Technology

In Search of the Real Fake Steve Jobs


Who's behind The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs? The question riveting Silicon Valley as much as the satirical blog itself may be answered this week

Ask 10 folks in Silicon Valley for their favorite post from The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, the satirical blog by an anonymous writer channeling Apple's chief executive, and you'll likely get 10 different answers.

There's the one about IBM (IBM) CEO Sam Palmisano's visit to Apple (AAPL) headquarters, which begins, "You may not know this if you're not in the industry but IBMers are a bit like Roman Catholic nuns. They never travel in groups of less than 20." It includes Palmisano's compliments on Apple's "iPod compact disc player" and his questions about whether the iPod Shuffle is a tie clip or mouse.

Then there's the post about a conversation with Apple director Al Gore, who supposedly tells Jobs he's suffering from depression, is "wacky as a dime watch," and has to step off the board so he can run for President again.

Or how about the classic about how Yoko Ono screwed up licensing talks to get the Beatles' music included on iTunes. "We're drinking green tea on the floor of her living room and she's insisting that when we put the music up on iTunes that the band must be called 'John Lennon and the Beatles' and she must be listed as a member of the group. Her big tactic is just to repeat things over and over in this monotone voice, to wear you down—it's a Japanese business tactic, they all do it … and for a while I'm agreeing and trying to be all Zen about it, and Yoko is giving me the Zen right back, and we're both working our Zen and trying to be more passive-aggressive and monotone and repetitive than the other one, and finally I just snapped … 'It's bad enough you broke up the greatest band of all time. Now you're gonna frig this up, too? … It's just a distribution deal!' She bows her head and says, in this voice that's barely more than a whisper, 'I will pray for your soul.'" It ends, well, badly for both Jobs and Ono.

Required Reading

Since Secret Diary was started last year, the daily stream of such entries has made Fake Steve Jobs, or FSJ for short, required reading in Silicon Valley and beyond. It has quickly become Jon Stewart's Daily Show for the tech set. FSJ not only manages to hit many of the topics of the day, but its unfiltered satirical voice lets techies revel in their never-ending fascination of their own industry, and be entertained at the same time. "It's amazingly well read, in part because everybody gets a laugh," says Roger Kay, founder of tech consultancy Endpoint Technologies Associates. "If you're just a poor schnook, you get to laugh at what an egomaniac [Jobs] is, and at all his billionaire friends. But if you're in the game, you get to laugh at how well [Fake Steve] seems to know Jobs and his world."

FSJ has zealously guarded his (or her) identity since the blog was started. But now, as his popularity has soared, the guessing game over the author's true identity has grown almost as entertaining as The Secret Diary itself. It's a blend of the search for Watergate's Deep Throat with the speculation over the authorship of Primary Colors, the fictional-but-oh-so-accurate account of a Clintonesque White House in the early 1990s.

The guesses are all over the map. Tech journalists and former Apple marketing staffers are popular choices. More than one person has suggested the writer could be Jobs himself, as if he has the spare time. Then last week, the Silicon Valley gossip site Valleywag published a story intended to out FSJ, running through several possibilities before proclaiming on May 11 that the author is Leander Kahney, the 41-year-old editor of Wired News (wired.com). Only hours later, Valleywag reversed itself. After getting effusive praise in the blogosphere, Kahney, a longtime tech reporter and the author of two books on Apple, called Valleywag to say the site had gotten it wrong. "I didn't want to ruin it by fessing up," Kahney told BusinessWeek. "I was hoping to string it out over the weekend. But you can't take credit for someone else's work."

Book Deal on the Way?

The world may not have to wait much longer, however. According to one source, FSJ may unveil his identity as early as this week, possibly in connection with the announcement of a book deal. FSJ is represented by a literary agent, Emma Parry of Fletcher Parry in New York, say sources. "Early next week, he's going to be identified," says the source. Parry did not return calls seeking comment.

That certainly sets the stage for a public debut of, well, Jobsian dimensions. Kahney says he was as consumed with curiosity as anyone—maybe more. Earlier this year, before Wired News had signed a sponsorship deal with FSJ, he and a colleague went so far as to track the IP addresses when FSJ sent e-mails. But when his boss, Wired News Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen, was about to reveal the identity to him, Kahney stopped him. "I didn't want to know."

The Secret Diary offers plenty of clues for those inclined to speculate. The author has an in-the-marrow sense of Silicon Valley's masters of the universe, an encyclopedic knowledge of Steve Jobs' history, and a been-there-done-that familiarity with the company's famously controlling public relations machine. Then there's the snarky and stylish writing style that seems to capture the ego Jobs would never give voice to. And there's a strange affection for British slang—like "chav"—that has many persuaded the writer is a Brit.

Those in the Know

The others who are suspected? The list is plenty long, but among those discussed is David Morgenstern of eWeek.com, Owen Thomas of Business 2.0, and Sarah Lacy, a BusinessWeek writer who left last year to write a book about Web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Cathy Cook, who worked with Jobs at NeXT Computer in the late 1980s and is known for her devilish wit, has received a flood of calls in recent months asking whether she is Fake Steve, including one from a reporter on her cell phone on a Saturday morning earlier this year. "I just howl with laughter," she says, denying it is she. "I used to be nasty, but I'm not anymore. And it's way too clever to [have been written by] me." The real Steve Jobs did not return messages seeking comment, so it isn't known who he suspects—or even what he thinks of the blog.

In the end, FSJ does such a clever job channeling Jobs that it's hard to know how he actually feels about him. Sure, Jobs comes off as a self-righteous egomaniac—but only because FSJ truly is always right. "Can you tell whether he's sympathetic to Jobs or not? It's not that obvious," says Kay, of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "I think he's struck the right note all the way around. A lot of people at Apple think it's funny."

The question now, if in fact Fake Steve goes public soon, is what the future holds for The Secret Diary without its primary secret. Many regular readers and industry insiders are skeptical that the blog can maintain its buzz without the veil of anonymity. An identifiable author allows targets to take issue with slights or insults, and an FSJ who has to defend his postings may be more restrained. "I hope he doesn't get outed," says Kahney. "It will get watered down if he is."

Click here for a slide show of memorable postings from The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.


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