LOS ANGELES—After reading excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steven Jobs, it has occurred to me that perhaps the Apple founder’s articulated hatred of pornography was actually his way of publicly tarnishing Google, which he apparently hated with a passion that bordered on an obsession.
It may be a farfetched hypothesis, but the timeline adds up.
According to Isaacson’s book, “Jobs felt betrayed because Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had treated him very much as a mentor. In 2008, he got into a shouting match with the pair, as well as with Android chief Andy Rubin, at Google's headquarters.”
But his ire really escalated in early 2010, with Google’s entry into the smartphone market. Isaacson wrote, “Jobs had offered Google an icon or two on the iPhone's home page; but in January 2010, HTC released a phone with multi-touch and other iPhone-like features that prompted Jobs to sue.”
A week after the suit was filed, Jobs told Isaacson, “Our lawsuit is saying, 'Google, you f***ing ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.' Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm willing to go to thermonuclear war on this.”
Even a subsequent meeting with former Apple Board member and then Google CEO Eric Schmidt failed to mollify Jobs.
"We've got you red-handed," Jobs told Schmidt. "I'm not interested in settling. I don't want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won't want it. I've got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android."
It is only after this point in time that Apple began to identify itself as a porn-free entity. On Feb. 19, Black Friday, Apple purged its App Store of around 5,000 sex-themed apps. The reaction to the purge among developers, content producers, marketers and other stakeholders was swift and scathing. Apple had done an about-face without any warning and people were pissed.
At Silicon Alley Insider, the new “war on porn” policy was denounced as arbitrary and unfair. “Apple has a history of making sudden changes to its policies and removing apps,” wrote Nick Saint, “but a developer we spoke to said that the scale of the current purge is unprecedented.”
Two months later, Steve Jobs made what appear to be his first anti-porn comments during a Q&A session at an iPhone OS 4.0 event. According to AVN coverage at the time, “Ryan Block of gdgt asked Jobs whether Apple plans on enabling unsigned applications like Android and Palm OS, and the CEO shocked many people when he answered by blaming porn for the decision not to sanction outside development. Signed apps are ones that have been approved for download to iDevices.”
Jobs then said, “There’s a porn store for Android. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn; your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go—so we’re not going to go there.”
Eleven days later, Jobs doubled down on the earlier comments in an email exchange with a consumer complaining about an app by satirist Mark Fiore that apparently contained some celebrity-oriented material that was rejected by the App Store for violating the company's definition of "materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory."
"Apple's role isn't moral police," the consumer wrote Jobs. "Apple's role is to design and produce really cool gadgets that do what the consumer wants them to do."
Jobs replied, “Fiore's app will be in the store shortly. That was a mistake. However, we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.”
One month later, Jobs once again engaged in an after-hours email exchange, this time with ValleyWag.com editor Ryan Tate, who decided late one night to see whether he, too, could ensnare Jobs in a dialogue about Apple’s new policies, a conversation that Isaacson wites about in the biography.
“Tate emailed Jobs decrying Apple's heavy-handedness and asked: ‘If (Bob) Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company ... Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with 'revolution'? Revolutions are about freedom," wrote Isaacson.
“According to Tate, Jobs replied after midnight: ‘Yep ... freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin', and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.
“When Tate mentioned pornography was just fine with him and his wife, Jobs got snarky. ‘You might care about porn when you have kids. ... By the way, what have you done that's so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others' work and belittle their motivations.’”
From that date until his death, there appear to be no more public comments from Steve Jobs on the issue of porn, but his company’s legal challenges asserting iPhone patent violations by Android phone makers continue to this day.
Unless Jobs confided to someone the fact that his anti-porn play was in fact an anti-Google ploy, my hypothesis will never be proven right or wrong, but I find the following exchange between Bloomberg reporter Zinta Lundborg and Isaacson during an interview on his experience with Steve Jobs to be more than a little interesting in light of his supposed disdain for overt sexual expression.
Lundborg: “When he came back to save Apple, he immediately identified the basic problem as the lack of sex in the products.”
Isaacson: “There was no sex, no romance, no emotion, and that was true of the computer industry.
“Without Steve Jobs, you would have well-designed computers, probably open and not integrated, but they wouldn't have sex appeal, they wouldn't have romance.
“They wouldn't be this beautifully curated user experience akin to the Zen gardens he loved so much in Japan.”
Of course, for many people porn is the antithesis of sex and romance, so it is very possible that Jobs could aspire to create sexy computers and still hate porn, but the curious timeline that reveals an anti-porn campaign that begins only after Apple goes to war against Google and Android suggests, if it does not prove, a more nuanced and interesting scenario.