On My Idol Worship of Steve Jobs (A Book Review)

Back in March I wrote this piece on the whole RMS debacle and how we have to stop worshiping and coddling idols. I came to that conclusion long before the RMS debacle. I experienced my own idol worship experience in my early years. My most intensive idol worship was around Steve Jobs. I’ve read many biographies on him, watched all the movies, documentaries, etc. I could find. The biography and history story of NeXT chronicled in the 1993 book Steve Jobs & The NeXT Big Thing by Randall E. Stross though is something quite different. Most Jobs biographies are fawning with a hint of mild criticism in a few choice places. Some like The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson provided a more nuanced picture that showed a bunch of Steve’s warts, and not in a “well akshully that was a good thing” rationalization sort of way. They were written after Job’s had his redemption with the return to Apple though. Stross’s book on the other hand is a very one sided scathing critique of Jobs with very little if any positive things to say. It was written in 1993 at the trough of NeXT the hardware company and before they “successfully” converted to a software company. While it is scathing and solely/mostly negative I believe it is fair and accurate.

Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer Launch Promotional Photo
Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer Launch Promotional Photo


In this era of new idol worship I’m finding myself rethinking my own prior positions in the context of the now-known reality. Beyond my prior worship of Jobs I absolutely love NeXT computers, the hardware and the software. I obsess about the design aesthetic and think it is peak computer design. I collect them along with other classic computers. I spend way too much time reading about them. I love the fact that modern macOS and iOS are built on them. I still need to look at the dark history of the company revealed in this book and confront it. So the TL;DR are that I love this book for bringing this harsh reality of this thing and person I paid too much deference.

The Original Version

Let me transport you back to the mid-1980s when I was a computer geek kid. Most kids are off idolizing sports stars. I was idolizing Steve Jobs. This was open knowledge. I remember an adult cousin signing an 8th grade graduation Hallmark card to me with “Congratulations to the next Steve Jobs!” Jobs was the then present day Edison in the same way Musk is today. Being a kid I was a little too prescriptive in wanting to follow the archetype laid out in Apple’s origin story but I wasn’t alone in that. It turns out lots of Silicon Valley types do the same thing. It is just the most amazing story though. Two kids in a garage using nothing but their own wits, long hours and tons of elbow create a multi-billion dollar company out of nothing. They tell all the naysayers to fuck off and go on to create a new industry that changes the way we all work. Who wouldn’t want to try to accomplish the same thing?

Of course that is all just a story. The reality is radically different. The reality is impressive in its own right but it doesn’t fit the Paul Bunyan type culture narrative we crave. However as they say perception is reality, for a while anyway, and that was my reality at the time. I cared way too much about the slings and arrows of the computer age. I got into Mac vs. PC discussion board wars. I was on the wrong side of the Apple “look and feel” lawsuit against Microsoft, which was even before they were the evil empire of the 1990s. But it was the mesmerizing study of what Jobs was doing after Apple that really got me excited. This was all of his efforts at NeXT computer.

For the uninitiated Jobs was essentially forced out of Apple in 1985 after the dismal launch of the Macintosh product line. He then decided to create a new computer company that would create the computer for the 1990s, the next computer that we all would be using. Hence the name NeXT. As a quirk of history he wasn’t exactly wrong in that. If you have an modern day Mac, iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch you are running the operating system and software that they wrote for this computer. But that is all a post hoc rationalization about Jobs “being right after all”. Reality is actually far from that. At the time though Jobs, the Silicon Valley wunderkind who “invented the Macintosh” had everyone waiting with bated breath for his next revolution. Three years later it was finally brought to public with the release of the NeXT Computer.

Even though my opinion of Jobs has tarnished greatly over the years my love of this computer has not. Here is a scan of the Byte magazine article covering the initial release of the machine (actually a beta release that would come much later). There was a comparable Macworld one. Both of them I carried around when I traveled and I’d flip through over and over again the way most kids my age would flip through an sports car magazine or Sports Illustrated. These machines were amazing to me. The press really talked them up too. It had a revolutionary display system, Display Postscript. It had these powerful processors. It had this great programming environment. It also looked really cool. Powerful, well designed, and elegant, what wasn’t there to like? I calculated how many lawns I’d have to cut to buy one of these machines that started at $7000 for university students and $10,000 for everyone else. That was just dreaming stuff. Actually buying one never came to fruition. But it was the tantalizing nature of it that drew me in. I got even more excited when a few years later they released the “affordable” NeXTstation line for “only” $5000 a start.

