Remembering Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder and longtime CEO of Apple Inc., passed away this week at the age of 56. Technology writer Steven Levy, author of the book Insanely Great remembers the life and contributions of the technology titan, from pioneering personal computers to the iPhone.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, died Wednesday at the age of 56. He is best remembered this week in countless eulogies, biographies, analyses. But if we had to choose for what he would like to be remembered, if he had to choose, if he could tell us, I think a good place to look would be in his speech to Stanford University's class of 2005, where Jobs encouraged graduates to find something that they truly love.

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STEVE JOBS: Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

FLATOW: Joining me now to remember Steve Jobs is Steve Levy. He is senior writer at "Wired," author of "In The Plex," and "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything." Welcome back, Steve.

STEVE LEVY: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Do you have any thoughts this week at all of your own? Did you get to know Steve at all?

LEVY: Well, yeah. I got to know him, you know, on a professional level pretty well. I first interviewed him when the Macintosh was being prepared. I did a story for Rolling Stone and spent some time with him then and subsequently followed his career, and particularly when he got back to Apple. You know, I would interview him a lot when I was at Newsweek and then Wired.

FLATOW: What have the stories missed this week, all these eulogies and remembrances? In your own mind, what - is there a story, an idea that has been left out and missed about him?

LEVY: Well, since I wrote my own, I guess I would be saying I left something out. But I think what you really want to remember about Steve, and playing that commencement address that he made at Stanford points to that, is just the idea that - as I was looking over - looking at the interviews I did with him from 1983 and then the more recent ones, he maintained that passion for what he did. And what he really did to the area of technologies was he started in an era where computer technology was seen as impersonal and even hostile to people of his generation. And he had a giant hand in making that something that not only is important to our lives but is attractive and even sexy.

FLATOW: And I think a lot of people, you know, there are people growing up today who never even heard of the Apple II or knew that he was involved in early computing. They think of him as the iPhone, the iPad, that sort of thing.

LEVY: That's right. And, you know, it's amazing to look back at where he was in the Apple II days, you know, when he was just starting his company. You know, back then it was pretty unusual for a couple of young people to start a company that, you know, within a few years would go public and become part of the Fortune 500. I think Apple was the youngest company at the time to make the Fortune 500. And they had to blaze trails. I once asked Steve about that, and he said, well, actually, you know, Hewlett-Packard was founded by two guys in a garage.

But Hewlett-Packard didn't have that countercultural spin that Apple had. It was partly from the '60s counterculture and partly from the counterculture of Silicon Valley, of the people who understood that computers were going to be personal. And they were opposed, you know, to the big companies who thought that was a ridiculous concept. The people at IBM took a while to come around to the idea that computers could be for a single person. And one company, the Digital Equipment Corporation, which is no longer with us, probably died because its owner concluded that no one would really want these things.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And people forget that even the first Macintoshes were networked, the first networked computers. The original PCs were not networked together.

LEVY: That's right.

FLATOW: The Macs had, you know, the built-in ports for networking them.

LEVY: Yeah. And the reason why is that they had to be networked so they could use these other new contraptions that Steve was a visionary on, and these were the laser printers there. We're used to low-cost printers. The printers used to be like really expensive, and Apple, actually, you know, their LaserWriter was more expensive, but it was one of the first printers that you could, you know, do a high-quality copy on. And they thought it was going to be great for corporations, but Apple really blazed the trail in that.

And, you know, they built a network, Apple Talk, on top of the Macintosh. And it was the laser printer and desktop publishing that really helped the Macintosh because it wasn't really popular when...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LEVY: ...it first came out, despite getting a lot of attention.

FLATOW: Yeah. And that's the thing that people don't know or don't remember. They know Steve's great success in the last part of his life, with the, you know, reshaping with the iPad and the iPod. But they - a lot of people don't know what a struggle it was for recognition as more than just a toy in those early days.

LEVY: Yeah. I think in the later years, when he got back to Apple, he was able to benefit from the fact that the technology had somewhat caught up to his vision of how people could use it, you know, in the broadest sense, you know, that, you know, he wanted everyone to have a Macintosh. But not everyone had $2,500. And as easy it was, it wasn't anywhere near as easy to use as an iPhone or an iPad.

FLATOW: Yeah. I remember he called the Mac the computer for the rest of us...

LEVY: Right. And, you know, ultimately, it was the computer for the rest of us. It's just that a lot of the ideas wound up in Windows, and people experienced some of the Macintosh concept through Microsoft.

FLATOW: Where did the motto "think different" come from? Do you know? Was that just something that his ad people came up with?

