines."
Isaacson says working with Jobs gave him an additional insight into the design of Jobs' products.
"I see the depth of the simplicity," he says. "[I appreciate] the intuitive nature of the design, and how he would repeatedly sit there with his design engineers and his user-interface software people, and say, 'No, no no, I want to make it simpler.' I also appreciate the beauty of the parts unseen. His father taught him that the back of a fence or the back of a chest of drawers should be as beautiful as the front because [he] would know the craftsmanship that went into it. So somehow, it comes through — the depth of the beauty of the design."
On what Jobs thought of the Microsoft operating system
Isaacson: "When it first came out — I can't use the words on the air — but [Jobs thought it was] clunky and not beautiful and not aesthetic. But as always is the case with Microsoft, it improves. And eventually Microsoft made a graphical operating system — Windows — and each new version got better until it was a dominating operating system."
On the rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates
Isaacson: "There are all sorts of lawsuits where Apple is trying to sue Microsoft for Windows, for trying to steal the look and feel. Apple loses most of the suits but they drag on and there's even a government investigation. By the time Steve Jobs comes back to Apple in 1997, the relationship is horrible. 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 — both rivalry and partnership."
On the relationship between Jobs and Google
Isaacson: "I think there was an unnerving historic resonance for what had happened a couple of decades earlier [with Microsoft]. Suddenly you have Google taking the operating system of the iPhone and mobile devices and all of the touch-screen technologies and building upon it, and making it an open technology that various device makers could use. ... Steve Jobs felt very possessive about all of the look, the feel, the swipes, the multitouch gestures that you use — and was driven to absolute distraction when Android's operating system, developed by Google and used by hardware manufacturers, started doing the exact same thing. ... He was furious but that probably understates his feeling. He was really furious and he let Eric Schmidt, who was then the CEO of Google, know it."
On Jobs' adoptive parents
Isaacson: "When Steve got placed with [parents who were not college graduates], his biological mother initially balked at first but ... the Jobs family made a pledge that they would start a college fund and make sure that Steve went to college."
On approaching Isaacson to write his biography
Isaacson: "It was 2004 and he had broached the subject of doing a biography of him and I thought, 'Well, this guy's in the midst of an up-and-down career and he has maybe 20 years to go, so I said to him, 'I'd love to do a biography of you but let's wait 20 or so years until you retire.' Then off and on after 2004, we would be in touch. ...
"I finally talked to his wife, who was very good at understanding his legacy, and she said, 'If you're going to do a book on Steve, you can't just keep saying, 'I'll do it in 20 years or so.' You really ought to do it now.' This was 2009. Steve Jobs, that year, had had a liver transplant and I realized how sick he was. ... And so, that was when I realized that this was a very fascinating tale and this guy may or may not make it. I thought he was going to live much longer. But at the very least, he was facing the prospect of his mortality so it was time for him to be reflective and do a book."
On his final meeting with Jobs
Isaacson: "He was pretty sick. He was confined to the house. And he said to me, at the end of our long conversation, 'There will be things in this book I don't like, right?' And I said, 'Yes.' Partly because you can interview people right after a meeting they've had with Steve Jobs [and] you interview five people and get five different stories about what happened. ... People have different perceptions of who he is. ...
"He said, 'I'll make you this promise. I'm not going to read the book until next year, until after it comes out.' And it made me feel a grand emotion, of 'Oh! That's great. Steve is going to be alive for another year.' Because when you're around him, the power of his thinking really grabs you. I remember leaving his house and thinking, 'Oh, I'm so relieved. He'll be alive in a year. He just told me so.' Logically, I should have said, 'He doesn't know what ups and downs he's going to have with his health.' But I think that he always felt some miracle would come along because all of his life, miracles had come along."
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After Steve Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, he asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Neither of them could have predicted that the book would be published just after Jobs' death.
The biography is based on more than 40 interviews with Jobs, in addition to about 100 interviews with his relatives, friends, colleagues, competitors and adversaries. 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 might even add a seventh, he says: retailing.
Jobs chose an esteemed biographer to write his story. Isaacson is the author of biographies of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. He's the former managing editor of Time magazine and former chairman of CNN. He's now the CEO of the Aspen Institute.
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.
So in the year 2000, I think Microsoft probably had 10 times the market value of an Apple, but Apple surpassed Microsoft a year or so ago and is now the most valuable company on Earth by doing this integrated model.
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.
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 what did Jobs think of the Windows operation system, which used a graphic interface?
ISAACSON: Well, when it first came out, he thought it was - I can't use the words on the air, but, you know, clunky and not beautiful and not aesthetic. But as is always the case with Microsoft, it improves every new version. And eventually Microsoft made a graphical operating system, Windows, and each new version got better until soon it was the dominant operating system.
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 is 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 it's interesting, like Jobs insisted that Microsoft invest in Apple so that Microsoft would have a stake in Apple's success.
ISAACSON: Yes. You know, this is typical of the digital age, where you become both a partner and a rival at times. And he wanted a serious partnership at that point with Microsoft. I think if Microsoft had actually kept the investment, they would have done quite well since, you know, over the next decade, Apple's stock took off.
