The Steve Jobs I Knew

by Dan Wiener | October 10, 2011 4:07 pm

Young Steve JobsWith all the interest in and remembrances of Steve Jobs that we’ve seen these past few days, I thought I would take a moment to share some of my own memories of him.

I had occasion to interact with Steve Jobs several times in the 1980s and ’90s. As the reporter responsible for covering the software “beat” for Fortune magazine in the early ’80s, I met many up-and-coming software gurus, including Mitch Kapor of Lotus, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Phillipe Kahn of Borland, Fred Gibbons of Software Publishing, and their peers. Because you really couldn’t cover software without a computer, I also was involved in stories and interviews with the heads of Compaq, Dell and, of course, Apple.

I had worked on a story about Xerox PARC — the research-and-development company where Jobs had first seen the graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse on the Alto computer — and visited many PARC engineers there who later moved on, including the founders of Adobe, computer scientist Alan Kay, and others whose names I now forget. So I had some sense of what had wowed Jobs, and I saw the next iterations of that GUI technology being developed by the folks who had exited PARC. I remember going to Adobe and not really understanding what these Postscript fonts really could do. Sounds ancient now.

When the first little Macintosh box was introduced, Apple sent me one, along with a dot-matrix printer, to test out in my office. I probably had it for two weeks. I was seeing the first iterations of desktop-publishing software as well from companies like Aldus (bought by Adobe) and Manhattan Graphics (long gone). Anyway, I suggested Fortune do a story on desktop publishing, and also had the opportunity to arrange a lunch with Steve Jobs and Fortune‘s then-managing editor, Bill Rukeyser (brother of financial journalist Louis). Bill wanted to invite Henry Grunwald, the head of all of Time Inc.’s editorial division, and before I knew it, the lunch had grown to include all the managing editors of all of Time Inc.’s magazines, plus me, plus one or two other technology reporters. It was the big leagues, and I was decidedly the lowest man on the totem pole, but because I had built the relationship, I was invited.

The lunch was formal. And though Jobs talked about Apple, what sticks in my mind are two things. First, as the plates were brought in (I don’t remember what was served — steak, chicken, whatever), Jobs waved his away and asked if he could have fruit. Waving away food at an editorial lunch that included Henry Grunwald was not something anyone else in the room would ever have done. But Jobs did it, and got a wonderful-looking fruit plate while the rest of us ate our prepared meals.

The other memory I have of that event is that these editors, almost to a man (there might have been one woman present), had no idea what Jobs was talking about. None used personal computers, none knew what GUI or WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) meant, nor did they really care. When I presented my story idea to the Fortune editorial board about desktop publishing, the editors essentially said they didn’t get it, and passed on the story. I was able to write about these computer companies myself in my column, Companies To Watch. The larger story, about how desktop publishing would change the world, was ignored.

The next time I remember getting together with Jobs was when he had already left Apple and started the computer company Next Inc. I was called and told to come to Palo Alto for a big announcement. No hints in advance, but I was told that the announcement was big, and I should push my editors hard to get their approval for the trip. They went for it, and when I got to California I was ushered into a room with Jobs and Ross Perot. Next Inc. was about to announce that Perot was putting big money into the company (I can’t remember how much, but it might have been $10 million or something). The thing about this meeting was Ross Perot’s personal force field was equally as strong as Steve Jobs’. You’ve probably heard that Jobs has this force field that sort of grabs you and pulls you in and, if you aren’t careful, you start believing and agreeing with everything he says. It’s amazing.

Well, Perot has the exact same thing. It became crystal clear to me how in 1978 he’d convinced a team of mercenaries to go into Iran to try and rescue two of his Electronic Data System employees from an Iranian prison. With his little eyes and his squeaky Southern voice, he was somehow Jobs’ match, and I couldn’t believe the energy in the room.

Finally, my wife Ellie and I sat next to Steve and his wife, Laurene, at our friends’ Mike and Kathy’s wedding reception in 1994. We were in the garden of Mike’s house around some circular tables, and I’m not sure how we got there, but I think we were put there on purpose, as Laurene and Kathy are best friends. Steve pretty much kept to himself, and Ellie remembers that he really only liked to talk about things he was interested in, and if you tried to talk about anything else he just turned away or got into something else with someone else. My daughter Anna came over, and I introduced her to Steve, telling her that “this is the man who invented the computer that you like to write and do MacPaint on.” Her response, as only a 7-year old could be, was “So?” And she walked away.

I am saying nothing new when I say Steve was a genius. He also was a driven, and not particularly friendly or amiable guy. I understand he was a great husband and father, but as far as I know, with everyone else it really was pure business. I’m glad I had an opportunity to at least cross paths with a person of his intellect and creativity. The world is a better place because of Steve Jobs.

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