'Steve Jobs': Profiling An Ingenious Perfectionist

For years, Steve Jobs courted biographer Walter Isaacson to write the definitive story of his life. When Isaacson learned how sick Jobs really was, he accepted. Here he discusses profiling the tech visionary, a task that often involved reconciling Jobs' recollections with those of his friends, family and colleagues.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

When Steve Jobs first began his battle with cancer, he called up my next guest, the biographer Walter Isaacson, and asked him if he might consider writing the definitive story of his life. Isaacson had written the biographies of Einstein, Ben Franklin, Kissinger. You know, you've read all those books.

And Jobs told him, quote, "I think you're good at getting people to talk." Isaacson turned Jobs down a number of times, but finally accepted when he found out Jobs might not have long to live.

The finished book, entitled simply "Steve Jobs," is the fruit of more than 40 meetings between the two and over 100 interviews with Jobs' family, colleagues, friends and enemies. For the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about some of the challenges of writing that book, such as weaving together Jobs' version of events in his life with those of the people around him. Sometimes those stories didn't actually quite match up.

And we're going to look at Jobs' legacy on our personal gadgets and how he became such a wizard at marrying great art and design with great - or maybe I should say insanely great - technology.

Walter Isaacson is the author of the new book "Steve Jobs," and he's CEO of the Aspen Institute and he joins us here in New York. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

WALTER ISAACSON: Good to be back, Ira. Nice to see you.

FLATOW: Is there any question somebody has not asked you yet?

ISAACSON: Oh, no. I don't want to leave the impression that I turned down Steve many, many, many times. I kept...

FLATOW: Tell us the story.

ISAACSON: Well, I just kept saying, you know, hey, you're young. You're in the middle of a career. Let's do this 20 or 30 years from now. And I didn't quite realize how sick he was, but once I realized that, you know, he was battling cancer and, you know, he had now transformed the telephone and iPad industry, I was pretty eager to do the book.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. It reminded some of the people we talked to about being the chosen biographer of royalty when they want to have the best portraits painted of them. Did you think of that at all?

ISAACSON: Well, the odd thing was he's very much of a controlling guy. He loves to control everything from end to end, which is why you can't open up your iPhone and why, you know, the Mac software and the Mac hardware are tightly integrated. But he kept saying, I don't want to have any control of this book. This will be yours. And be independent. Be honest. Interview other people. I'm choosing you because you can get other people to talk.

And for a while I was wary, but he opened up, never asked to see anything and, you know, he also had a style that was honest. He was sometimes brutally honest and he kept saying I should try to be honest in the book.

FLATOW: Except he wanted the cover for himself.

ISAACSON: Oh, he hated - when he saw the cover that we put in the catalog, he just hated it. And you know what? He was right. It was one of those gimmicky kind of - it had him and an apple or something and it was in one of those catalogs about eight, nine months ago. And he called me up. I hadn't really felt the brunt of his fury, but I remember landing at San Francisco because I was going to go see him and he told me to just turn around, that the cover was so ugly. He used words other than ugly, but they had the same number of letters, that, you know, it showed that we had no taste, so after hearing him rant for maybe 10 minutes or so, he said the only way I'll cooperate is if you let me have some input into the cover.

So I paused and I thought for maybe one, one and a half seconds and said, you know, this is the best designer of products in our time. I said...

FLATOW: And he knew...

ISAACSON: ...yeah, I'd love that.

FLATOW: And he knew it's all about the cover, didn't he?

ISAACSON: And, you know, he really - he said nobody's going to read the book anyway, so you might as well just have a good cover.

FLATOW: And because the covers of all the objects he was involved, the Mac and the iPad, the iPhone, those were the important - part of the design was important to him.

ISAACSON: I must admit, I was stunned by the depth of his obsession with design the more I heard about it. Even in the late 1970s, when he's going to Sony to finger all the brochures and then starts hating the heavy industrial design of Sony, goes to the Aspen Design Conference and gets hooked on the Bauhaus, the simplicity of the Bauhaus movement.

And I think it was, you know, his dad. When he was like six years old, they were making a fence around the backyard of the house and his father said, we have to make the back of the fence as pretty as the front. And Steve said, why? Nobody will ever know. And his father said, you'll know.

FLATOW: You'll know. You'll know.

