If first impressions are very difficult to dislodge, Steve Jobs’ studied avoidance of India for most of his working life can probably be traced to his first tryst with the country in the mid-1970s.
That was before he had even thought of launching Apple, creator of the iconic MacIntosh computers. Jobs, then 18-and-odd years old, came to India with a hippie mindset along with a friend, Dan Kottke, after dropping out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
What brought him to India? Was it a karmic connection? We know very little about that, except that after he dropped out of college he earned his keep by returning Coke bottles and sought a weekly free meal at a local Hare Krishna Temple.
Said Jobs: “I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”
One can’t say for sure, but those free meals were probably what got him and friend Kottke, who was later to become Apple’s first employee, to backpack in India in search of enlightenment.
But whether he found what he wanted or not is not clear. He did find something in Buddhism, for he shaved his head and wore loose-fitting Indian clothing often and experimented with psychedelic substances.
But the one guru he came to meet – Neem Karori Baba, a Hanuman devotee who had some American followers in the 1970s – died before Jobs and Kottke made it to his ashram.
Clearly, Jobs’ peregrinations in the India of the 1970s were less than enlightening. He was probably psyched by the extent of poverty and chaos he found here. His biography says he found India “intense and disturbing,” and his search for enlightenment ended abruptly.
After his India trip, he concluded: “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realise that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairolie Baba put together.”
That statement tells a lot about who Jobs really was – and why his Indian connection never really happened beyond a broad interest in Buddhism.
If Jobs believed that what you do helps others more than all the giving philosophies of the world (as the reference to Edison exemplifies), he well and truly lived the life that only he could live.
Back in America, he created the company he wanted to create, and the product he was passionate about. That was his true enlightenment.
But Apple in its first avatar was a niche player, and he was duly chucked out of the company he founded in 1985 when its fortunes plummeted and he was ousted in a power struggle with CEO John Sculley. He returned to Apple only in 1996, when the company bought Jobs’ next company called NeXT. A year later he became the boss again. The rest, as they say, is recent history.
It was probably in his second coming at Apple that Jobs truly achieved all that he wanted to by following his own heart on the products he wanted to create – the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
But India was a country he had fallen out of love with a long while ago – and he never seriously considered it worth his notice.
At one point in the mid-2000s, when the whole world was raising a toast to India, and when every IT company worth the name – from Bill Gates’ Microsoft to IBM, Oracle, Dell and Accenture – was making a beeline to our shores, Jobs appears to have briefly convinced himself that maybe (just maybe) he ought to give it a try.
But his heart was clearly not in it. In early 2006, the talk was that Jobs would set up a 3,000-worker Mac support centre in Bangalore and had even hired around 30 people to ramp up the organisation. The media then began speculating that Jobs might do a Gates and come on an Indian tech pilgrimage.
It never happened. Officially, it seemed Jobs didn’t like the quality or the costs of an Indian operation. This is how BusinessWeek reported it at that time:
“He (Jobs) is…a tough-minded executive who knows when to cut and run… Just three months back…there was talk of the company hiring 3,000 workers by 2007 to handle support for Macintosh computers and other Apple gear. Many in India even speculated that Jobs might travel there this year to publicise Apple’s commitment to the country. It wasn’t meant to be. In late May, Apple dismissed most of the 30 new hires at its subsidiary in Bangalore.”
Quoting sources, BusinessWeek speculated that Jobs wasn’t happy about the costs. “India isn’t as inexpensive as it used to be,” the magazine quoted the source as saying. “The turnover is high, and the competition for good people is strong.” Apple felt it could “do (such work) more efficiently elsewhere.”
Jobs, clearly, carried his late teens India baggage with him all his life. This is why even when he launched his world-beating products, India was nowhere in his strategic thinking. He treated India almost like a pariah market – and he ended up pricing his products higher in India than elsewhere.
The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, therefore, sell almost nothing in India compared to what the Nokias and Blackberries do. As Bloomberg reported recently: “The cheapest iPhone 4 costs $705 at Reliance’s iStore, while the cheapest iPad 2 sells for about $603. In Apple’s US online store, the iPhone 4 starts at $199 with an AT&T contract and the iPad starts at $499.”
Little wonder, Bloomberg concludes that Apple is barely a player in the Indian market. While Nokia and Blackberry are being thrashed in the developed world markets, their Indian operations are flourishing – thanks partly to Apple’s unwillingness to give them a run for their money.
India was probably Steve Jobs’ blind spot, but one can’t fault him for that. And unlike many of his fellow millionaires, he did not believe in making a show of charity. Jobs believed in living life as he thought fit, and he got his kicks from developing “wow” products that he was passionate about.
In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs advised students to follow their hearts since we all have only one life – and it is short. He said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Jobs’ heart did not lead him to India after 1973. Both Jobs and India have lost out as a result. But then, Jobs had to lead the life he wanted to. India was simply not in his script.