A question has dogged me for a long time. Should creative people be judged at all on their moral behaviour? Should we think of Picasso only as the greatest painter of all time, and disregard the fact that he used, abused and discarded countless women throughout his life for work and pleasure?
Steve Jobs, by any standard, was a magnificently creative mind: visionary, iconoclast, transformer, creator of a massive global subculture of cool. No businessman’s death has possibly ever seen such a worldwide spontaneous outpouring of grief and eulogy.
But was Jobs a “good man”?
Well, everyone now knows from his 2005 Stanford speech that he was an adopted child: his biological mother gave him away soon after his birth. It is less well known that in 1977, when his live-in girlfriend Chris-Ann Brennan became pregnant, Jobs denied paternity, and demanded she abort the baby. When she refused, he threw her out. When the child Lisa Nicole was born and a DNA analysis proved that he was the father, Jobs still refused to pay child support, even though mother and child were living on welfare. It took a court order to make him cough up the cash.
Jobs’ attitude towards relationships with friends and colleagues was often bizarre, unpredictable and selfish. But the story of Alvy Ray Smith takes the cake.
After being ousted from Apple in 1985, Jobs bought Pixar, a computer animation company co-founded by Smith. What Smith and his team created transformed computer animation and made Jobs his first billion dollars. But after years of working together, Jobs went insanely ballistic on Smith during a meeting for writing on a whiteboard. In any meeting, Jobs had the “ownership” of the whiteboard, and no one could violate that rule. Smith, feeling utterly humiliated, quit, leaving behind all that he had built. Jobs had Smith’s name expunged from Pixar’s official history. Smith ceased to exist.
In 1996, Gil Amelio was appointed CEO of a beleaguered Apple and was given three years to turn it around. He appointed Jobs as a special adviser. Immediately, Jobs managed to get a highly damaging story on Amelio done in a leading business magazine, which also said that it was time Jobs was put in charge. Jobs then organized a boardroom coup and ousted Amelio. In effect, the Apple board reneged on its three-year promise to Amelio, paying no attention to the fact that he had taken over a company with hardly any money in the bank and had built up a $3 billion cash pile in just one-and-a-half years. This money bought Jobs enough time to figure out his strategy for Apple. Jobs, naturally, made sure that the world believed he was taking charge of a pauperized firm.
Of course, what followed is history: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. But behind its “think different” cool, Apple was using brutal business tactics. It bought the rights to SoundJam, an MP3 software created by a firm called C&G, then stole all the company’s best developers, and effectively made sure C&G shut down. And the iPod was born (but then, Jobs, in a 1994 interview, had said that talent imitates, genius steals).
All Apple products became increasingly exclusionary: nothing it produced would operate on any other platform. In fact, in 2008, Apple sent a cease-and-desist letter to BluWiki, a non-commercial wiki provider, alleging that a discussion of how to get other hardware and software to interoperate with iPod infringed Apple’s copyrights. BluWiki sued Apple, which had to back off and retract. After Jobs’ death, legendary software freedom activist Richard Stallman described him as the “pioneer of the computer as jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom”.
In 2006, it came to light that Apple, while granting stock options to several employees, including Jobs, had been backdating them to correspond with lows in the stock price, so the grantees could make higher profits when cashing out. Stockholders sued, and it was proved that Jobs had been aware of this. He and 12 others agreed to pay $14 million to settle.
Nearly all of Apple’s manufacturing is outsourced to China and there have been consistent allegations of inhuman working conditions—which have apparently even led to suicides—and total disregard for environmental safety. Last month, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based advocacy group, told The Wall Street Journal that it found Apple “stubbornly evasive” and said its refusal to discuss suppliers (Chinese factories manufacturing for Apple) “can only be seen as a deliberate refusal of responsibility” for environmental issues.
Also, of course, as we all know now, Jobs did not seem to have donated a cent to charity. But it was, after all, his money and entirely up to him what he did with it. What is more interesting is that he would very often not bother to drive around Apple’s parking lot and would park his Mercedes in spaces reserved for the handicapped, sometimes parking badly enough to take up two spaces. Staffers stuck “park different” cards on his windshield. Not that it improved Jobs’ parking habits.
Yes, Jobs was not a very good person. But then, maybe one should only look at what a genius created rather than what he was.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
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