The dream of owning a NeXT computer vanished in 1993 when NeXT announced they were getting out of the hardware business and only selling their operating system, NEXTSTEP, from then on. But how could this be? They were right behind Sun and were cranking out the best machines in the world running the best operating system in the world. That was the impression from the outside anyway, but more on that in a moment. The saving grace was that the software was now going to be available to PCs. In April of 1993, a few months before they canceled their hardware line, they announced a version called NEXTSTEP that was available for 486 and Pentium machines link. The new college student me was very excited about that anyway. I could finally be part of the NeXT world! That is until I saw that it cost $800 for a regular license, another $2000 for a developer kit. On top of all that my brand new pretty decked out Pentium computer my family paid $3000 to get me for engineering school only had half the recommended RAM and the OS and dev tools would take up the entire hard disk all by itself. At least the dream was alive though. At least Steve Jobs was still revolutionizing the computer industry! After struggling in the wilderness it came to pass that he would really do so in the late-1990s when he got back to Apple. Nirvana achieved. That was the story I and many others told ourselves anyway.

The Real Version

I knew about a bunch of the warts around NeXT long before I read this book but the level of details here, again written in 1993 so it’s not like this is a newly uncovered secret, are simply astounding to me. This information was technically accessible to everyone including me back at the peak of Jobs idol worship. Instead we mostly got these fawning articles. There was a little coverage with skepticism in the press. A whole book was published about it obviously, but it at best barely got above the noise floor. Jobs was a god and while he was a demanding boss it was all actually for the good. The reality was actually pretty dark, and not just for the employees, but they are the first group I want to talk about.

Jobs as the grueling unforgiving taskmaster and his tirades are Silicon Valley legend. It’s sadly also the archetype so many aspire to emulate. Nothing is good enough. No amount of work is sufficient. Everyone else doesn’t get it and they are bozos. From the outside it was framed as masterful team manipulation, to a point. It was the thing that got him booted over to the Macintosh team, which was a side project before he got involved, and then booted to a corner office to do nothing after Macintosh bombed. It reached truly horrific proportions at NeXT though. There is an irony that at its founding they had relatively egalitarian goals. There were only two pay scales. The company was going to be mostly owned by the employees and there were generous perks. They were one of the earliest to offer domestic partner benefits for same sex couples even. But the mercurial Jobs was ever present and without constraint. What was worse was the cult like following that people had for him not in spite of but because of that behavior. They were sold on a cult-like vision of changing the world around this charismatic leader. The charismatic leader fawned over them to get there. Like a bad drug though the high from that wears off fast and you have to work harder and harder to try to get to that point again but never do. The rationale was that they were there voluntarily so what. Many were yes. They were selling their souls not just for the cause but for the potential for stock options. Many however borrowed heavily against their salaries to the company itself. Those had to be paid in full on exit. That created some serious golden handcuffs along with those illusive stock options. All of those options though were heavily diluted as big investors were brought in to bail them out anyway though. Which gets me to even more egregious behaviors.

All companies and people put out puffery around whatever they are offering. The degree with which it is done is really the only big difference. There are still bounds which when one goes outside of presents major breeches of ethics. Vaporware is persistent and people live and die by demos. Development schedules can be over optimistic. Trying to play accounting games on units shipped or received is just par for the course. Jobs and NeXT in my book took it to the level of near or actual fraud though. They announced a product as basically shipping when it was months or years away. They did this repeatedly. They announced huge partnerships and sales numbers which were beyond stretching the truth and into outright lying. For example they would puff up about all of the Fortune 500 companies that were lining up for orders. They didn’t even have a commitment letter much less actual sales when they said this. They did this to literally everyone. Software companies jumped on the bandwagon under these false pretenses. Small computer distributors did too. In the case of distributors the icing on the cake was that the terms of their contract were such that they didn’t even get bulk discounts when new models came out displacing all of the old inventory that just sat there for years and years. What is most indicting though was that that same treatment extended to the investors and employees too.

