The iPhone, and a humbler side of Steve Jobs

March 12, 2007, 2:00 AM UTC

ApplejobsApple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs has a reputation for being visionary, brilliant and sometimes downright cocky about it. But I had an exchange with him six years ago that revealed a very different side.

It was late May 2001, and I had been in Silicon Valley writing business and technology stories about Apple for a little more than a year. The news had just broken that Apple would open its first retail store in a Virginia mall. None of the reporters on the story, though, had bothered to figure out how much Apple would pay for the space. In an effort to be an enterprising reporter, I decided to sniff out the facts.

I called up the mall’s leasing office and found out: Space at the mall gets leased at between $40 and $140 per square foot. Per month? I asked; being a tech guy, I knew nothing about real estate. “Yeah,” the guy on the other end said, as he hurried to add a few disclaimers. I already knew Apple’s store would be 6,500 square feet.

Hours later, over the weekend, I checked my work e-mail from home. What I saw in my inbox nearly made me lose my breakfast. It was an e-mail from Steve Jobs. THE Steve Jobs. Subject line: “You made a big mistake.”

I’d dreamed of being noticed by Steve Jobs, but this wasn’t the way I wanted it to happen. Turns out, I had overestimated Apple’s lease payments based on the conversation with the leasing office. The lease was per year, not per month. Steve demanded a correction in the paper. I fell over myself promising to deliver one, which I did.

A couple of days later I flew out to Virginia to cover the store opening. In front of the gathered crowd, Jobs said (and I paraphrase):

“One of our reporters in Silicon Valley wrote a story over the weekend about the store opening, and got our lease payment twelve times too high, not realizing we pay annually, not monthly. That just goes to show how much we tech folks have to learn about retail.”

I was stunned. Jobs had every right to be pissed. He could have raked me over the coals. But here he was being gracious. He went on to explain how Apple was approaching the retail business with patience and humility.

Fast forward six years and Apple has managed not only an impressive retail success, but also an amazing turnaround thanks to the iPod and other innovations. And it’s on the brink of releasing the iPhone this summer. A key difference, though: We haven’t seen much humility out of Apple in the run-up to the iPhone launch.

Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, for example, took a swipe at existing cell phones last month at the Goldman Sachs Technology Investment Symposium, where he said the free phones carriers give out are pretty much worthless. Those are strong words from a new entrant into the mobile market who has the stated goal of getting one of every 100 cell phone buyers in the world to choose its product by the end of 2008.

Two ways to look at this:

One, maybe Apple has let success go to its head and it’s no longer approaching new ventures with humility.

Two, maybe Apple is talking a good game in public, but behind the scenes it’s approaching the mobile business with a lot of care. After all, as Steve Jobs himself has demonstrated, there’s more to this company than the cocky exterior suggests.

I, for one, won’t count out the second option.