'Becoming Steve Jobs' is not the bio Jobs wanted

The apologia for the Apple co-founder is heartfelt, but also a distortion of his reality

Steve Jobs in 2010
Credit: Matthew Yohe

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died three and a half years ago, but for many at Apple he will never die. That may explain the sentiment of Apple execs about the definitive 2011 biography, "Steve Jobs" -- sanctioned by Jobs himself -- written by Walter Isaacson as Jobs was dying. Jobs made a point of telling Isaacson to call it like he sees it -- Jobs even refused to review the manuscript to avoid any temptation to sugarcoat it.

Now that Jobs has been dead a few years, that nuanced but unflinching biography has come under fire for being too mean to Jobs.

Becoming Steve Jobs Crown Business

The new "Becoming Steve Jobs," written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli and released today, carries a much more positive view of Jobs, one that his close circle now calls truer to the man. Normally private Apple execs have been all over the media proclaiming their distaste for the Isaacson bio -- sentiments they did not share at its release -- and praising the new book as truer to the man they knew and loved.

Rose-colored reminiscing is going on today as Jobs the man morphs into Jobs the memory, but it's also obviously true that Jobs could be a kind, considerate, generous man. His marriage, his long-term close friendships, and the intensely loyal core group at Apple and elsewhere are all testaments to the fact that Jobs could be a positive, even beloved force.

But let's not allow that truth to overshadow the fact that he could also be a demanding, demeaning, combative, controlling force. Business partners and those in the Apple product ecosystem have very consistent and widespread stories of how tough Jobs was on them. In my 24 years in Silicon Valley tech journalism, I've heard plenty of tales about the yelling, the threats, the dismissals, and the punishing demands from the very people involved.

That too was Jobs.

I almost met Jobs in 1997, when then-Macworld columnist David Pogue and I were doing the first keynote at the Macworld Expo show, followed by Jobs. In the green room where speakers wait to go on stage, Jobs kept his distance from me as I went around the room exchanging pleasantries with participants and guests.

Several people noticed that Jobs always managed to stay on the opposite side of the room from me as I moved, and their comments were along the lines of "that's Steve; you're clearly not worth his attention, or he's mad at you."

I figured he was mad I had asserted involvement as a Macworld executive editor over the Expo's keynote program, which historically had been given to Apple. Although some of my Macworld colleagues knew Jobs (and considered him difficult and manipulative), I didn't know the man, and I didn't care that he was avoiding me.

Plus, at that time Apple was imploding under the failed leadership of Gil Amelio, who followed the failed leadership of Michael Spindler, who followed the flameout that John Scully had become. At that time, Jobs was a special adviser to Amelio, and he was trying to kill the Mac clones Amelio had authorized, and I in particular had championed in Macworld's pages as a safety measure as Apple's future looked increasingly dire.

I relay this story because I've long admired Jobs for insisting on excellent, minimalist yet sophisticated, human-centered design and his ability to do what he thought was right, despite what everyone else might think. But I never either disliked or liked, neither feared nor fawned over the man. I never knew him as a person. 

Schlender, the lead author of the "Becoming Steve Jobs" book, was a friend of Jobs and was repeatedly invited into his home. He relates that he was angry with Jobs and turned down a meeting with him, not knowing Jobs was near death. Regret over that, plus his genuine friendship with Jobs, clearly gives Schlender a different perspective than Isaacson, whom Jobs chose to be his official biographer but with whom he had no personal relationship.

Jobs was complex, and of course he evolved as a person. (That fact was completely missed in the 2013 movie bio "Jobs," which also was full of falsehoods.)

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster

For me, Jobs' evolution and the related increasing self-knowledge were the most fascinating part of the Isaacson biography and my own observations as a longtime Apple follower. I saw that as a testament to the man's character, not an insult to it.

I thought that Jobs' choice of a neutral but respected journalist like Isaacson to be his official biographer spoke volumes about Jobs' character, highlighting his desire to treat his own story with the same unflinching directness as Jobs would do in his tech work. That's rare, and it should be honored. I'm annoyed that now, thanks to "Becoming Steve Jobs," sentimentality by close friends may be dishonoring Jobs' own decision for an unvarnished view.

Isaacson's book is neither flattering nor demeaning, but it does reveal a great man.

Schlender's book is, to be honest, an apologia for Jobs masquerading as a biography, written by someone who identified with and liked the man. That's perfectly fine, and it sheds real light on the nicer, warmer Jobs little known outside his close circle. The history of Jobs' involvement with Pixar is also an area of his life rarely covered in the detail that it is here.

But "Becoming Steve Jobs" ultimately rings false and in odd ways offends Jobs' memory through sycophantic defensiveness. For example, early on in the book is an anecdote of Jobs swearing at a secretary, then apologizing when her boss complained. That boss, PR guru Regis McKenna, explains away that unacceptable behavior by saying Jobs only treated people as minions if they acted as minions. Oh, that makes it all OK, I guess.

The book also skips over key parts of Jobs' life and early career at Apple. Yes, his early Apple days have been chronicled to death, but "Becoming Steve Jobs" skips most of the bad things Jobs did, such as creating the pirate culture that nearly sank Apple as it metastasized in the early 1990s. When Jobs retook control of Apple in 1997, he made sure the pirate culture was eliminated, having learned from that youthful error. As a result of such omissions in "Becoming Steve Jobs," Jobs' remarkable journey is diminished.

But in its desire to apologize for Jobs' worst traits, the book shows us the intense loyalty and even friendship that Jobs engendered, the deep appreciation he had for other people who "got it" and delivered. That part of the Jobs history is usually ignored in the simplistic "Jobs was brilliant but mean" meme too many people have absorbed.

As I said, he was a complex man who did great things. But Jobs was fierce, for both good and ill.

"Becoming Steve Jobs" is a sometimes insightful, if overly defensive and selective take on the Apple co-founder that anyone interested in the tech industry should read.

Remember that when Jobs was alive, he made sure a different kind of biography was commissioned. Make sure you also read Isaacson's book for the full, unflinching Jobs biography. That's the one that I believe history will remember.