It’s not great that much of NeXT was just puffery. Yes by Version 3 they had a solid operating system and development environment. Yes their hardware had some really interesting features and style. But throughout that, all the way to the end, they lied to their employees, board members, and investors. Jobs used his reality distortion field (RDF) to get universities to sign up for being on an advisory board to add cache to their offerings early on but he refused to let them see any details about the machine much less advise them on its design. Right up until its unveiling in 1988 they didn’t get much more than marketing slick type data and still no price except that it was going to be “slightly higher than the $3000” they said it needed to be at or under when they joined on in 1985/1986. Granted their view into it was more like traditional marketing slicks but it was still far more detail than what the outside world would see. For example they knew it would be running on Motorola 68K chips which may or may not have the oomph needed for the software running on it compared to the up and coming RISC processors that were the new avant garde. They really didn’t know much else, including the price besides the vagaries. Then right before the launch when they were expected to commit millions of dollars of their universities’ money to buy these things and tell everyone what a great deal it was it came out that the “close” number was actually $7000. That number too was disingenuous because that was the starting price. The price for a reasonably configured system could be almost twice that. Again these were people with NDAs and inner circle who were repeatedly hoodwinked until the last moment. It doesn’t stop there though.

Investors were perpetually given overly optimistic versions of the world. They went beyond half truths, especially as time went on and the situation became more dire. Yes it was started with Jobs’s post-Apple stock money but that ran dry relatively quickly because of the insanely lavish things he decided to spend on which did nothing but create the appearance of a much larger and more successful company than they ever would become. It worked to some extent because when Ross Perot showed up he bought the whole thing hook line and sinker. He invested enough at an insanely inflated share price Jobs picked out of thin air to make the paper value of a company that had no product even remotely close to shipping $100 million. That was parlayed into other investors from other companies. Irrational exuberance and FOMO played as much a role as the Jobs RDF. So too did Jobs stacking the board with sycophants and genuflectors. It made it all the more real for the investors to buy the rosiest of prognostications despite all evidence to the contrary if they just demanded to look slightly more critically. This wasn’t a publicly traded company unlike many of their partners so reporting requirements are much more slack but, again, this behaviors stretched far beyond acceptable bounds. The nature of their made up sales numbers remained perpetually opaque to investors and employees almost as much as to the public. It’s one thing to put out a puff piece on your sales numbers as a marketing exercise. It is another to do it to your investors and employees. Yet this was NeXT’s trademark again and again, literally until the very end of the hardware era, where the book ends.

Conclusions

I knew that Jobs was a tyrant of a boss. I knew that Jobs had an RDF that he used to get the impossible out of people and convince others that whatever he was selling was “insanely great” whether it was a turd or not. I knew that extended to wildly optimistic prognostications about how great something was going to be or how many of something he’d ship. I never knew that it extended beyond that to what was essentially fraud though. I say essentially because no one sued nor was anyone arrested. So a generous interpretation I have is that what they did may not have been illegal but it was definitely morally wrong. The consequences of that extend beyond just Jobs. It destroyed lives of workers, played parts in the failures of many businesses, and cost his investors hundreds of millions of dollars. All of that could still have happened when people reach for the stars and fail. I don’t begrudge them that necessarily. We all get caught up in our own exuberance. That’s part of the reason why you don’t want to surround yourself with suck ups and head nodders. Again though they went way beyond those bounds in their pursuit of maintaining a vision of where they were versus their hard reality.

One potential silver lining was the Apple acquisition. If those investors and employees actually had their shares at the time of the buyout and they weren’t diluted before that point then they actually may have made out okay. That is at best a consolation prize though, especially to the other businesses in the wake of the fraud they perpetrated. It was not part of a grand Jobsian vision though. It was a luck of history that Apple’s multi-year operating system plan blew up in their face and they had no choice but to buy someone else’s operating system or perish. If Apple had gone with BeOS or Solaris, two of the other alternatives considered, then we probably wouldn’t be having a conversation about how NeXT built software that was designed so well that it lives on as the core of the modern frameworks used to program millions of phones and computers today. They would instead be a footnote in computer history with a lot of collateral damage around them. While I’m glad things turned out the way they did and the software legacy of NeXT is still with us, I also think it is a travesty that we have allowed the idyllic narrative to dominate almost exclusively when we retell it.



Picture of Me (Hank)

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