LEVY: Well, I know he was deeply involved in that. I spent a lot of time with him when he took back Apple, after 1997, and that was - one of the things he told me, that that campaign was as much for the people at Apple as it was for the people outside Apple. People were pretty demoralized. Apple almost went bankrupt around the time they reached out for him. And you know, he wanted people to get in touch with what Apple was when it started, when he was there, a very idealistic company and not a company which, you know, was fixated on making the most profit from its computers there.

And, you know, he had a really deep involvement with that series. As a matter of fact, I hadn't known this, but just in the past couple days since he died, someone dug up a version of the commercial, "Here's to the Crazy Ones," that we all know as narrated by Richard Dreyfuss. But in this version, he narrated it. So if you can go to YouTube and find that, I think you'll - your listeners will really enjoy hearing him narrate that commercial with all the icons, who, of course, were Steve's personal icons in, you know, embodied in that ad campaign, from Bob Dylan to Einstein to Picasso to Gandhi.

And he told me a funny story about getting the rights to the Gandhi thing, where he not only had to get a photographer's rights, but he had to go to Gandhi's descendants and convinced them that it made sense to have Mahatma Gandhi be a spokesperson for a computer company.

FLATOW: All right. Stay with us. Steve Levy talking about Steve Jobs. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Talking with Steven Levy. He's author of "In The Plex," his latest book, but a lot of us know him for many years because of the book "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything." Your book "Insanely Great," when was that first - that phrase first used?

LEVY: I think it came up around the Macintosh days. It was an expression that Steve used that he wanted his computer not to be just great but insanely great. I heard him use that term when I interviewed him back around then. And it was sort of a catchphrase around the Macintosh team.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's get to the phones. Joseph in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Hi, Joseph.

JOSEPH: Hi. Thank you for having me on. I've been a - I was actually an early Mac user. I actually owned one of the Apple Lisas, which was their first foray into business computing. It did not end well for Apple. But just a couple of things. One was the "think different" campaign, I suspect was in part based on the fact that IBM's motto for a long time, the signs on the wall at IBM's offices, was "think." So "think different" was absolutely perfect. And the other thing I thought was interesting was that Apple used to fly a flag out in front of their business in California, but the flag wasn't anything you would think. It was the Jolly Roger. It was a pirate flag.

LEVY: That flag was actually in front of the Macintosh building. And not only did it was to show that Apple was a rebel, but that group itself was a rebel from the rest of the company. And that's what Steve really did. He got those people, it was a relatively small group, to think of themselves as not only fighting, you know, IBM, which was their rival then, but really against the rest of the company, which had become somewhat bureaucratic.

FLATOW: So you get them to think differently that way, and he didn't use the "-ly" on his version of - to have sort of battles in the company to get the most creative ideas out.

LEVY: Yeah. And, well, and Steve back then, he had some difficulties. He had been with the Lisa division. Your caller had a Lisa. He must had a lot of money back then. But the - he sort got booted out of that division because people didn't like his management style. He was looking for another project to take over, and he saw this little Skunkworks that at the time wasn't even on the campus. It was about a quarter mile away. And he took it over, booted out the guy who thought up the Macintosh idea, and really applied his ideas and really became the maestro behind the Macintosh.

FLATOW: And he's - he got the idea about the point and click on a visit he made to Xerox Park, the research center, where he saw one?

LEVY: Yeah. In 1979 he took - it was the Lisa team at that time - to Xerox, and they had had very advanced ideas on how to use a computer. Some of them were inspired by early work done by Douglas Engelbart and others rose out of this line was called Smalltalk they were making. And it was kind of interesting. I talked to the people who worked at Xerox who showed the Apple contingent the, you know, the Xerox Star, which - around this operating system - and they said Steve instantly zeroed in on things that were difficult to use.

And actually, this month in "Wired," I write a little column saying that the current version of the Mac operating system dropped this little thing called the scrollbar, which is that little elevator shaft on the side of a window that you see on your computer there. They got rid of it. And, you know, and I sort of trace its evolution, and that was something that Steve came up with a better idea to use it, literally, on that visit to Xerox. At the time, you could only move it like one chunk of text at a time, and he said, well, why doesn't it move continuously? And they thought, gee, that's a good idea. Why didn't we think of that?

FLATOW: Yeah. And he just would move ahead with those ideas.

LEVY: Yeah. And he didn't just take the Xerox idea and make a Xerox of it, so to speak. He did a lot of rethinking to make it simpler. Their mouse had multiple buttons. He thought you can do it with one button. And he did all sorts of improvements with, you know, that his team really did. And, you know, and he was in charge of urging more simplicity. So it was quite a different thing. It was no accident that the Macintosh was more successful than the Star was.

FLATOW: So he never settled for good when great was possible.