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.
GROSS: Was there any action he tried to take to stop Google?
ISAACSON: Absolutely. Apple has been suing manufacturers of devices that use the Android operating system. I think there will be a whole lot of intellectual property infringement lawsuits that will go back and forth. But he also personally went and berated Eric Schmidt. 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. And he really vents his fury.
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 six 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 was the reward. That was one of the Zen, you know, phrases that he loved to repeat.
But that journey involved resolving conflicts about his role in this world, why he was here, you know, what it was all about.
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, Wisconsin. 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 okay. 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 you 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, California. 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.
GROSS: Now, Steve Jobs approached you to write a biography of him. He knew he was sick. You did not. He didn't reveal that to you the first time around. So you declined, because?
ISAACSON: Well, it's early 2004, and I had just finished writing about Franklin and was embarked on writing about Einstein. And he had broached the subject of maybe doing a biography of him. And I thought, well, this guy's in the midst of an up-and-down career, and he's got another 20, 30 years to go. So I said to him, I'd love to do a biography of you, but let's wait 20 or so years, you know, until you retire.
And, you know, then off and after 2004, we would be in touch. I'd known him when I was at Time magazine and CNN, so, you know, we'd be in touch. I'd see him, and every now and then - when my Einstein book came out, I was at an event out in Palo Alto that John Doerr and others put together, and Steve came and afterwards sort of mentioned it again. And finally, I talked to his wife, who really was very good at understanding his legacy and, you know, protecting what should be done. And she said, you know, if you're going to do a book on Steve, you can't just keep saying I'll do it in, you know, 20 years or so. You really ought to do it now.
This was 2009, and Steve Jobs had - that year, had had a liver transplant, and I realized how sick he was. And I said, you know, I hadn't realized when he first called me that he was sick. And she mentioned no, no. He called you before he got operated on for his cancer, but after he had been diagnosed.
GROSS: And do you think during those interviews that you did with him, he thought about his legacy a lot, he maybe knew that the book would be published after his death?
ISAACSON: I think that he always believed he was going to outrun the cancer. The very last time I went to see him was maybe, you know, a few weeks before he died, and he was pretty sick. He was confined to the house. And he said to me at the end of our long conversation - we went over pictures, and he found pictures in drawers that he thought I might want to use and he gave them to me.
He said, you know, there will be things in this book I don't like, right? And I said - I laughed and said yes, I mean, partly because everybody has different - you know, you can interview people right after a meeting they've had with Steve Jobs, you interview five people, you get five different stories about what happened in the meeting and who was there, you know, it's sort of a Rashomon effect where people just remember things differently - especially around Steve Jobs, people have different perceptions of who he is.
So I said yes, and I'm sure there will be different memories of people and different ways I've reported things that you're not going to like. He said well, I like you, and I will make you this promise: I'm not going to read the book until next year, a year after it comes out.
GROSS: When he got sick, he didn't want interventions like chemotherapy and surgery. He chose to pursue the kind of fruit diets and special diets that he had pursued for decades. What kind of, like, cleanses or, you know, herbs or remedies did he try before going the real, like, medical route?
ISAACSON: I think he wanted to avoid surgery. I think he didn't feel he wanted his body opened up, as he told me, and I think he regretted it. So, for a while, he's doing it through various diets and other things that alternative medical people are recommending, from acupuncture to special types of diets. But he had people around him who were very close to him, very smart people like Art Levinson, who was on his board who, you know, founded Genentech and, you know, people like Andy Grove who had gone through prostate cancer, and, of course, his very smart, stable wife.
And so, you know, we shouldn't make too much of this, because he does end up getting an operation. He does end up getting treated in the conventional way. It just took him nine months of trying to figure out was there some alternative method, because he didn't want his body to be violated, and he kind of felt he could bend reality to his will. He often had done that in the past. So I think it was a case of his magical thinking, which worked almost all the time, but not all the time.
GROSS: In the months that he declined to have surgery and chemo or what other interventions he ended up having, did his condition worsen?
ISAACSON: I think that, obviously, cancer spreads, but we'll never know. You know...
GROSS: Well, pancreatic cancer is one of those cancers that's really bad. I mean...
ISAACSON: He had the type of pancreatic cancer that 5 percent of patients do that's not very fast-spreading...
ISAACSON: ...and that is treatable, which his doctors were very happy about when they did the biopsy. It did, like any cancer, spread. And, you know, of course nobody could know whether or not if he had had the operation one month earlier, two months earlier, whether they would have caught it. But in the end, they didn't catch it. But let's remember, too, he really defied medical, you know, theory. He lived another incredibly productive seven years, in which he comes up with, you know, new iPods, the iPhone, the iPad, probably the most productive seven years any entrepreneur has ever had in history.
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 - then 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ISAACSON: So I said, great. Sure. And it's the only thing he focused on. I think he kind of believed 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, okay. 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.
GROSS: Walter Isaacson is the author of a new biography of Steve Jobs. You'll find a link to my 1996 interview with Steve Jobs on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on how Steve Jobs made operating a computer an aesthetic experience. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.