September 20, 2013 7:14 pm

The Diary: Walter Isaacson

The author of Steve Jobs’ biography ponders the ‘incredible’ connection between the late Apple chief and Syria
an illustration of Steve Jobs in a TV entertainment system©Nick Shepherd

It has been two years since I’ve watched an Apple product launch. I stopped when my biography of Steve Jobs was published, just after his death, because I wanted to move on and not become one of those pundits who perennially proffered their opinions on Apple.

But I watched the video of the recent launch of the iPhone 5s and 5c because an updated paperback edition of my book is coming out and I’d agreed to do a few interviews. I wanted to be prepared for all those questions I’d been avoiding about what I thought of Apple after Jobs.

There’s a wonderfully talented team still at Apple, led by the coolly capable Tim Cook. But the event lacked Jobs’s spark, as did the products. Cook and his co-presenters used the word “incredible” so frequently that if it had been the magic word in a drinking game, the launch could have knocked cold an entire fraternity. So many things were described as “incredible” – from the ring tones to a rock show – that it began to serve as a reminder that none of them really were.

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Jobs used to show us, every few years, the proper way to misuse the word “incredible”: by snapping our heads with a wholly new product that we had no idea we needed – until the instant he unveiled it as an indispensable object of desire: the iPod, then the iPhone, and the iPad. But in the past three years, Apple’s main innovations have been to add an inch to the iPhone, take an inch or so off the iPad, and take $100 off the iPhone.

In his final year, Jobs described to me at length what he hoped his next disruptions would be. Perhaps an amazing smart watch, as suggested by Mike Markkula, his first great mentor from 40 years earlier. Or a camera that could combine multiple exposures in nanoseconds, as advocated by Bill Atkinson, his pal from the first Macintosh team in the early 1980s.

His most passionate and ambitious dream was to do for brain-dead television sets what he’d done for music: combine hardware and software and content with a radically simple interface (“Hey TV, turn on the latest Charlie Rose show”) so that you could watch anything you wanted whenever you wanted to, without juggling two remotes and checking network schedules.

That would have used all of Jobs’s awesome talents: driving great design, having an intuitive feel for people’s desires, and (hardest and most important of all) browbeating the networks to break the user-unfriendly cable bundling model in the same way he browbeat record companies to win consumers the right to buy the songs they wanted. Now that would be truly incredible.

. . .

I was at a dinner in Manhattan a few weeks ago, just as the Syria issue was heating up, with one of my previous biography subjects, Henry Kissinger. He gave a dazzling analysis (I would call it “incredible” except that it was, in fact, exceedingly credible) of how Russia would see its strategic interests, and predicted that Russia’s president would soon insert himself into the situation by calling for an international approach to the problem. So I was impressed but not surprised when Vladimir Putin did precisely that a week later.

On some of the TV shows I went on to talk about Steve Jobs, I was asked instead about Syria – and the question was usually about whether we could possibly trust the Russians. Most of the guests got worked into a lather, saying that Barack Obama was being horribly naive to trust them. But I think it is perfectly sensible to trust the Russians: we can trust them to do what they perceive to be in their own strategic interest.

Some of Russia’s strategic interests clash with ours: they want to protect their client state Syria and minimise US influence in the region (and yank America’s chain when possible). But to a great extent, Russia’s interests in this situation actually coincide with ours – at least for the moment. Russia fears as much as the US does the rise of radical Islam just south of its borders. It doesn’t want chemical weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists. And it would like to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

That last interest seems to conflict with ours, since the US has called for regime change. But the Russians believe that toppling Assad is not the best idea when that might lead to al-Qaeda and other jihadist forces taking over much of Syria and getting control of some of the chemical weapons. Thus it is in Russia’s interest to get Assad to surrender his chemical weapons, rather than summarily topple him. That might actually be in the west’s interests as well.

. . .

There’s a small connection that ties these two stories. Steve Jobs’s biological father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, is from Homs, in Syria, where he was born into a prominent and wealthy Sunni family. Jobs was given up for adoption by his mother soon after his birth in San Francisco. Jandali went on to manage a Silicon Valley restaurant, and in a strange coincidence, Jobs once met him there – both father and son unknowing.

When Jobs eventually discovered his father’s identity, he declined any contact. Jandali hasn’t spoken publicly for two years. After Obama’s speech, however, he gave an interview to the Huffington Post in which he denounced the president for being soft on Assad. “What has [Obama] done to expedite the departure of Assad? He hasn’t done anything,” Jandali complained. Listening to the interview made my week seem strangely inter-networked. In order to complete the symmetry, I hope that Charlie Rose, the next time he scores an interview with Assad, can get him to opine on why Apple hasn’t yet produced a new type of TV.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is published in paperback this month (Little, Brown)

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