LEVY: No. As a matter of fact, it was - it could be very frustrating to work for him. You could work, you know, really, really hard on something that you thought was great, and he'd look at it and he'd say this is a D, or he would use a barnyard description of it and, you know, and that would be it. And you would, you know, sulk back and figure, what can I do, but sometimes you were able to come up with something that was beyond what you thought you could do. And that was a typical, you know, moment that you realized, if you were an Apple employee, that working for Steve Jobs could be a pretty good thing.

FLATOW: And so everything - he saw everything before it was released?

LEVY: He kept an eye on everything. You know, I mean, look, there's a lot of stuff that goes on, but the key products there, he's a control freak. He wanted to know every aspect of it.

FLATOW: Because it was his vision.

LEVY: Yeah, it was his vision, and it was his idea. He didn't want people to make these compromises. He always would say - we asked him: How come Apple can take a product category that everyone else failed at and just assumed it was going to succeed? And he said, because we built products we want to use ourselves. And he didn't want to accept the compromises that a lot of companies do just to get things out the door. He'd rather wait and get it right.

FLATOW: Is there anybody still at the company he left behind that still thinks that way, or can take extra...

LEVY: I think a lot of people think that way. As a matter of fact, there's been a conscious effort, you know, with his - when people realized that he might not be around for a while, and he even participated in this, to make sure that his values and standards would be perpetuated throughout Apple.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did he consider himself a success, given how much he thought, you know, such high standards that he had?

LEVY: I think he did. I think he did. You know, in a way, he had just unbelievable confidence, and this didn't come straight from success. He was confident even as a teenager. When he was 13 years old, he called the head of Hewlett-Packard and said I need some computer parts. Can you give them to me? And the guy said, well, OK. And it was just the first, of course, of many times that he got corporate executives to do his bidding.

FLATOW: Was that David Packard he called, or...

LEVY: Yeah.

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FLATOW: And another guy who worked out of his garage.

LEVY: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And he said that was the model for him and Woz, Hewlett-Packard.

FLATOW: What did the Woz, Steve Wozniak, contribute in their partnership?

LEVY: Well, he built the computer.

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LEVY: It was Woz's computer which was built for this hobbyist group called The Homebrew Computer Club that Steve saw the possibilities of. He said, well, we can actually commercialize this and - not just for hobbyists, but for just plain people to use. And he had the idea that it shouldn't look like a piece of electronic equipment, but something you would want in your home, and he commissioned an industrial designer to make a plastic case. And at the time, all the other companies who were making computers, they looked like the kinds of things you would put on an electronics rack, like an oscilloscope or something like that. Steve had a different idea about that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so he was sort of more the business side - less the geeky side that the Woz is.

LEVY: Right. He actually - but he did know something electronics. He worked for Atari for a little while. He had enough of a knowledge to know what he was talking about in terms of that. He wouldn't do the hard coding or anything like that. His idea was, you know, to merge some of the liberal arts with the technology. And I remember the first time I talked to him. He went into a little almost a set piece about that, about design and how making it simple that clearly was affected by his readings of Zen Buddhism.

FLATOW: Is that right?

LEVY: Yeah.

FLATOW: And so what are your final thoughts on his legacy?

LEVY: Well, it's enormous. He's not only changed technology. He's changed, you know, the way we think of a successful business person, and he's enriched a lot of our lives. His products, you know, I have to say personally, you know, after I met him, you know, every book I read afterwards - wrote afterwards was on a Macintosh and - you know, so it affected me personally.

FLATOW: And it took - and he was someone who had to fight adversity. He was fired from his own company and came back and built a different...

LEVY: Yeah. It's an amazing story. And when he came back, he was a more mature, knowledgeable executive. He had started two other companies before. One of them we haven't mentioned, Pixar, which he bought for $10 million, and, you know, helped them make their first animated feature, and then he sold it to Disney for $8 billion.

FLATOW: And he stayed on Apple as a dollar - what was it, a-dollar-a-year employee?

LEVY: Yeah. Yeah. No, he got, you know, compensated pretty well. But, you know, when he died, most of his money was Pixar money.

FLATOW: And he - did he have any thought about starting another company, or was Apple...

LEVY: You know, after he got sick, I wondered whether - sometimes people have near-death experiences, and then they change direction. They might go up to a monastery or become a philanthropist or start a different kind of company. But I think what that made him do is realize what was important to him was, first of all, his family, and second of all, Apple. And in the last year of his life, he spent, you know, time with his family. And when he could, he, you know, contributed to Apple.

FLATOW: And that address to the graduating class in '05 really spelled it all out, didn't it?

LEVY: Absolutely. You know, just the thought, be true to yourself, right, and stay hungry, which was a phrase that he borrowed and he attributed to The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of his favorite books.

FLATOW: Well, Steven Levy, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

LEVY: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Steven Levy is a senior writer at Wire, does a column there. He's author of "In the Plex" and "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything." Thanks again, Steve.

LEVY: OK. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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