ISAACSON: And that's why in the Macintosh, which you couldn't open up, he made the first Mac, or for that matter the current Mac, with the screws that you can't actually open.

FLATOW: Right.

ISAACSON: And he said, we've got to make the inside as beautiful as the outside. We'll know.

FLATOW: All right. We will know. We'll talk more with Walter Isaacson, author of the new book "Steve Jobs." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us at SciFri at S-C-I-F-R-I and go to our website at ScienceFriday.com and our Facebook page, SciFri. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow talking with Walter Isaacson, author of the new book "Steve Jobs," and he's also the CEO of the Aspen Institute. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Walter, you have written about the biggest names in science and technology, Einstein, Ben Franklin. We'll throw Kissinger in there with it.

ISAACSON: Political science.

FLATOW: Political science. And you must have thought about the comparisons between Steve and these other people.

ISAACSON: Well, you know, I like writing about the life of the mind. I don't know. I think I was on your show once and I was talking about maybe writing about Louis Armstrong.

FLATOW: Yes.

ISAACSON: And I could never get my head into, you know, Louis Armstrong's head. I know everything about him except for whether he was happy. You know, major things, like how he thought. So I love interesting minds and, since you're the host of this show, you've probably met more smart people than anybody I know and you probably learned that smart people don't often amount to much. You know, it's really the creative people, the people who have an imaginative leap, an intuitive leap, who think different, as Steve said in the ads for the Apple computers.

That's what I found in Einstein in particular. As you know, he wasn't the best physicist in 1905.

FLATOW: Right.

ISAACSON: He couldn't even get a job at a university. He was working at a patent office. But he kind of thought differently. He said, well, how do we know time is absolute? Likewise, Steve was not the best engineer in Silicon Valley by a long shot, not nearly as good as his friend Steve Wozniak.

But he was able to think different and imagine the future and, to me, we talk about the - I mean, the reason I write about scientists is I'm not a scientist, but I like combining science and the humanities. Sometimes we divide people, the people who are the science geeks and the people who are the humanities geeks. In some ways it's the combination of the humanities and the science that leads to great creativity. You see that in Ben Franklin, you see it in Albert Einstein, and you see it, of course, in Steve Jobs.

FLATOW: Where did he get his passion for arts and design that he put in? I remember from the early days of the Mac, and one thing that set the early Mac apart is it had all the calligraphy in it. He used to...

ISAACSON: He drops out of - yeah.

FLATOW: You know, he had all these fonts you never heard of and he kept putting them in there himself.

ISAACSON: I know. He kept designing the fonts. He drops out of Reed College, but the one thing he does is he just hangs around, stays on campus and takes a calligraphy course. He loves the beautiful lettering of fonts. And so when he develops the Macintosh, it has a bitmap screen, which means instead of just characters, you can actually take each pixel and each pixel is connected, is mapped to a part of the microprocessor. So you can make a sans-serif font or a script or whatever you want.

So he gets Susan Kare, this wonderful young designer, and Andy Hertzfeld, and they're designing fonts so that the type on your screen doesn't look like that horrible ASCII text you and I are old enough to remember on computers in the old days.

And he would spend the nights looking at the fonts, and the people on the board and the top management of Apple were like, fonts? Why are we dealing with this? And at one point Susan Kare, who designed some of the fonts, named them after her hometown of Philadelphia, the stops on the mainline train, like Rosemont.

And he said, these are first-class fonts. We have to name them after first-class cities. And that's why the fonts you see now are named New York, Geneva.

FLATOW: Oh.

ISAACSON: You know, all the names of great cities.

FLATOW: And he was obsessed with the tiniest details of his products, almost to the point of distraction. You talk about, in the book, just choosing the right shade of beige for the computer case.

ISAACSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: The perfect...

ISAACSON: Pantone is one of these color companies that has probably thousands of shades of beige. None suited him. This drove the other people at Apple nuts. I mean, we're talking about, you know, the late 1970s, before they were a big old company.

Likewise, it continues throughout his career. There's a wonderful scene, when they come out with the iMac, that sort of translucent, Bondi blue, I think it's '98, 1999, and there he is yelling at poor Lee Clow that the pictures of it - it's not f-ing blue enough.

