I wrote a piece for the Times (of London) about the bizarre time I interviewed Steve Jobs. I thought it would be worth trying to write something about him that gave a different perspective than the rest of the coverage I've read over the last few days. Overall, it perhaps says as much -- or more -- about me as him. But I thought you might want to take a look anyway.
If you want to pay for access, you can read it here: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/technology/article3146881.ece
Otherwise, here's the original draft. It runs to about 2,000 words, so prepare yourself!
IT'S THE SITUATION that millions of technology devotees would give everything to find themselves in: sitting in a room opposite Steve Jobs, with the chance to engage him in an ordinary conversation. Except, of course, that whatever happened the conversation would never be classed as ordinary -- because Jobs is not just the head of a company, he's the leader of a religion: Apple.
Sitting opposite the master is precisely where I found myself one morning in Paris a few years ago. It was the culmination of a long campaign I'd been waging to gain access to him: in fact, as somebody who writes about technology, getting an interview with Jobs had become an obsession.
In recent years, particularly since his health has declined, he has barely talked directly to the media, and back then he was no more forthcoming. I'd been pestering Apple for years, trying to convince them that he should spare me even just a few minutes, only to be constantly told it was never going to happen.
But one day in September 2005, just as I had given up all hope of succeeding, the phone rang and I got the news: I'd been granted a one-to-one audience with the man himself.
Suddenly I started to panic about what it would be like, building it up in my head: after all, what exactly do you think you'll find when you meet a billionaire who has built a reputation for changing the world?
Over the years I'd built up a vague impression of what I could expect. There were stories detailing how he ruled the company with an iron fist. There were tales about the notorious "flamethrower" treatment he would give to anyone who made a mistake. His attention to detail and perfectionism were legendary.
Beyond this, I suppose I expected him to be something like the other captains of industry that I had come across as a reporter. Billionaires had a tendency to light up a room as soon as they walked in -- even if just because everybody else knew who they were.
Nearly all of them were blessed with magnetic personalities and enormous presence. The rest were possessors of a relentless, engaging intelligence that immediately dragged you in. Given what I knew about the levels of devotion given to Apple, I expected a leader so charismatic that his troops would die for him, somebody who could bend iron bars purely through the force of willpower. I expected fireworks.
Sitting in a hastily-constructed basement office in suburban Paris a week later, the reality turned out to be very, very different.
The interview took place during Apple's Paris Expo, a showcase of the company's latest and greatest technology. They had recently released some new gadgets -- including the now-forgotten Motorola ROKR, an ugly and unsuccessful precursor to the iPhone -- and Jobs had arrived to marshall a small press conference.
Once he had finished taking questions from the media, I was asked to accompany him and his retinue on a walk around the Expo, which had not yet opened. It was, I suppose, a chance to gaze upon a little piece of the empire that he had wrought.
Like everything else in Jobs's life, the schedule was meant to be tightly managed: a quick turn around the show floor, and then downstairs to his temporary office for our interview.
But just as I prepared for my big moment, fate threw two fingers up to my plans. Almost as soon as Jobs began his stroll, a wild gaggle of Apple fans suddenly appeared -- hooting, yelling his name and swarming all over us.
It emerged that somebody had left a door open at the other end of the building, and some Apple-zealots outside had spotted their man in the distance, and the length of the expo hall to try and get a quick shake of the hand or snatch a photograph with him.
Jobs, who had clearly not planned for this sudden brush with his faithful, visibly cringed as they approached. His bodyguards quickly realised he was unhappy, surrounded him and bundled him downstairs. A public relations officer grabbed me by the arm. "Give him a few minutes to sort himself out," she said. "Then you're on."
Suddenly I was in a room with the man I'd been chasing for years. But it wasn't what I expected at all.
Yes, the man sitting in front of me looked like the Steve Jobs I knew. He was dressed in the trademarked Steve Jobs uniform: a black turtleneck, loose blue jeans that never quite seem to fit, a pair of comfortable trainers. His hair was short, but not too closely-shaven. His thin, almost-invisible glasses gave him the air of a modern intellectual.
But the Steve Jobs I was used to seeing was always in command, always in control -- on stage, launching new products and telling the world to Think Different. This one, however, seemed shaken, and a little confused. As the interview was meant to begin, he sat at a computer near me and I watched as his face went blank. He went silent for five minutes or so. I studied him carefully as he lapsed into what seemed like a Buddhist trance.
We had half an hour scheduled to talk. I kept glancing up at the clock, the second hand slashing down my allowance with each movement. His assistant indicated that he still needed time to settle.
