Who was Steve Jobs?

It must have been difficult for many journos to come up with something new to say when Steve died. After all, they shot their wad by writing all those pseudo-obits when he resigned. The answer for many was to simply ramp up the idolatry.

The dead are so often canonized in their passing. Mere mortals become gods once they enter the grave. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, The Smithsonian Blog and Robert X. Cringely called him a modern day Henry Ford, Even actor Alec Baldwin twittered, “Sad about Steve Jobs. On par with Henry Ford…”. [1] Was Old Man Steve really on par with Old Man Ford?

Steve often spoke of Henry as one of his personal heroes. Both men were cranky tyrants who decided what people should buy without bothering with egghead market research. Both men gave their customers as little choice as possible because they felt they knew what’s best for them. They both had colour fetishes. Steve liked white and Henry liked black – but for very different reasons.

Henry preferred “Japan Black” because it dried quicker and therefore he could push more T-Models out of his factories. Whereas, Steve liked white.. well.. because he had a thing for white. Steve delayed the release of the white iPhone 4 because the shade wasn’t quite perfect.[2] Henry’s black was six shades of ugly because it was choc-full of bitumen, which made it damn tough – good for the customer who just wanted a car that didn’t rust.[3]
Unfortunately for poor Henry, car buyers became spoilt by the gargantuan auto market that he had built. Drivers began demanding more colour choices. General Motors kicked Henry’s butt by offering every colour of the rainbow. On the other hand, Apple customers enjoy a masochistic comfort in Steve’s lack of choice. They are like the Japanese bondage queen, hog-tied to the ceiling by intricate rope-work, waiting for Daddy to tell her what to do. Lack of choice worked for Steve, but not for Henry.

Nevertheless, Henry’s butt-ugly-black car was the first automobile that was affordable enough for the men who built them to purchase for one for themselves. Henry democratised the automobile by passing the savings he made to the American Everyman. He then raised wages and built a happy factory culture enjoyed by generation after generation of American workers.

Steve was the antithesis of the above hero. Rather than lower his price tag, Steve raised his price tag higher than the competition. He then shut down his American factories and contracted the Chinese to build the same pricey products for a bowl of rice and mattress on the floor. His savings were not passed onto his customers.  He was no Henry Ford.

Steve was more like Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Charlie and The Chocolate factory. Both Steve and Wonka are suitable for children aged 8-80.
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory reads like Steve’s own handbook of management style. Wonka’s sub-human workers were chosen because they are so kowtowed that they won’t sell-out his secrets. The mixing of chocolate via a waterfall seems superfluously complicated but it creates an illusion of specialness around its manufacture. The capricious Wonka provokes the citizens into fighting each other for the opportunity to see inside his top secret factory. Undesirables are eliminated from his inner circle if they prove to be bozos. Accidents occur in his factory, but Wonka is unperturbed, as he seems to enjoy a diplomatic immunity from his indiscretions. If anyone were to complain, they would find that the complaints process so complicated that they wouldn’t bother with it. Wonka prefers to pass his factory on to a child so that he won't have to deal with an adult trying to do things their way. One can’t help but notice that magical glass elevator is reminiscent of Steve’s magical glass Apple Stores. 

Here’s Wonka-rism that Steve repeated almost word-for-word. In 1989 when he was showing off his NeXT factory to Popular Science Magazine he said:

Steve Jobs: "…and it's built completely untouched by human hands" [4]

Willy Wonka: “Uh, Little Boy, My chocolate must be untouched by human hands” [5]

Steve Wonka tried to amp-up the Chocolate Factory theme when he returned to Apple. Ad man, Ken Segall - always milking his brief work with Apple - wrote in his book that Steve tried to push the following goofy idea onto the bewildered Apple brass:

Steve's idea was to do a Willy Wonka with it. Just as Wonka did in the movie, Steve wanted to put a golden certificate representing the millionth iMac inside the box of one iMac, and publicize that fact. Whoever opened the lucky iMac box would be refunded the purchase price and be flown to Cupertino, where he or she (and, presumably, the accompanying family) would be taken on a tour of the Apple campus.

