Steve Jobs Buys a Washing Machine 

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By Wired News  |   Also by this reporter

02:00 AM May. 13, 2005 PT

How many companies could tackle a project in a brand-new category, create a groundbreaking widget that looked great and worked better than anyone else's -- and do it all in under a year? It happened only because Steve Jobs cracked the whip in his usual roles of slave driver, taskmaster and ringmaster. His odd, unlikely, incomprehensible charisma drew people into his spell, yet this magnetism was interspersed with daily tantrums that made employees cringe and want to crawl under the table.

Many creative people become tongue-tied and virtually incoherent when they try to explain their art. Steve, the college dropout, could have been forgiven if he belonged to that fraternity. Instead, he is often surprisingly perceptive. In a 1996 interview, Steve said, "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works. To design something really well, you have to 'get it.' You have to really grok what it's all about." (A geek's word, to grok is a coinage of science-fiction writer R.A. Heinlein, meaning to understand something thoroughly by having empathy with it.)

Steve went on, "It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something.... Most people don't take the time to do that." He then proceeded to tell a story that both sheds light on his private life and gives some insight into the decision-making process that often turns life into a hell for people who work with him. Making the point that design isn't just an issue for "fancy new gadgets," he described how his whole family became involved in, of all things, the selection of a new washing machine and dryer. This is a little hard to picture: The billionaire Jobs family didn't have very good machines. Selecting new ones became a project for the whole family. The big decision came down to whether to purchase a European machine or an American-made one. The European machine, according to Steve, does a much better job, uses about one-quarter as much water, and treats the clothes more gently so that they last longer. But the American machines take about half as long to wash the clothes.

"We spent some time in our family talking about what's the trade-off we want to make. We spent about two weeks talking about this. Every night at the dinner table" -- imagine dinner-table conversation about washing machines every night! -- "we'd get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design." In the end, they opted for European machines, which Steve described as "too expensive, but that's just because nobody buys them in this country."

Of course, this wasn't really about washing machines; it was about passing along the concern for design to his children and perhaps to (his wife) Laurene. The decision clearly gave him more pleasure than you would expect. He called the new machines "one of the few products we've bought over the last few years that we're all really happy about. These guys (had) really thought the process through. They did such a great job designing these washers and dryers."

Steve's surprising tag line on the story says a great deal about how much design really means to him: "I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years."

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Excerpted from the upcoming book iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon, to be published May 16 by John Wiley & Sons. Copyright � 2005 by Jeffrey S. Young and Wilarvi Communications. The book will be available at bookstores, online booksellers and from the Wiley website or 1-800-CALL WILEY.

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