After a few more minutes -- each of them feeling like hours -- he suddenly roused. It was as if he'd just woken up, or as if somebody, somewhere had suddenly switched him on. It was startling. I half expected him to open his mouth and hear the sound of a computer booting up.
Though he was clearly still disturbed by his brief encounter with the real world -- even if they were the real people who bought his iPods and his iMacs -- he came to sit opposite me. He adopted a defensive, protective posture and motioned for me to begin.
We talked for the rest of that half hour in fits and starts. It was a stilted, jabby conversation, but the thing I remember most were his eyes: dark, penetrating things. I saw plenty of them, too, since he spent much of his time looking me directly in the eye -- his way perhaps of challenging me or batting back questions that he felt were impudent or inappropriate. As the minutes ticked by, that felt like most of them.
I asked him about Apple's environmental record, which had come in for some criticism recently. He rejected the claim that Apple's products were less green than its rivals with the same, precise line that he had used in the press conference.
"One automobile is, I'm sure, greater in impact than 100,000 iPods," he told me. "You can bring your iPod into an Apple store and get it recycled, and we run a battery replacement scheme. Even our packaging reflects these concerns: it's dramatically smaller these days, and we have removed styrofoam and such things."
When I pushed for more detail he simply refused to go any further. "I've said all there is to say," he responded. "Next question".
I mentioned his health. It was a year after he had undergone an operation to rid him of pancreatic cancer, and it seemed that he had beaten the disease into remission. Doesn't it feel good to be back in charge at Apple? He simply sat there and waited until the next question.
I asked him about his political ambitions. Apple, after all, had become a huge hit partly because it painted a picture of itself as the ambassador for a young, urban, progressive population. He was dismissive that this was representative of anything.
"We're not trying to sell belief," he answered, sharply. "We're just who we are. Apple has values we care about; Apple cares about tolerance. We are not a political company, but a company with a set of values."
But those values were close to his own, I pointed out, and he was well connected. Al Gore, a friend of his, had a seat on Apple's board. Jobs had volunteered himself as an advisor to John Kerry's unsuccessful campaign for the White House. He and his wife, Lauren, had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes over the last few years. So what did he think of the state of American politics? He just returned a cold, blank stare.
On more comfortable territory, he could let loose a little. He said people who messed around with Apple's software were tantamount to thieves. He said record label bosses were fat cats for wanting to make more money from iTunes.
"Music companies make more money when they sell a song on iTunes than when they sell a CD," he said. "If [record labels] want to raise prices, it's because they're greedy. If the price goes up, people turn back to piracy and everybody loses."
Those brief moments of light came every time he was on safe ground, when he had an enemy, and a narrative in which Apple was fighting the forces of darkness.
Still, things were hard. I knew Jobs was a notoriously secretive and private man who had little time for the press. But I had not expected every question to be met with such a dead bat. For most of my time with him, it seemed that he was barely even in the room. What was it?
Of course, he never speaks a great deal in public. Though Steve Jobs is known for his appearances on stage, he tends to let his products do most of the talking. And certainly he felt that his time could have been better spent than fielding questions from an irritating young journalist. But it wasn't just my awkward, artless interviewing that had discombobulated him.
My presence seemed to be another reminder that not everything could be controlled, in the same way that his unexpected brush with his fans -- an audience that he famously satisfies by ignoring almost everything they ask for -- had left him off-balance.
This is, after all, a man whose life is so carefully orchestrated that he rarely has to do anything he doesn't want to. He spends most of his life in or around Apple's headquarters in the Silicon Valley suburb of Cupertino, the same area where he has lived his entire life. He follows a strict routine. He is afforded great leeway by his thousands of staff, who interpret every word and action as if they were pronouncements from a prophet coming down from the mountain.
In fact, he is so used to getting his way that when his cancer first appeared, he and tried to beat it into submission simply through focusing on a diet of fruits and vegetables. It didn't work.
Perhaps, then, the disconnected Steve Jobs that I met was not simply dismissive or rude. Perhaps he was just a man who was desperately trying to assert control over an uncomfortable situation.
As Jobs's assistant called time on our rendezvous, he ground to a halt and wandered back over to his computer. I was ushered back out into the corridor left wondering what it was that had just happened.
Over the years I have met rich entrepreneurs and innovators of all stripes: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Google's Eric Schmidt. I've interviewed people who have revolutionised the world through their work, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web.
By reputation, I was supposed to have just met the most mesmerising character the business world had seen in decades. In person, Steve Jobs turned out to be the most inscrutable -- and the most peculiar -- of them all. §