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America's premier guru of gadgets is doing it again

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A popular myth in Silicon Valley has it that not long ago, two friends and onetime enfants terribles of high tech, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, stood together surveying Oracle chief Ellison's $100 million, 23-acre Japanese-style imperial villa, the largest and most expensive property in Woodside, Calif., one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the world.

As the story goes, Mr. Jobs, the cofounder and on again, off again, head of Apple Computer, took note of the 81,000 cubic yards of soil that had been rearranged to make way for the network of ponds, bridges, islands, waterfalls, and 17th-century-style teahouse structures, including the 8,000-square foot main house that Mr. Ellison was soon to preside over. He admired the more than 500 mature cherry, maple, and elm trees that the billionaire software king had imported to go along with the 700 redwoods and oaks already adorning the hills and dells. He marveled at the amount of stone - more than 5,000 tons of granite boulders had been brought in to recreate traditional Japanese-style gardens.

He counted the number of skilled craftsmen - some 50 in all - putting the finishing touches on the place that would ultimately take a decade to complete. But Jobs was unabashed about calling his longtime friend out on a certain issue. Why were the workers using metal screws in the fine woodwork? Before he allowed Ellison an answer that would have probably gone something like this - because we are near the San Andreas Fault and we are required to employ modern seismic technology - Jobs reminded Ellison that 17th-century Japanese craftsmen did not use metal screws. They used dowels of the purest and hardest wood.

The story is apocryphal but widely believed because it epitomizes Steve Jobs and his unflagging obsession with originality, engineering authenticity, and design detail. This obsession has been the sine qua non of Apple's operating systems and consumer electronic products for more than 25 years, even though these qualities haven't necessarily delivered superior market share - until now.

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