Eric Schmidt hates camping. Which is why, when Steve Jobs broke up with him, Google's CEO was at a payphone on a lonesome desert road, 45 minutes from Burning Man, with only his mistress Kate Bohner near his side.
This is the story told to us by a close friend of Bohner's, who spoke about the undoing of several of Schmidt's close relationships.
A guy who hates camping is an odd fit for an anarchic, weeklong community-building experiment in the Nevada wilderness. Each day, to attend Burning Man 2007, Schmidt would drive two and half hours from his Reno hotel to get there, and then two and a half hours to return and avoid sleeping on the dirt.
Schmidt's extraordinary Burning Man commute betrayed an extraordinary hunger to connect with his peers, and especially at the desert event, with Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's co-founders and his closest associates.
Brin and Page are said to have arrived at South by Southwest via helicopter. They were friendly but not exactly friends with Schmidt; nearly two decades younger than the CEO with whom they share power, Brin and Page ended up spending their real buddy time on the Nevada playa with other people.
Schmidt's most memorable interaction from that year's Burning Man, then, would be his ferocious roadside parting with Steve Jobs.
He was hardly done with the Apple CEO, mind you. Apple and Google would convene a series of angry meetings over their rival smartphones through at least 2008, Brad Stone and Miguel Helft wrote in a New York Times story last weekend about the Apple-Google feud. Schmidt would scale back his involvement as a member of Apple's board before resigning in 2009. Apple wouldn't sue to block the Nexus One "Google Phone" until 2010.
But the 2007 desert phone call between Jobs and Schmidt marked the beginning of the end. It was, we're told, an incredible moment, as much for Schmidt's professed surprise as for the look on his face as Jobs berated him.
It seemed odd to people around the Google CEO that he had failed to anticipate Jobs' anger. Speculation about a "G-Phone" began not long after Google bought mobile software maker Android Inc. in 2005, even before Schmidt appeared on stage at Macworld in January 2007 to help Jobs unveil the iPhone. By the time the iPhone shipped in summer 2007, the chatter about a Google smartphone was getting loud.
On August 2 of that year, a front-page Wall Street Journal story said Google had invested hundreds of millions of dollars developing prototype mobile phones, wooing carriers and investing in other mobile systems. Close, but not confirmation of a G-Phone. On August 28, right as Burning Man was getting underway, word of a Google phone leaked from HTC, the eventual manufacturer, as did details of Google's mobile operating system. Meanwhile, telltale Google patents betrayed the company's phone plans to those who knew where to look.
Jobs knew what was going on, of course. And he felt betrayed.
Schmidt's mobile phone rang on the highway between Reno and Burning Man's movable city in Black Rock Desert. It was Jobs, angry. The call then dropped; bad signal, middle of nowhere. The disconnect couldn't be blamed on a flaky iPhone connection: Schmidt had long ago given up on the Apple handset because he couldn't stand the on-screen keyboard. His wife had tested a prototype, but didn't care to keep it. Schmidt, we're told, ended up giving his iPhone to Bohner as a gift.
Schmidt located a convenience store and used a pay phone to call Jobs back. The Apple CEO "shouted" at Schmidt and "railed" at him, furious about his smartphone plans and duplicity, said our source. After all, Schmidt sat on Apple's board and was supposed to be a partner on the iPhone, providing internet services like maps.
Schmidt, enduring the abuse, visibly lost his composure; his face went "weird," said our source.
"Steve was very, very upset," Schmidt is said to have later told his companion Bohner. "My God, he was so angry."
Schmidt's feelings for Jobs had gone beyond admiration long ago: He wanted his approval, and even his friendship. Schmidt knew how to make a large enterprise like Google function more efficiently, but Jobs seemed able to change the whole world for the better. Brin and Page, who operate with Schmidt as Google's executive triumvirate, were big fans. They considered Jobs a mentor, very openly cited him as a role model, visited his office and (in the case of Brin) even went on walks with the charismatic Apple co-founder, according to Stone and Helft's Times article.
Schmidt's own regard for Jobs ran so deep that, in a statement provided to the Times when it covered his feud with the Apple CEO, Schmidt called Jobs "the best CEO in the world today."
And yet, even when the relationship between the two men was warmer, Schmidt felt spurned. He never did manage to finagle a long-sought dinner invitation to Jobs' home, we're told, though the Times said the two "dined together on several occasions," presumably over lunch or in a group setting. But Schmidt's inability to get the sort of attention he sought "broke" him, said our source.
The tragedy of Schmidt's relationship with Jobs is how much it resembles some of his other big relationships.
His affair with Bohner, for example, likewise started as a mutually enjoyable relationship before ending amid talk of deception and eventually blowing up in a legal dispute. And yet there's no reason it couldn't have been brought to a more amicable close: An Ivy League graduate and former Forbes and CNBC reporter, Bohner might have been a snug marital match for Schmidt in another life — it seems doubtful the relationship was pure lust. Bohner is now back at work on the autobiographical blog and memoir Schmidt's lawyers temporarily shut down.
Then there's Brin, one of Schmidt's two partners in running Google. Brin, who is less of a friend to Schmidt than Page, has been chilly with the CEO at times: Brin declined to invite Schmidt to his spring 2007 wedding in the Bahamas, a snub that pained the CEO, we're told.
What is next for the Brin-Schmidt relationship is unclear. But it's hard not to look at history for clues, and to brace for the explosion.
Not that we hope for such an end. Jaded gossips that we are, we can't help but feel a twinge of empathy for Schmidt. The Google boss might have hypocritical views on privacy and an all-too-arrogant approach to users' concerns, but he aches for true friends. "I don't think he had any," our source said. It's a feeling of empty loneliness familiar to many of us who are enmeshed in social networks and broadband grids, blogs and microblogs, emails and IMs, sending so many messages and making so few connections.