Here’s how a typical press interview with Steve Jobs used to go in the early 2000s. You wouldn’t be immediately ushered into his presence; you would be passed from PR person to PR person, corridor to corridor, waiting at each step, until you reached the inner sanctum.
You would often pass a fellow journalist on his way out, looking white as a sheet and shaking his head like he’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. You would mentally prepare your questions about the latest Apple product, knowing that Steve would bat them away like flies and say what he wanted to say.
And then there you were, with the man himself: black turtleneck, jeans, white trainers, spiky salt-and-pepper stubble, and those no-nonsense eyes that could look straight into your soul. You’d sputter out a question while he sipped from a bottle of Odwalla. Perhaps he would deign to answer politely, or perhaps he would interrupt: “that’s a stupid question. That’s not what we should be talking about.”
If you could survive twenty minutes of this without cracking, his demeanor would soften. If you were lucky, then just for a moment the mask would slip, and Steve would break into a broad smile. It was a grin that acknowledged the silliness of this interview game — and that you both loved playing your roles in it.
As a technology writer for Time magazine in the 1990s and 2000s, I went through this routine a dozen times. It’s easy to forget, but back then an Apple product launch was not a huge deal. The company was seen as struggling, a distant second to Microsoft, even years after Jobs had retaken the helm. I had to fight for a single page on the launch of the iPod in 2001, for instance, at a time when the headlines were all about war and terror.
But Jobs was always compelling. He was the news. His enormous passion for a product was unrivaled in any industry, before or since. As long as I could convey him on the page, Steve as he really was, Apple stories were an easy sell for my editors.
The Urgency of the Future
The more stories I did, the friendlier Steve got. He started calling me at home with story ideas and off-the-record information. He asked me to interview him on a video that would be broadcast at a Warner Music conference; this was when he was still trying to persuade the record labels to let him sell songs within iTunes.
I figured this meant we should start with a few softball questions about music in general, but Steve interrupted and got straight to the pitch: 99-cent MP3s would save the music industry. Of course, he was absolutely right, and of course, he got his way.
Here was a man who knew precisely what the future looked like, and had no patience for anyone or anything who got in the way. Not a second was to be wasted. The vision was too important. This is what he meant in that famous Stanford commencement speech: “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
Making Airplanes In the Sun
But there was a whimsical side to him, too. Once Steve tried to pitch me a story on the architecture of Pixar’s headquarters. It wasn’t new; he was just eager to show it off, and hounded me until I agreed to take a tour with him. We must have sat down in every room in the building, Steve grinning like a proud parent the whole time. I patiently explained why it probably wasn’t going to be in the magazine (this was before modern Web journalism and its infinite capacity for stories).
It didn’t faze him one bit. In his mind, it was a worthy story, and that was all that mattered. For Steve Jobs, every day was like Christmas morning, and nothing could shake that feeling.
My most enduring memory of him speaks to that fact too. It was a Saturday afternoon in Palo Alto, and I was having lunch with a friend in an Italian restaurant. Suddenly, Steve came in and ordered takeout. He was wearing a T-shirt and cut-off jeans, just another happy suburban dad.
He took his food and left, and as he walked down that beautiful leafy street, he stretched out his arms like an airplane — like he was flying into the sunshine.
For all the times I’ve seen him at the height of his powers on stage, and for all the sweat-inducing interviews, that is how I will remember Steve Jobs — completely confident and carefree, being just who he wanted to be, flying straight into the future.