And just, even when they do the original Mac, Bill Atkinson makes perfect squares that they can render instantly. He also makes perfect circles they can render instantly. Steve says, but we need rounded rectangles. And Atkinson says, no, that's almost impossible to do. He said, no. And he makes him go on a walk and look at the windows and look at the no parking signs and look at mirrors, look at the screens of a computer and say, everything is a rectangle with rounded corners.

And Bill Atkinson has to figure out a sequence of numbers, you know, so he can produce square roots, which the microchip they had - microprocessor they had couldn't do so that he could produce rounded recs, which is why, when you're looking at that computer screen, the wonderful little folders and icons, all of which have rounded corners on their rectangles.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a call or two in here. Let's go to Jenna in St. Mary's, Kansas. Hi, Jenna. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JENNA: Hi. Thanks. I'm glad you took my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

JENNA: I was wondering, after all those interviews with him, I mean, you point out his eye for detail and his drive for perfection. Do you think that's what made him successful?

ISAACSON: I think the ability to connect artistry to science is what made him successful. He was somebody who felt a deep emotional attachment to beauty. He'd sometimes cry when he talked about a beautiful object or when he talked about a letter he was going to write his wife on his anniversary or when he would, you know, talk about an advertising copy for the Think Different ads. He felt poetic beauty was something that made you cry and he drove engineers to be able to do it. To me, that's the real source of his genius.

FLATOW: Thank you, Jenna.

JENNA: Thank you, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

ISAACSON: Thanks, Jen.

FLATOW: You know, it reminds me of a Richard Feynman statement about looking at a flower.

ISAACSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: And he says, you know, as an artist looks at a flower, you see the colors and, you know, the shape, but I know what's working inside the flower and I see more beauty than you do because I know the details.

ISAACSON: One day, when they have flat screens and they're trying to make the new iMac using a flat screen, Jony Ive, the world's greatest industrial designer, is working with Steve at Apple and he comes up with something in which there's the computer attached to the back of the flat screen. And Steve says he hates it, probably in the same words he used to tell me he hated the original cover of the book. And he says it doesn't have integrity. It's not true to the flat screen nature, which is supposed to float and feel free.

So he just goes home - Jobs does - and sits in his backyard and then Jony comes over to see him and there's a profusion of sunflowers in the backyard and as they look at the sunflower, they figure out - oh, that's what computers will look like. They'll have that wonderful curved neck and that will be something that will hold the screen so it floats and feels as if it were at your disposal.

And the curved neck of that new iMac, which you've seen, the Sunflower iMac...

FLATOW: Yeah.

ISAACSON: ...Steve Jobs has a patent, a design patent on it, in his own name from sitting in the backyard thinking that up.

FLATOW: Is that the domed one with the white dome on the bottom and...

ISAACSON: Yeah. The one - yeah.

FLATOW: I have that in my office.

ISAACSON: Oh, you're dating yourself, Ira.

FLATOW: I go further back than that. 1-800-989-8255. One of the things I've wondered about, and I've heard him quoted as saying this - why are his products made overseas? I would think that the only legacy - the only way he could have had a legacy better than the icon that he is now is to have created all these jobs for his products, jobs in this country. He used to talk about - I can't get a factory built here. It takes 40,000 steps to get a factory built here. I can do it all overseas.

Did he ever talk about any of that?

ISAACSON: And it's true. Totally. He talked about it all the time, and he talked about it to President Obama. He had a couple of meetings with Obama, a dinner with Obama. Obama came to the Westin Hotel in San Francisco to see him, and that's what Steve talked about, which is two things. If you want to build a factory in China, you can do it in six months and in the first three months you can start moving people in as the, you know, the top floors are being built.

Now, that's probably not the way we want to do it in the United States. On the other hand, you go to the other extreme. You want to build a factory in California, you know, you have six months just filling out the forms for the regulations and the environmental reviews or whatever it may be. I believe in all of those things, but I believe there's some happy medium so you can build a factory.

Secondly, he said our country does not turn out enough trained engineers anymore to support factory workers. There are about 700,000 factory workers at Foxconn, which is the Chinese companies and Taiwanese-owned companies that build a lot of Apple products. To support 700,000 engineers, 700,000 factory workers, you need about 30,000 engineers. That's the ratio.

We're not talking about engineers, you know, who went to Cal Tech, MIT or Harvard necessarily. We're talking about people like my dad, who went to LSU or Tulane or a community college and got great industrial engineering degrees and could help work and build things in this country.

