THE BESTSELLING biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is most notable for revealing that the innovator and aesthete genius behind Apple — the world’s most successful company — was in many ways a giant, semi-autistic toddler.
With his boundless egomania, temper tantrums and quirks like refusing to wash, Jobs does not come out as your everyday hero. Yet Steve was my hero. His wacky idea of making computers easy appealed to me as a technology writer. That, along with his maverick unpredictability, made him the Brian Clough of electronics — Clough being my other hero.
The second most remarkable thing about Steve, though, was that for someone who changed the world so fundamentally — it’s because of him that we all have computers — he seemed to have been brought up, worked and died within a small radius of his childhood home near Palo Alto, California. Somehow I always imagined Steve — barefoot Buddhist, design guru, tastemaker — not as a hometown boy, but someone more metropolitan or bohemian, or who would seek out a remote “spiritual” place to live.
His background also sounded surprisingly suburban. I’ve always been intrigued by the incongruity of extraordinary people coming from ordinary backgrounds. And when I peered on Google Street View, the addresses Isaacson lists in Palo Alto — where everyone from Apple to Google has their HQ — looked as mundane as Esher or Altrincham. So I had the idea of taking a couple of days out of an upcoming US trip to visit the key spots in Steve’s life. I also thought it would be kind of cool — OK, not cool, but amusingly geeky — to be photographed with my iPad at each location. To call what I proposed a “pilgrimage” would be too strong, a “curiosity” too tepid, while to say it was “to seek insight” would be too earnest. It’s the same reason I’d love to visit John Lennon’s childhood home — a case of informed interest in someone of my generation, who was not only a million times more successful, but who I also wouldn’t actually have minded being.
First stop on my personal Via Dolorosa was 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos. The modest bungalow where the Jobses came to live in 1967 and the garage in which Steve started Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak is as suburban as America gets. What happened here was immense, but there were no signs or tour buses, and someone seemed to live there, so I was emboldened to knock on the door. What a coup if, at my first Station of the Cross, I could get a picture of me, with my iPad, in the founding garage.
An elderly lady answered the door. I apologised and said she must get bothered a lot. No, she said, a couple of hundred a week take photos, but none had knocked until me. Slightly miffed that I wasn’t even close to being the first Steve tourist, I was nonetheless relieved that it clearly wasn’t that eccentric a thing to be doing.
“I’m Marilyn Jobs,” she said. “I married Steve’s dad, Paul, after his mom died.” This I hadn’t bargained for, but she was so friendly I began to think I stood a chance of getting into the holy garage. It turned out Marilyn loved England, especially Harrogate in North Yorkshire. So we spoke at some length about Bettys Tea Rooms there, and I may have agreed to send her some teacakes in the post.
So, how about a peep in the garage? “No,” said Mrs Jobs, “there’s really nothing in there, just a washing machine and a car. There wouldn’t even be room to take a photo.” As I was setting up a tripod for an exterior photo of the house, a young guy in a small rental car pulled up. He was from Tooting, wouldn’t you know it, and between job interviews was doing the same Steve tour. No, he wouldn’t give his name — he didn’t want to appear a sad geek — but was happy to take my photo, while two more drive-by tourists slowed down for a shot. “It’s so normal you forget that everyone here is living ahead of the curve,” said Tooting man. “There are people here who know what the iPhone 6 is going to be like, let alone the 5.”
My next stop was 2101 Waverley Street, Palo Alto, the current Jobs home and another surprise. Not only was it quite twee, but it was also relatively modest — and remarkably exposed for a “celebrity” home. One of Steve’s trademark grey Mercedes sports cars was parked outside, looking a bit forlorn and splashed with bird poo. I wouldn’t have dreamed of disturbing the family, but in case I had any ideas, Donald from Apple security leapt out of a black van to introduce himself. I explained that I just wanted to see where Steve lived and take a photo, and he kindly took it for me.
“We log about 100 to 150 tourists a day,” Donald said. “People expect he would have lived in a fortress or a castle, not right here.” Donald revealed that although he hadn’t been inside the house, “it’s apparently in the style of an English cottage”. The great taste Nazi and minimalist, living in a Country Living interior? I was shocked. Donald also revealed something else quite bizarre — he’s not really called Donald, he’s Steve. “So you can’t be called Steve if you work for Apple?” Steve/Donald said nothing, but smiled.
Next, the Whole Foods Market on Emerson Street. (It was in the store’s small car park just before the iMac was launched in 1998 — a signal event in Apple’s history that started the company’s rise — where the detail-obsessed Steve was spotted sitting in his car screaming into his phone: “Not. Fucking. Blue. Enough!”) Then Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc) at 3333 Coyote Hill Road, where, in 1979, Steve saw a prototype computer mouse and graphical computer screen with icons and “borrowed” the idea for Apple.
On the way to Jobs’s favourite lunch restaurant, Jin Sho, on S California Avenue, it occurred to me that Steve had been wise to maintain a modest, normal lifestyle in a suburban house with a front lawn rather than the celebrity life he could have led. The fact that, as a zillionaire whose company and counsel presidents sought, he could pad around the (organic) equivalent of Sainsbury’s unmolested because he’d, well, always been around and was just Steve must have been a secret delight to him.
“Funny, Steve hasn’t been in for a long time,” my Jin Sho server, Noriko, said. The present tense was unnerving. Should I tell her? Maybe not. “Would you like to sit where Steve has lunch, or where he goes with his family in the evenings?” she asked. I went for his spot on the lunch bar, where she volunteered to take the now standard goofy photo with my iPad. The $16 special was delicious, but had to be one of the smallest lunches ever served in the US.
At Apple’s huge but still oddly underwhelming HQ on Infinite Loop in Cupertino, where I expected security to be all over me, I was wholly ignored. The computer store, the Byte Shop at 1063 West El Camino Real, where Jobs and Wozniak sold their first Apple machine in 1976, turned out to be a sex shop in a dodgy part of town. The woman running the place said she had been there 30 years without knowing the store’s connection with the world’s most successful company.
MY last stop was the cheekiest. I wanted to be photographed with my iPad on the stage of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, an hour from Palo Alto, on Mission Street, San Francisco. This was where Steve publicly launched the iPad and many other Apple products. To my amazement, I was allowed in and permitted to go on to the stage, and one of their staff even took the photo. There was only one proviso: that I didn’t show the set of the classical play currently on the stage. So with a soupçon of clumsily applied Photoshop, I turned the set black. Just like it always was when Steve strutted the same stage.
Being Steve Jobs, I concluded, standing up there, thinking what it would have been like to have your words and ideas beamed round the world live to breathless geeks like, er, me, must have been, as he would say, kinda cool.