Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview"

You do not have to be an adherent of the Cult of Mac in order to find "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview" fascinating and, at times, mesmerizing. It's a look back at the prodigal son of Apple in 1995, near the end of his exile from the company he started in a garage, before he would take up the reins of leadership again and help transform it into the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world.

The interview by Robert X. Cringely is from a TV show he produced, "The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires." That subtitle is somewhat accurate and somewhat not, for the Jobs revealed in this 69-minute portrait started working on computers as a teenage hobbyist, but displayed tremendous business acumen as well as a visionary ability to grasp the profound effect technology can have on our lives.

Jobs may have gotten started as an accident, but his empire was hardly a fluke.

Let me just say for the record that I am not a wild-eyed adherent to the iconography of the recently departed Jobs. I was among those who expressed bewilderment as my friends poured out their hearts about his death on Facebook and other social media. As a I wrote in a huffy response at the time, Jobs was not an inventor nor a builder -- he would describe what he wanted a product to do, and other people would go build it for him. And he was known to be quite a jerk to those who worked for him.

But the Jobs I see in this wide-ranging interview displays the charm that also earned him a loyal following, both within his companies and his customer base. It's occasionally a sad reflection to see this man in his prime, around age 40, still with a (mostly) full head of hair and fleshy face -- not the emaciated figure in the black mock turtleneck we're so used to now.

The production values are minimalist -- a simple one-shot of Jobs sitting in front of a chair in a multi-hued background, a computer monitor off to the side. The master tapes of the interview were lost, so only a VHS recording, recently found in one of the crew member's garage, survives. It's raw footage, almost completely unedited -- at one point, Jobs even unloads a big, wet sneeze in the middle of his commentary.

No doubt Jobs, who was famous for his fastidiousness about the look and feel of his products, would have tut-tutted the low resolution and streaky lines in the image.

But after awhile, these concerns fade as Cringely probes deeper into Jobs' career and personal feelings about the company that gave him the boot in a 1985 power struggle. Cringely is a subtle interviewer, allowing his subject to occasionally ramble, but nudging him in interesting directions with his understated questions.

Jobs talks about he and partner Steve Wozniak first creating their own computers so they could make free telephone calls. Still in their teens, they used it to call the Vatican in a nearly-successful attempt to get the Pope on the phone. In typical Jobs fashion, he manages to frame that youthful escapade in a broader perspective.

"We were young, and what we learned was that we could build something ourselves that could control billions of dollars worth of infrastructure in the world."

Jobs also waxes about getting rich so young, noting that he was worth $1 million at age 23, $10 million at 24 and $100 million by 25. He professes not to be impressed by his wealth, being so focused on building Apple that he never sold any of his company shares.

In one of his more ruminating moments, Jobs opines that everyone should be required to learn a computer language, because programming teaches you how to think.

Jobs also speaks freely about his enemies and competitors, in terms that are highly disparaging without seeming to contain a large amount of emotion or personal bile.

Saying of John Sculley, the former PepsiCo president he tapped to be Apple CEO, who would eventually force Jobs out of the company, he simply says, "I hired the wrong person."

He deflects criticism about his blunt style, such as telling employees their work was a shorter word for excrement. Brilliant people are confident enough in their ideas to defend them, Jobs says, adding that he never minded being proven wrong.

Jobs saves some of his sharpest barbs for IBM and Microsoft, praising their business success but paying the ultimate (for Jobs) disservice by saying the things they made were ugly and cheap.

"The only problem with Microsft is that they have no taste," he says. "They don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product...

"They just make really third-rate products. Their products have no spirit to them. There's no spirit of enlightenment about them. They're very pedestrian. The sad part is most of their customers don't have that spirit, either."

Near the end Cringely asks Jobs to look into the future, and he makes two notable predictions -- one wonderfully inaccurate, and the other spot-on.

Jobs says Apple is dying, and calls their slide "irreversible." Of course, 18 months after the interview he would be back at the helm, and quickly set about proving himself wrong.

The other is his recognition early on that the Internet would change the face of not only computing, but much of how people communicate, and how businesses sell their wares.

"The smallest company in the world can look as large as the largest company in the world on the Web," Jobs says. "The Web is going to be the defining social moment for computers."

"Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview" is a lively encounter with a very real, if flawed, oracle.

3.5 stars out of four

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