Isaacson: Jobs was 'eager to talk,' exercise 'no control' (Q&A)

CNET chats with author Walter Isaacson, whose authorized biography of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hits shelves today, about topics from Jony Ive to Apple TV.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
10 min read
Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson.
Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. Courtesy of Patrice Gilbert

interview Walter Isaacson's hotly anticipated authorized biography of Steve Jobs hits stores today, and CNET talked with him about putting the book together and his time with the late Apple co-founder.

The book chronicles Jobs' life from beginning to end, and is composed of some 40 interviews Isaacson had with Jobs, who authorized the project and had come to Isaacson, citing the author's ability to get people to talk.

When Jobs first asked Isaacson to write a book about him, the author turned him down. What he didn't know was that Jobs was sick, and had a sense of urgency about getting his personal story out.

The book, "Steve Jobs," which my colleague Stephen Shankland has a review of here, quickly jumped to the top of the sales charts after being made available for preorder earlier this year. Originally planned to be released next year, its publishing date was moved up twice. Meanwhile, Jobs' took a medical leave from Apple in January, staying out of the public eye for much of this year as his health declined, adding extra intrigue to Isaacson's tale. Jobs died earlier this month at the age of 56.

Isaacson, who is also the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute located in Washington D.C. and the chairman of the board of Teach for America, was previously the chairman and CEO of CNN, and before that the managing editor of Time magazine. Isaacson's penned several other biographies, including "Einstein: His Life and Universe," "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," and "Kissinger: A Biography." His book with Jobs is Isaacson's first on a living subject who authorized him with access.

I got a chance to chat with Isaacson over the phone today about his time with Jobs, and writing the book. Read on to find out his take on his time with the technology icon, what he thinks some people don't understand about Jobs, and how close Apple really is to having a TV set in the below transcript, which has been edited.

CNET: To what, if any extent did Jobs try to shape the way readers would perceive the book? I know you say right at the very beginning that he wanted to let it all out there. But how much did he want to know how the book would appear?
Isaacson: The one thing I don't fully understand is why he was so open and repeatedly said he was going to exercise no control. He's usually very interested in controlling his privacy and image. As it went on, he just became more and more eager to talk. He kept deflecting issues of control, except for the cover. When he saw an ugly version of the cover, he got quite annoyed and said "I'm not sure people will even read the book, but they'll look at the cover."

Q: You've written about historical greats like Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Where does Jobs rank in that group?
Isaacson: They each have the ability to think different as Steve said in his ads. Not in the same quantum orbit as Einstein, but there are certain characteristics of people who are smart and ingenious, and they look at the world in a different way. And sometimes it requires being crazy and demanding if you want to put a dent in the universe. Velvet gloves are polite, but don't change things. I think that's the distinction between very smart people like Bill Gates, who is awesomely smart. But the distinction Steve brought was tying a sense of art and beauty and emotion to technology.

Q: How would you describe Jobs as an interview subject? Was he easy-going and cooperative or did he try and "manage" the interview as any perfectionist would?
Isaacson: They almost did not feel like interviews. We'd go on walks in the garden. Otherwise there were just hours of conversation. And I'd listen to his stories. He would lean back and want to talk about everything.

Q: Did you ever shadow Jobs while he was on the job?
Isaacson: Not often. I met with him at work a couple of times. I went into the heavily guarded design studio. Not with Steve but with Jony Ive.

Q: How was that?
Isaacson: Well, it's not a secret, and not all that open. It's tightly-protected. There's a part of the book just wandering through that design studio and hearing from Jony Ive that Steve liked to fondle the models of forthcoming products and power supply cords. He'd make sure that they felt just right. And even little things like design, when Jony and he are doing the original iMac in the late 1990s, Jony wants to put a handle recessed in the top, even though it's a desktop--something people aren't going to carry around with them. Steve intuitively understood that it made it more approachable. It gave people permission to touch the computer.

The other thing he was passionate about, even the parts of the product, formative passion for being an artist, as opposed to how do we maximize profit.

Q: Are there any misconceptions people had about Jobs you think your book might change?
Isaacson: I tried to put into context the emotionalism, that sometimes was reflected in being rough on people. In the arc of the book, you see how people can stand up to him and thrive, and that emotional way of dealing with people helps weed out the mediocre from the star players who can stand up to him.

A lot of people reported on him yelling at some person for doing coding, or just that he yelled at somebody. At first it causes him problems with original Apple. But even back then, there was an award for the person who best stood up to Steve. And he found about about it and loved it, and two people who did it--both women--got promoted.

"There are two sides of Jobs. There's the counterculture, rebellious, new age spiritual side of him. And on the other there's the hard-headed engineer, technologist and business side. And the theme of his life is that those are in conflict, and then he combines the two."

Jobs' pitch was "I'm just a middle-class kid from California. It's my job to make sure there's no mediocre players on the team, and I do that for a reason." So also, there's a various arc of things that I hope create a context.