We no longer create the number of engineers, and if we train an engineer from another country, as soon as they get their engineering degree, instead of stapling a green card to their visa, we kick them out of the country. And he said, I'm not going to be able to build factories unless there are enough engineers and our school systems stink. He actually used a stronger word, but - yeah.

FLATOW: So he was aware that that was a shortcoming and that's something we should be working on and speaking to the president about it.

ISAACSON: Oh, yeah. He was very aware, very worried about the state of education in America. I think he would have been - look, when he built the original Mac, he built a beautiful state-of-the-art factory in Fremont, California. He made the walls totally painted white. He wanted it to be a showcase. Same thing happens when he does NeXT Computer. But nowadays, he says it's hard to build a factory, and it's hard to get the engineers to staff a factory. I'm sure there are people who can do it, but it would be nice if we had a country that made this easier.

Manufacturing is very important to this country. You're not going to have great industrial design, great engineers or great, you know, product people once you allow all the manufacturing to go overseas.

FLATOW: So it was not just a question of profit margin, making it cheaper.

ISAACSON: I don't think Steve was ever driven by pure profits. He was driven by making insanely great products, and those aren't the same thing. Everything you do, he says, if your goal is to make a great product, is different than if your goal is to make a profit - the people you promote, the people you hire, the way you do things, the way you build the inside of the machine. I think that, obviously, with any company, they'd be insane not to try to figure out how to make a profit. On the other hand, I think he would have been happy to have factories in the United States if you could build great products.

FLATOW: Talking with Walter Isaacson, author of "Steve Jobs," by Walter Isaacson, a terrific book and very easy to read. And as a geek myself, I was struck by the back cover, which a lot of people don't look at a lot, and it has the young Steve Jobs with the original iMac in it.

ISAACSON: And you notice how he's sitting, the lotus position.

FLATOW: Yes. The...

ISAACSON: He had just finished his Buddhist training.

FLATOW: And, you know, the geek in me is saying: Look, there's a floppy disc in the machine.

ISAACSON: And it looks like a human face with a smile, which is the way he wanted it designed.

FLATOW: Is that right?

ISAACSON: He said I want it friendly, and you see that strip on the top...

FLATOW: Yeah.

ISAACSON: ...of the original Mac?

FLATOW: Yeah.

ISAACSON: He kept saying make it narrower. It looks like a Neanderthal. I want it to like a friendly person. I want it to look like a smile.

FLATOW: And when it booted up, if I remember, it had that smiling face.

ISAACSON: It said hello with a smiling face.

FLATOW: Yes.

ISAACSON: And that was it. The designers of the original Mac kept saying: We did not know what it meant when he kept saying make it friendlier. But even when you get to the current desktop computers of Apple, the iMacs and stuff, for a while, he put a recessed handle in it - not because you're going to carry your desktop around, but he said the handle made it clear that the computer defers to you, and you can touch it, and made it friendly.

FLATOW: Yeah. I remember that. They came in colors and...

ISAACSON: You know, the fact that he's sitting in the lotus position amused me, too, because one of his strengths, too, was combining that counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, that quest for enlightenment with the scientific Silicon Valley culture. You found that in California then, people who went off to India to seek spiritual enlightenment, but who were also president of the electronics club. And Steve is the embodiment of that Whole Earth Catalog, tools for living that took computers which used to be sort of tools of the power structure and unfriendly, and said, no. They empower you. They're your friend. They're personal.

FLATOW: Talking with Walter Isaacson on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking about his new book, "Steve Jobs." That's all that had to be said in the title, didn't it? "Steve Jobs."

ISAACSON: I know. The original title, we thought it was iSteve.

FLATOW: iSteve.

ISAACSON: My daughter, you know, she's at college. She said that was the stupidest, geekiest thing. My wife hated it, and Steve hated it. And I said wait a minute. What would Steve Jobs do? You know? A simple title.

FLATOW: Is it enough for us to just say Steve, and everybody knows who we're talking about?

ISAACSON: I don't - I guess so. I'm not sure, you know, a generation from now. But Steve Jobs, it's like Apple Computer. It's a simple, direct name.

FLATOW: Did he ever think about - and I have thought about this over the years, if we wanted to retool - you talk about his business acumen, and that was one of his strengths. We wanted to retool manufacturing, especially the car industry, the year they almost went bankrupt, why couldn't Steve been assigned to build to build an iCar, and come up with an idea like that?