Steve had already instructed his internal creative group to design a prototype golden certificate, which he shared with us. But the killer was that Steve wanted to go all out on this. He wanted to meet the lucky winner in full Willy Wonka garb. Yes, complete with top hat and tails.[6]

The Wonka comparisons began in earnest after the first iPhone was released. In Dan Lyons’s Options – a fictional diary of Steve - Bono from U2 gives Fake Steve a piece of his mind:
Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, you’re like Willy fookin Wonka in his fookin chocolate factory, out there baking up your fookin iPods, and meanwhile the fookin planet is fookin meltin, ya fooktard. [7]

After the first iPad launch, Mike Daisey’s show, The Agony and Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs, was promoted as, “The epic story of a real-life Willy Wonka whose personal obsessions profoundly affect our everyday lives"

The founder of Tumblr, David Karp, says both Steve and Wonka are his personal interchangeable heroes:

It’s sort of the same as Steve—the idea that there is this magical factory, and you can’t begin to imagine what went into these things… [though] Apple is way scarier than Willy Wonka’s factory. [8]

It is rumoured that Steve played up to this growing parallel with Wonka. Steve was spotted wearing “a very funny hat — a big top hat kind of thing.” whilst dining with fifty NY Times executives in Manhattan.[9]

The comparison reached a critical mass around the time of iPad 2. The comedy website, CollegeHumor.com, published a viral video entitled Charlie and the Apple Factory. It was soon re-published across the blogosphere. The four-minute cartoon followed Steve as he endeavoured to show Charlie ”what makes Apple so special”, only to find out that “there’s nothing that makes Apple that special. We sell the same junk as everyone else. We just convince everyone that it comes from a magical place… Our junk may be the same, but we pride ourselves on showmanship”. Later the Ooompa Loompas chant, “Do you really need all this crap? You do if we say you do.”[10]

One Macrumours forum commentator asked the question, "Are Chinese like Umpa Lumpas?" [11]

There was indeed a real-life Charlie in the Apple Factory. Stephen Fry was invited by Steve to Cupertino to test drive the secret iPad before its official announcement. He wrote how Steve gave him a "personal demonstration" for an “hour alone" with the "latest piece of magical hardware ". The comedian couldn’t help but "confess to the childlike excitement" and it " tickled my vanity” at being the chosen one. Stephen held the golden marketing ticket because (a) he has the largest twitter following, and (b) he has a lifestyle predilection for needing to feel special and advertise his own expensive material wealth. The happy result is that any review of Apple product by Stephen will almost certainly be an act of worship beyond epic proportions. Steve’s instinct must have told him that this particular “Charlie” is probably a hopeless gossip who can’t help but spill to everyone about his special date with his man-crush. So, Apple made Stephen sign a bunch of NDAs before he saw the iPad. Stephen reminisced about his special day on his blog in a eulogy that ran almost as long as this one.[12]

[1] CNN (2011, October 6) Entertainment world mourns Steve Jobs. Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/05/showbiz/jobs-reax/index.html

[2] Cox, J. (2010, October 17) White iPhone Seen in The Wild. PC World.

[3] Berthon, D. (2008, September 26) Time for a T party: 100 years of Ford's famous Model T. The Age.

[5] Dahl, R. (2011) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. London:Puffin.

[6] Segall, K. (2012) Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success. London: Portfolio Hardcover.

[7] Lyons, D. (2008) Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.
[8] Schonfeld, E (2011, February 24) Tumblr's David Karp: My Heroes Are Steve Jobs And Willy Wonka [blog]. Tech Crunch. Retrieved from: http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/24/founder-stories-tumblr-karp-jobs-wonka/

[9] Maurer, D. (2010, April 2) Steve Jobs in Secret New York Meeting With Top Times Execs. New York Magazine

[10] CollegeHumor.com (2011,March 2) Charlie and the Apple Factory. Retrieved from: http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6440954/charlie-and-the-apple-factory

[12] Fry, S. (2011, October 6) Steve Jobs [blog]. Retrieved from:  http://www.stephenfry.com/2011/10/06/steve-jobs/

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