[2012-06-03] “Steve Jobs”

Walter Isaacson's “Steve Jobs” is the authorized biography of Steve Jobs, finished just before his death and released shortly afterwards. Steve was the creator of some of the most iconic (and best-selling) products of our times, as well as the person who rescued Apple from near-death upon his return there and built it into the biggest company in the world by market-capitalization. It is natural for us to look for insights from this book on just how he managed such feats. While the book succeeds in showing us his human side, revealing aspects of his personal life that were otherwise well-guarded this far, it does not quite throw much light into his design-sensibilities or business-acumen or how they helped him create such a spectacular turn-around at Apple.

To put the following review into context, I should note that my interest in reading this book was not as much to learn about the personal life of Steve Jobs as to gain insights into how he was able to achieve what he did (at both Apple and Pixar) despite his well-known failings. This book provides a peek into the real person behind the image of Steve Jobs and a poignant account of his struggle with cancer, but that is not what I am looking for in a biography.

The book tells the story of Steve's life in a more or less chronological order. It assumes that the reader is already familiar with the broad story-line, so it tends to jump back and forth a little bit at times. Even with close to 600 pages though, it skims through most events - this is somewhat understandable as Steve seems to have led an extremely eventful life and created quite a few remarkable products.

There is no doubt that this book is well-researched - it is apparent that the author has interviewed several people, some of them many a time (more than 40 times for Steve himself), and has read extensively about his subject. Apart from being an authorized biographer with access to his subject's family and personal material, the author also seems to have relatively-easy access to the rich and the powerful (some of who figure at crucial points in Steve's life), no doubt helped by his stints at Time, CNN and the Aspen Institute. This placed him well to do a good biography of his subject.

However, the author seems to have over-corrected himself in trying not to appear too enamored by his subject or seem glossing over his faults - Steve comes across throughout the book as tactless, abusive, moody, neglectful, emotional and with nutty ideas of diet and health. At several points in the book, Steve would recall a set of events in one way and the author would gather a different recollection from the other participants and he seems to always side with the latter. This treatment seems quite unfair. According to the author, Steve wanted to get this biography done in order to give a better picture of his life to his children so that they could understand him better as a person. It seems unlikely to me that this book will give them a fair perspective of their father.

There are some jarring omissions. As John Gruber points out, this book seems to miss just what design is all about (not mere appearances, whether external or internal, but how a product affords its functions) and the importance of well-designed software (not just hardware) in making Apple's products popular. The biggest omission for me was any decent mention of Mac OS X, which was largely based on the NeXT OS and which brought a beautiful, robust and well-performing OS to Apple's computers. The same could be said for iOS and Apple's portable devices. The software in Apple's devices is what makes the hardware such a joy to use. Similarly the author keeps telling us about Steve's disdain for presentations based on PowerPoint, but omits to tell us anything about how he created Keynote embodying his ideal for a presentation-software.

At different points in the book, Steve keeps insisting that Apple's mission is to build great products, not to chase profits. The author seems to take this on face-value and does not try to probe why it is then that Apple insists on such high margins on its products or has such a super-secretive company-culture. (As an example of its ability to charge high margins on its products, the author himself notes that Apple got just 7% of the revenue in the PC market in 2010, but captured 35% of the profits. As another example, Apple got just 9% of the mobile handset market in Q1 2012, but captured 73% of the profits.)

There were a few blatant contradictions about Steve's life that the book sadly doesn't provide much insight into: his ascetic life-style and $1 salary versus his haggling over the number of stock-options granted to him and their back-dating, as well as the high-margins on Apple's products; the “inspiration” he took from the then-revolutionary GUI developed by Xerox PARC to create the Macintosh UI versus his early battles against Windows for copying the Macintosh or his later battles against Android for copying iOS.

Why did Steve fail during his first stint at Apple to grow it as a company but succeed (and succeed very well) during his second stint there? What did he learn during the interim period when he was at NeXT and Pixar that made him successful upon his return? Once again, we fail to get such crucial insights about the subject of this book by reading it.

Quite a lot has been written about Steve and will most likely continue to be written about him. Ditto for Apple. Much of the material in this book will therefore not appear to be new for those of us who have been reading about Apple, Steve and the early days of the PC industry. (For example, the book “Insanely Great” by Steven Levy contains more information about the early Apple and the birth of the Macintosh, while the book “Fire In The Valley” by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine tells a better story of the birth of PC industry in Silicon Valley.) This book is for you if you want to know more about Steve Jobs the person or if you only have a superficial familiarity with the remarkable story of Apple and its creator.

Oh and you'll also get to read about the (closed for now) Kona Village resort in Hawaii, which is apparently such a great place that Steve kept going there again and again throughout his life.

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