ISAACSON: You know, he talked to me about that. He said, you know, if I really had another career and another life, I'd love to build a car. And you know why? His father was an auto mechanic, the guy who adopted him, Paul Jobs. He repossessed cars from people who couldn't pay their loan - I mean, for the finance company, but then he fixed them up and sold them back. And what Steve learned from watching his father is how a car company integrates everything. You don't have to go buy the software somewhere and the engine somewhere and the headlights somewhere and the chassis somewhere.

It's all built together in an integrated fashion, and that's what Steve Jobs liked to do with his computers, unlike, say, Dell or Microsoft, where somebody makes the hardware, somebody makes the software. And at the end, I asked him: This end-to-end integration of product, who else does it well? I mean, who - I was seeing if there's any other technology company. He said no technology companies. The companies that do it well are the car companies. And then, he paused, and he said: Or, at least they used to.

So he always told me if he had had another career, he would have loved to build the greatest car. I think this is true of television, as well. I mean, you talk about brain-dead products.

FLATOW: Right.

ISAACSON: The fact that your VCR has a remote control that is totally complicated and unconnected to the remote control with your TV that's hooked up to a cable box, all totally - you should be able to do what you do with your iPad: pull it out of a box, you know, boot it up, and it'll do what you want.

FLATOW: Did he figure that out before (unintelligible)?

ISAACSON: He said he cracked it. He said he cracked the interface, how to make it simple. And I also think it was part of the philosophy of iCloud, that every device you have - your iPod, your iPhone - it should have synchronized automatically your pictures, your music, your video, the things you want to watch. Life should be simple. And it was Michelangelo who said it: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And that became Steve's mantra.

FLATOW: And there was another - I can't remember, the technologist is either or the author is either Isaac Asimov or one of the other people who said that the best technology, not only is it magical, but you don't have to know that it's there when it's working.

ISAACSON: That's the iPad. Everything he did had a certain magical quality. You're right.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I only have about a minute to the break, and Walter will be staying with us. Did he know - can he look at something and say, you know, this is something you'll want to have, even before I make it, you know, but you're going to want it now?

ISAACSON: You know, at the first retreat that the Macintosh team takes in the early 1980s, somebody says, we ought to have some focus groups to see what people want. And Steve says: How do people know what they want until we've shown them? And he quoted Henry Ford, saying: "If I had done focus groups, people would have told me they wanted a faster horse." So he said - at the end of the book, I just have him talking about his legacy, he says: It's our job to read what's on the page before other people see it written on the page. And I think he had that emotional connection that allowed him to do that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Walter Isaacson. The book is "Steve Jobs." You can tweet us @scifri, and as I said, the number again: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Walter Isaacson, author of the new book, "Steve Jobs." He's also the CEO of the Aspen Institute. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Walter, you write in the book that you sometimes heard many different versions of how a particular meeting or relationship played out. You had one from Steve. You had four from others. How did you reconcile those different things?

ISAACSON: Well, I think that's what journalists or writers try to do, is gather information, say: Here in my gut is what I think is true. And I don't think it's because people were misleading. It's just that he had a very strong personality and force field around him. So the day he resigned in August is, you know, a month or two ago, as CEO of Apple, I talked to him right after the resignation. He told me the whole story of what he said and what he did. And then, within a day, I talked to three people on the board, and they told me the whole story.

And there were, you know, some different versions of it. I think that a journalist can usually try to get at the truth, but you make mistakes. And then later on, you'll write and correct them. Also, you sometimes err on the side of kindness, because you could always take the most sensational story, the I-told-Steve-and-then-he-bit-my-head-off story. But you actually want to put it into a context of, oh, and then, we actually got the job done and Steve was right, and he made us do amazing things. So you try to put it in the context of here's the best explanation that helps you appreciate the guy.

FLATOW: Your book isn't very flattering in how it portrays Steve's relationship with other people sometimes.

ISAACSON: Especially in the beginning.

FLATOW: Yes.

ISAACSON: He was a tough customer, very demanding. There's a passion for perfection, and he divides everybody into heroes and dunces. I mean, you know, either you're the best-ever artist, or you totally stink at what you do. And so he could be brutal. But as I said just a moment ago, I try to put it in the context of when he gets the team right, he's able to tell them you can shave 10 seconds off the boot-up time of the Mac. And they say no, that's impossible.

