Steve Jobs bio heavy on truth, light on myth
You’ve got the “authorized biographies” which are typically packed with fawning praise of their subjects. You’ve got the “unauthorized biographies” which are typically little more than character assassinations based on half-truths and interviews with people with axes to grind.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is more than a bit unique — an authorized biography that comes across as painstakingly true. At the first of the book, Isaacson states his ability to “get people talking” prompted Jobs to turn the project over to him. Further, the author points out that he was given full editorial control over the project and the only thing Jobs objected to was the original photo chosen for the cover. Truth be told, it’s to Jobs’ credit that he — a man who was renowned for his desire to control everything he got his hands on — authorized a biography that reads like a piece of honest-to-goodness journalism rather than a comfy, cozy public relations piece.
The resulting novel, then, reveals Jobs’ brilliance as well as his flaws and gives the reader a pretty good idea of what made the man tick and why his vision shaped Apple into what it was in the 1970s and what it remains today. In short, those who hate Jobs will find plenty of reasons in the book to despise the man, while those who regard him as a pioneer and/or hero will find plenty of things to admire. The rest of us will get a good look at a man who was in the center of shaping personal computers, animation, phones, MP3 players, tablet computers and, well, just a lot of things.
Without going into too much detail, it’s quite fascinating to read about how Jobs — a dirty, acid dropping hippie in his youth — managed to build what has become the most valuable technology company in the world. Yes, there has been a popular myth running around suggesting that Jobs rose to fame with Apple by merely riding the coattails of technology wizard Steve Wozniak, who developed the Apple 1 and Apple 2, as well as a lot of innovations that made those machines tick.
Isaacson shows how that assessment is likely unfair, pointing out that Wozniak wanted to simply give the design of the Apple 1 away to other hobbyists, but Jobs is the man who saw something worth selling. Apple was born of that decision and Isaacson makes the case that a lot of the values to which Apple holds tightly were originally expressed by Jobs.
Here’s an example of Jobs’ influence. The Apple 2 was an incredibly open machine. One could access the system board and all those expansion slots simply by unlatching the cover on the case and removing it. Wozniak wanted that kind of openness, but Jobs’ philosophy had forced a change by the time the Macintosh was released — Apple didn’t want consumers fooling around inside those things and took steps to keep people from opening them. That philosophy holds true today and has, in fact, become a bit more radical.
Jobs states repeatedly in the book that he wants to control the use of Apple products from start to finish — that he wants his company to control the hardware and software. Why? To make devices featuring tightly integrated hardware and software and hardware in hopes of giving the users the most satisfying experience possible. Jobs believed that more open platforms such as Microsoft’s Windows in the PC world and Google’s Android in the mobile phone world result in fragmented hardware and frustrated users who buy inferior hardware that may or may not do what they want them to do.
Isaacson points out that “closed system” philosophy caused Apple to get absolutely clobbered by Microsoft in the PC wars and pointed out a similar battle is shaping up between Android and Apple’s iOS in the mobile world. The fight against Android is still brewing, so time will tell what comes of that.
Jobs said his motivation is simple — he wants to create products that are “insanely great,” meaning that Apple must control both hardware and software. Running, say, Mac OS X on any hardware out there, for example, would not be the way to make sure users get the best experience possible.
Of course, people will agree with that or not, but there it is.
Naturally, there are some things that Jobs says throughout the book that are more than a bit disturbing. Declaring all competitors evil and claiming that Microsoft’s Bill Gates would have been a better person if he’d taken a hit or two of acid is unsettling. Jobs’ declaration that he’d spend all of his company’s $40 billion to destroy Android because it is a stolen product is unsettling, as is his belief that market research is next to worthless as consumers don’t know what they want until Apple shows it to them.
You’ve also got more than a few incidents of Jobs verbally abusing employees, denying that he was the father of his daughter, Lisa, and generally being unpleasant to be around for long. A good chunk of Jobs’ behavior, according to Isaacson, stems back to his inability to deal with the fact he was given up for adoption as a child. Is that an excuse? Well, the reader will have to decide that.
On the other hand, Isaacson points out time and time again how Jobs had the ability to pull great ideas together into products that consumers bought like crazy (think of the iPod and iPhone, for example), his obsession with design and how he strongly believed in the products Apple sold. Isaacson also points out how Jobs’ insistence on perfection and desire to push technology to its limit has resulted in some bright people being able to pull off programming and engineering feats they believed impossible until they were badgered by Jobs.
Naturally, Isaacson goes into great detail about how Jobs pulled off something that was considered impossible — pulling Apple back from the dead. Yes, the book tells how Jobs was booted out of Apple (a lot of the blame was placed at Jobs’ feet, by the way), failed at NeXT, found great success at Pixar and then came in as interim CEO at Apple at a time when the company was going down the tubes. Indeed, Jobs made the brash decision to eliminate the company’s confusing array of computers, focus on just a few models and managed to steer Apple clear of financial ruin. In fact, he did a bit more than that by hounding engineers and programmers to come up with innovations such as the iPod, iPhone and etc.
Ah, then you’ve got a few revelations in the book. There’s the time Jobs told Barack Obama that he was headed for a one-term presidency and that the U.S. — through government involvement — had made it cheaper to build plants in China to build things than in our own nation. Then, of course, there’s mention of Gates’ annoyance over iTunes and his directive to do something similar (call that a bone for the ones who holler about Microsoft ripping off Apple at every given turn).
Perhaps one of the most revealing items in the book has to do with Adobe Flash and why it’s not supported on the iPhone and iPad. While the Apple faithful swear that Flash isn’t included because HTML 5 is superior and should replace Flash as the standard for showing animation, videos and other content. However, Isaacson brings out the fact that Jobs was miffed at Adobe because the company refused to develop applications for Mac OS X for quite some time and hints that Jobs was keeping Flash off of mobile devices out of spite. Isaacson never outright says that, of course, but the subtext is there and readers are free to draw their own conclusions.
Naturally, the revelation that’s perhaps the most disturbing of them all is laid out in great detail — Jobs may have beaten his cancer, Isaacson argues, if he would have moved quickly to have it treated rather than dinking around for a few months with wacky diets and natural cures. Would Jobs have prevailed over the cancer that eventually claimed him? That’s impossible to say, but this book will undoubtedly lead to a lot of speculation along those lines.
All in all, this is a biography well worth reading simply because Isaacson relates the personality of a very complex man and tends to fact-check Jobs’ claims by interviewing those closest to him. Frankly, there’s not been a biography this unflinchingly honest since Al Stump wrote about Ty Cobb — this is Steve Jobs, warts and all. He achieved a lot by leading both Apple and Pixar and Isaacson points that out well enough. He stomped on some toes along the way, but did manage to transform a few industries and that, indeed, may well by Jobs’ legacy. One can’t help but think the timing on this book is one of those disturbing coincidences — it came out on Oct. 24, just a couple of weeks after Jobs died at 56-years-old.
Anyone interested in how technology has developed over the past 40 years should pick up a copy of Isaacson’s biography. Whether people loved Jobs or hated him simply isn’t relevant — the way he built Apple and what that company has done in the technology industry is a story worth reading and a tale that will stick with the reader for some time.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.