The 10 idiosyncrasies of Steve Jobs

March 7th, 2011

Think you know Apple’s enigmatic leader? Think again. The great man is famously secretive, but we’ve unearthed some nuggets of info from work and home that provide a glimpse to what he’s really like, from his car’s numbers plates, how he decorates his house, to where he parks. And it may surprise you to learn he’s as fastidious about the products he buys as about the ones Apple makes.

If you want to skip ahead, just use the table of contents.

1. Buying habits

Notoriously picky about the design of Apple’s products (the first gen iPod was in development for so long because he insisted you should be able to find any song three button presses after switching it on), he’s just as anal about the gadgets he buys for himself. “I end up not buying a lot of things, because I find them ridiculous,” he told The Independent at the original iPod Shuffle launch back in 2005.

2. He does his research before spending

He describes a lot of products as “technology in search of a problem,” when it should be the other way round. So when he needs a new gizmo, he researches it exhaustively. In a revealing interview in Wired in 1996, he told how he went about choosing a new washing machine and dryer. “We didn’t have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them,” he told contributing editor Gary Isaac Wolf. “It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.

“We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.”

Two weeks of discussions to choose a washing machine? That’s life in the Jobs household. (He opted for Miele in the end, adding, “I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.”)

So how does he justify deliberating for so long? Well interestingly he compared it to a phone – an essential item, but something people don’t have time to spend figuring out. “You just don’t have time to learn this stuff, and everything’s getting more complicated.” So he simplified it all with the original iPhone, and the mobile landscape changed forever. If Apple made washing machines, you can bet they’d be the easiest to use in the world.

3. Driving with no number plates

That’s right, his silver 2006 Mercedes SL 55 AMG (if it took two weeks to pick a washer, how long must it have taken to choose a car?) has no licence plates. Some say it’s because fanboys keep stealing them, others that the Cupertino police have just have better things to do than pick him up on it.

4. An irreverent approach to parking

According to Andy Hertzfeld, writing about the early days of Apple, Jobs “seemed to think that the blue wheelchair symbol meant that the spot was reserved for the chairman.” Employees reportedly showed their disdain by keying his car.

5. Home furnishings

Here’s a strange story – Jobs spent years renovating an apartment only to sell it without ever moving in, then spent the next ten years living in an almost unfurnished mansion. In 1982 he bought an apartment in The San Remo, an upscale New York block with neighbours including Demi Moore, Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin. He spent years renovating the two-storey apartment, then sold it nearly 20 years later to U2’s Bono, having never moved in. Instead he bought a 17,000 square foot 14 bedroom Spanish Colonial mansion in California in 1984, and spent close to the next decade living there with hardly any furniture, keeping an old BMW motorbike in the lounge, according to reports.

6. A deep design ethos

“The boards had to be beautiful in Steve’s eyes,” John Sculley, former Apple CEO, told Cult of Mac in an interview last year. Yes, that’s boards as in the things that hold the chipsets. “In his level of perfection, everything had to be beautifully designed even if it wasn’t going to be seen by most people.” Now that’s attention to detail.

7. The designers report directly to him

Sculley also told how when a friend of his met with Apple, the designers walked in and everyone stopped talking, because the “designers are the most respected people in the organisation.” Sculley added, “It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.” That’s how highly Jobs regards design.

His definition of design also shows where other companies may be going wrong. “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”

8. A hands off approach

Previously chief executive of Pixar Animation Studio, and credited as executive producer on the original Toy Story, he’s been described by animator Floyd Normal as a “mature, mellow individual,” who never interfered with the creative process of the filmmakers. Is this the same man who is notorious for sending back product designs until they meet his exact requirements? He’s obviously a fan of Pixar, saying Toy Story was as groundbreaking as Snow White, and comparing the video of the Smart Cover at the iPad 2 launch to a Pixar short.

9. Expanding his horizons

Steve Jobs called his experience with LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life,” and he also reportedly said “Bill Gates would be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.” In fact Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, wrote to Jobs asking for financial support for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, according to the Huffington Post.

10. A dislike for focus groups

Following Wayne Gretzky’s maxim of “skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” Jobs doesn’t like the idea of asking people what they want and then trying to deliver on that. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he told Business Week in 1998. “A lot of times people don’t know what they really want until you show it to them.”

As Sculley puts it: “unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days, who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people what did they want, Steve didn’t believe in that.

“He said, ‘How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.’” A fair point, and one that shows why Apple consistently makes the trends that others follow.

Sources: The Independent, Folklore, Aether.com, Cult of Mac, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Wikipedia.

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  • http://www.advancedwebads.com/sc/164 Randy Addison

    Well, I guess we cannot blame him since he really is one of the most brilliant people on Earth. Geniuses really think differently from the masses.

  • Epleguy

    “Think Different!”

    • http://twitter.com/hbobrien Hal O'Brien

      Actually, one of the times he parked in a handicapped space, he came back to find a note:

      “Park Different.”

      • Anonymous

        Zing!

  • JayKay

    He is the trend setter!

  • Sjobs

    Aren't we all like this? Why don't we make a report of all the coke you do daily, mr reporter?

    • Spqrbarlow

      You sir are awesome!

    • Jenniferlucyallan

      Excuse me?

  • RedMercury

    Nicely researched.

    Guy Kawasaki at one point had a similar argument, which he would refer to “Shoot. Aim. Shoot.” The concept being that when you're going that far ahead, focus groups aren't going to help and you're better off getting your product out there. After that, consider the feedback from your customers, adjust your aim, and shoot again.

  • http://twitter.com/gadgetsdna Jeffry McDowell

    He is a true “VISIONARY”!!

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    Very interesting. The second coming of Steve Jobs has been really something.

  • http://twitter.com/JoViKe John V. Keogh

    Nice article (but why does the print have to be jammed up against the left hand side? Put in a few pixels of white space!)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for tip John -what browser are you using?

  • http://andrewhillman.com Andrew

    its called OCD

  • http://twitter.com/techdreamsorg Tech Dreams

    Steve, the pope of Technology.

  • http://electricpig.co.uk/ Kendrick Margera

    I'd like you to verify the claim that Jobs drives his vehicle without license plates. That is a clear violation of the California Vehicle Code, and while the Cupertino police might look the other way given how much of Apple's tax dollars are used to pay their salary, I have no doubt that the Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Los Altos police would be far less forgiving. Not to mention the California Highway Patrol, who see vain behavior from highly-egoed celebrities all over the state.

    • http://twitter.com/Noghar Nil Desperandum

      He doesn’t sound like a guy who does much driving, so the point is probably moot.

  • Ampulex

    You know, I read a lot of blogs during the day and most of them suck (which says more about me than it does about the blogs I read, I guess). This is a rare one. I enjoyed it (important). I got something out of it (very important). Thank you for making my day.

  • enyibinakata

    Nut

  • sleepd

    Under Home Furnishings, you left out his well known admiration for the furniture of George Nakashima. He has a few amazing pieces.

  • tobee

    He made a good choice picking Miele as their washing machine.

  • http://www.buildingrenovators.co.uk/ buildingRenovators

    You just have to admire the guy no matter what he does, and i’m sure there is worse people out there with odd habits etc

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