And he convinces them you can do it, and in the end, they shave 28 seconds off of it. So he's able to convince them they can do the impossible, sometimes by being very brusque and rude. He says, look. Brutal honesty is the price of admission for being in the room with me. I can tell you you're full of it. You can tell me I'm full of it. But in the end, they used to give an award at the old Macintosh team of the person who stood up to Steve the best during the year. It was usually won by a woman, you know, Joanna Hofmann, Debbie Coleman. They got promoted. They stuck with Steve.

By the end, he's got - I mean, people would not have stayed with him if he were a true jerk. By the end of his career, both at Apple, everywhere else, he's got a very loyal set of topnotch players who actually are more faithful and loyal and inspired by him than in any other company has.

FLATOW: And in one of those instances you talk about in the book, occasionally, he appreciates it when sometimes being proven wrong, and I'm going to talk about the disc drive for the Macintosh.

ISAACSON: Oh, that's where he finally talked to people around him: Sometimes you have to just defy me. For a while, they're doing the Mac, you know, the new - the original Macintosh. You're right, the first Macintosh. And he wants some disc drive that some company he thinks is better to make it. They know - the engineers - that that company is going to screw it up. So they secretly get Sony - a guy from Sony to help develop the disc drive. And whenever Steve comes around, they have to hide him.

And at one point, Steve came unexpectedly onto the engineering floor, and they pushed the poor Sony engineer into a closet. And he finally says I do not mind, but your American business habits are very strange. Steve, when he found out that they had done that - and frankly, it saved his bacon, because they did need the new drive - he just smiled and said I guess I taught you guys right.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Let's go to Bob in Plymouth, Michigan. Hi, Bob.

BOB: Oh, hi. Yeah. I wanted to ask Mr. Isaacson about the meeting between Steve Jobs and Ken Olsen from Digital Equipment. I don't know if that ever happened, but the rumor was around Digital in Maynard for a long time that that Steve wanted to talk to Ken about possibly, you know, working together. Ken, of course, didn't like PCs, but Digital was pretty good with networks. And I guess it's a little scary to think what Jobs and Ken together might have come up with regarding networking and Internets and so forth. Did he ever - does Mr. Isaacson know whether that actually happened or...

ISAACSON: No, I don't know much about that meeting. Steve met, of course, with all sorts of business leaders, and he said - in praising Bill Gates once, he said: We like to have end-to-end control at Apple, of the hardware, the software, the content and everything else. Because Microsoft will license out and work with others, they have embedded in their genetic code the ability to collaborate with other companies. And it's not one of the strengths of Apple, and it's not one of my strengths. And that's a nice way of saying that Steve often clashed with partners, rivals, whatever.

He had a very good relationship with Intel, because they made the chips. But even then, with the great Paul Otellini running Intel, you know, there are times when they can't agree on making the right chip for the product that Apple wants. So Steve was not at his best when it came to making business alliances.

FLATOW: And his final relationship with Bill Gates, how did that wind up?

ISAACSON: Absolutely astonishing. I mean, if you want a history of the digital age, you need to look at these two people. I call it a binary star system, which your listeners would appreciate, because it's, you know, two stars whose gravitational pull on each other causes their orbits to be linked.

Starting in the late '70s, Bill Gates, with a fledgling company called Microsoft, is writing Word programs and that, you know, spreadsheet programs for the Apple II and the original Mac. And...

FLATOW: People forget that, that Bill Gates supplied the original...

ISAACSON: But that - oh they used to -

FLATOW: I remember that, you know.

ISAACSON: Bill Gates told me - he said, I used to go to every one of those Hawaii marketing meetings for Apple and be there on, you know, fake game shows and dating games that we did together, and there for all the dances.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISAACSON: They were very close. There was a rivalry and a respect, a friendship and a competition. And, of course, it got really bad when Bill Gates creates Windows, which Steve felt was a ripping off of the look and feel of the Macintosh operating system. You know, Bill Gates said, well, you know, we both ripped it off from Xerox, but, oh. I mean, it was - actually, I can understand why Steve was mad, because they had done great improvement.