Another theme of the book that hasn't been picked up on is that there are two sides of Jobs. There's the counterculture, rebellious, new age spiritual side of him. And on the other there's the hard-headed engineer, technologist and business side. And the theme of his life is that those are in conflict, and then he combines the two.

And there's his personal life. He's going out with some very new-agey people, but eventually finds somebody who both satisfies romantic side, but is a solid, sensible, but smart person.

Likewise on the cancer. Everyone's reported he's gone for alternatives treatments. The thing that goes with that is that he was driven to find the latest scientific approaches, including DNA sequencing and targeted therapies. In all aspects of his life, he has to tie together the more ethereal, poetic alternative streak, with the smart sensical business streak. He does that when he and Woz are doing that creating the Apple I.

Q: A lot of the focus on Apple now centers on Tim Cook. How would you describe the relationship between those two based on your conversations with Jobs?
They're very complementary. Steve, in the book, waxes eloquent about Tim. He could trust Tim to understand what Apple was all about.

The important thing was I asked Steve what your best creation was. I thought he'd say it was the iPad. He said "Apple the company." He said making great products can only be done where creativity is nurtured, it can't just be done in garages. Putting together a team with Jony Ive, and Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall. All have strengths in putting together that loyal team, and putting into the genetic code of Apple, mixing creativity with technology, the legacy he will leave. That's why building that new headquarters was so important for him. It would be a physical expression of his ability to create an innovative, lasting company.

Q: It's been fun hearing snippets about Jobs and Gates, Jobs and Ive, Jobs and Eric Schmidt. Do you have a sense about which of his technology or CEO peers Jobs most admired?
Isaacson: He liked (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg because he was making a product, and not just cashing in, but making a lasting company. He told me the hardest thing to do, was not to create the company, but run it. He told me that he admired Zuckerberg for spending the effort to create a company that he wanted it to be. He told me that people who were entrepreneurs, they're not doing the hard work that came after building it.

Q: On that note, how did Jobs perceive his time at NeXT? He spent more then a decade there, but we don't hear much about it in most of the obituaries that have been published since his death.
Isaacson: We didn't spend large amounts of time talking about NeXT, and I studied it. People say that being fired from Apple is what helped him grow. I think the experience at NeXT did.

"People say that being fired from Apple is what helped him grow. I think the experience at NeXT did."

There Jobs indulged in all the best and worst instincts. He created a cube with the perfect logo, and the perfect design. But it was so overpriced and over done they had trouble getting it out the door, and on the market, even though it was really good. And he never really knew before then how to make the sensible tradeoffs that you sometimes have to make.

At one of the original retreats the Mac team used to make, he used to write maxims on a whiteboard. The first was "don't compromise." That's a great maxim, but he took it to extremes at NeXT. There was nobody pushing back on him. It was an uncompromising machine that was very late and very expensive. At NeXT he had to make his own factory with pristine white walls, and to make designs ourselves, versus outsourcing it. That's what he and Tim Cook and others learned at Apple. You can figure out what's sensible to do, and let others do it.

Q: Was there anything Jobs felt like he couldn't accomplish because time was running out. New products or direction for Apple?
Isaacson: I did not put it all in the book, but I did mention that he would love to conquer making a TV that was a beautiful and intuitive and an iPad. He talked to me a lot about it, and I mention it in the book. He felt that he had thought of some ways to crack that code, almost out of difference, it's hard to judge it. I just didn't use some of the ideas that he was kicking around, but I do mention it.

I think he was interested in education and textbooks, and how technology could be used in that regard.

Q: How far along were they on the TV? Did you get any indication of that when talking to Jobs?
Isaacson: They weren't close at all. He told me it was very theoretical. These were theoretical things they were thinking about in the future.

Q: What do you think the public will be most surprised to learn about Steve Jobs after reading your book?
Isaacson: What I call the end to end integration of his personality. Not just that he was rough or a genius, it was that he connected his poetic side and his engineering side. And that, the way---even his what seems like quirks--fit into a unified field theory of his passion for perfection. That passion for perfection could be unnerving. Whether in his family life, or personal life, he ends up being successful in having people with people that follow him.

Q: Did anything surprise you then?
Isaacson: How emotional he was. That comes from the passion. I'm used to dealing with--as you are--people in the tech world who are not hyper emotional. And the fact that he had such an emotional engineering streak. His intention and ability to emotionally connect were even stronger than I expected.

Q: How did Jobs feel about Apple's future and about his legacy?
Isaacson: This was the big legacy: build a great headquarters, drive with great passion to create a team of A players. Over and over again, when I'd say "what drives you?" He'd say he wanted to create a team of A players that will be part of technology history a generation from now because it will have in its soul the ability to combine creativity and technology. That was his biggest passion.

When he resigned as CEO he's in the board room talking to some of its members, and someone mentions that Hewlett-Packard isgetting out of the PC market, and people sort of start laughing about it. And he got very serious, and later said it's a real shame because Bill Hewlett and David Packard left a really great company that should be destined to survive generations, and that's what I'm trying to do at Apple.

Disclosure: "Steve Jobs" is published by Simon & Schuster, which like CNET is owned by CBS.