And - but by the very end, this - you know, a few months ago, Bill comes by to visit and, you know, spends three hours talking with - at Steve's home in Palo Alto about the 30-some years they had spent together. And he even makes the admission that Steve - to Steve: Your way of integrating end-to-end products, that actually makes for beautiful products. And afterwards, Bill said, I said that to him, but I think only Steve Jobs could have done it. You had to have been an artist with a passion for detail and perfection to do that integration.

When I told Steve that, he said, oh, no. That's bull. If Bill had wanted to, he could do it. But I said, well, who else did it? And that the conversation we had about car companies were the only ones he thought of who did end-to-end integration.

FLATOW: Was Steve angry about his impending death?

ISAACSON: No. I think, in fact, he kept believing he was going to outrun the cancer. He had his DNA sequenced. In fact, it was a whole genetic sequencing. And he was able to get molecular targeted therapy. You know, I talked at one point in the book about how he was trying to treat it with diets, but you have to realize he was also getting the most advanced scientific treatment that kept him alive for seven years. And even in my last meeting with him, just, you know, a month or two before he died, he was saying, oh, I'm going to go on this new drug regimen. I think it's going to carry me through for another year. I think I'm going to outrun it. He used to call it the lily pad. He thinks I'll get - he said, I think I'll get to the next lily pad.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I'm talking with Walter Isaacson, author of the new book on Steve Jobs. Let's see if we can get a call or two here - in here. Alfredo in Cleveland. Hi.

ALFREDO: Hello, Ira. Hello, Walter.

ISAACSON: Hello, sir.

FLATOW: Alfredo.

ALFREDO: I just want to hit three quick points. A friend's son just recently left Apple. As he described it - now, this is a PhD in engineering, from San Francisco over to China on a regular basis. And he left for what he described as a hostile work environment, which he felt was coming from the top-down. And all the descriptions of all the kindness and elevating Mr. Jobs to virtual sainthood is kind of looking at one side, and I think, Walter, you mentioned, erring on the side of kindness. I thought a journalist or author is supposed to err on the side of facts.

ISAACSON: Well, you know, when you get six or seven versions of a story, you always try to say exactly what was the truth, and I always aimed for the honesty. I think if you look at the book, he would feel, you would feel that I tried to be very honest, including about the fact that he was not the most nurturing, sweetest of all bosses. And I hear where you're coming from. I do think there are lots of tales in the book in which I try to be very honest, but I do try to show that he does, by doing it, inspire most people - obviously, not everybody - but most people into being part of a loyal team that tends not to leave him.

FLATOW: And as far as workers in China being mistreated or that kind of criticism that was leveled against his company?

ISAACSON: Yeah. You know, I can't sort of elevate him to sainthood there. He did not sit there as much and worry about the outsourcing to Foxconn, but they did. Apple, as a company, spent a lot of time trying to make sure conditions at Foxconn and in China were improved. And I think Steve spent a lot of time thinking about: How could we get more jobs back to America?

FLATOW: And so you think his legacy is intact?

ISAACSON: I think his legacy will always be a mixed one of somebody who had a very artistic temperament - which could make him difficult to deal with - but as a result created awesomely, insanely, great, beautiful, emotionally connective products. But even more importantly, I think his legacy will be the creation of Apple. When I asked him: What's your best creation? I thought he'd say the iPad. He said Apple Computer, because it is a place - which we don't realize, you can't just do startups and products. You have to leave a place that nurtures the idea that imagination should be connected to technology. And there are not as many places in this country as there should be that nurture that. People say: I want to do a startup. I want to sell it. Google does it well. Apple does it well. And I think imagination, creativity and technology should be welded. That will be his legacy.

FLATOW: But it took a vision of - his vision to be able to hold it all together, that a piecemealing...

ISAACSON: Right. And the question is: Will Tim Cook and Jony Ive and the four or five other top players in Apple be able to have a collaborative joint vision that holds it together? Jony Ive is the best industrial designer of our era. Tim Cook is one of the best - probably the best manager, corporate manager of our era. I think those people can hold it together. Five or 10 years from now, we'll see.

FLATOW: All right, Walter. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

ISAACSON: Ira, it's always a pleasure to be with you.

FLATOW: Walter Isaacson, author of the new book "Steve Jobs." It's a great read. It's a giant book, but it goes really, very, very fast right through it. And it's always a pleasure to have you. Thanks for coming.

ISAACSON: And I'll be back. I hope.

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