Wow. I'm halfway through this book and, while it's well-written and interesting, I can't get over what a jerk SJ was. Yes, he was brilliant and all that. But he seemed to view other humans as nothing more than ants in his ant farm, sub-biologicals that he could squish whenever he felt like it. And did.
Some might say that his gifts to tech development, or the fact that he changed and invented whole industries, would compensate. Maybe the two things went together, cruelty and brilliance.
But the lesson to be drawn here, future CEOs, isn't that his cruelty fed his brilliance! He was aware of the pain he was causing other people, yet like so many other cruel, overbearing, harsh, thoughtless and petulant overlords, he was very thin-skinned. Also, I don't believe that his often-cited sense of abandonment, from having been put up for adoption, justifies his behaviour.
He was, as the author put it, "bratty." Jobs would fiddle with design changes to the point of driving his team mad. A thousand different variations of white weren't satisfactory. He wanted a new colour to be invented, regardless of the damage done to the roll out of the new object.
As I said, I'm only halfway through the book. Hopefully there'll be some positive info about SJ that will balance out some of the negativity I've spelled out. I'll finish this review when I finish the book.
April, 15 2015: I finished the book. Here are the rest of my thoughts.
Isaacson makes an interesting point when he says Jobs was a genius. He means genius not in terms of a high IQ, but in terms of an ability to see things in surges of intuition, inspiration, and creativity. Because of his genius, I agree that Jobs deserves to be included in the company of Edison, Franklin, et al.
Steve Jobs pushed everybody until they wanted to kill him, but the pushing yielded amazing, brilliant new products. His unique brainpower allowed him to see how things might align, merge, and serve each other, and how utility might be blended with art. That vision led to creations of whole industries.
His obsession with perfection and control led him to flirt with emulating the Big Brother that Apple was created to bring down. One of the fascinating threads of this book was the debate between proponents of closed and open systems. Was it better to manufacture a pristine, inflexible system or the messier free thinking open system? And what were the implications of that belief on Jobs' view of his customers and his world view?
Yet he defined petulance. His food had to be just so. He would send back a glass of orange juice three times until finally satisfied it was fresh. He was vindictive, cruel and even Machiavellian. He wasn't much of a family man, and he ignored his kids to a painful extent. Isaacson mused that Jobs' meanness wasn't a critical part of his success. He was totally aware of its effect on others, yet he indulged.
In spite of my aversion to the man, I actually felt empowered as I came to the end of the book. Steve Jobs had lived by certain precepts, which in the current economy we could all benefit from:
---Know your value
---Have a skill you can sell. Be really, really good at something.
---Things can turn around if you persevere, but don't be afraid to walk away.
Unbending to the end, even the prospect of death didn't soften him up much, but he brought me up short on the last page of the book, because I am obsessed with the same question:
"I like to think that something survives after you die. It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, and that maybe your consciousness endures."
This is not an easy book to review, perhaps because it is really two books roughly glued together. The first book tells the story of Steve Jobs and the setting up of Apple and how it came to become one of the iconic brands of our time. The second books tells of the slow death from cancer of someone the author is clearly a close friend of. Unfortunately the first book is much the better of the two, and while the second seeks to maintain its dispassionate, warts and all account of Jobs, the author is clearly far to close to his subject, hanging out with his family and friends, to be objective. He is totally within the famed Jobs reality distortion field.
It is easy enough to see why Jobs chose Isaacson to pen an authorised biography. The man is whip smart, he knows his stuff, this is no mere hack job. There are only a few apple trivia items I would query, the iPod does not connect via Firewire, strictly speaking it is not an MP3 player either and iCloud is far from the triumph that the book paints, in truth it is little better than MobileMe was.
I started the book as a huge Apple and Jobs fan, and the book provides a far more warts and all approach than the upbeat Steven Levy book Insanely Great. However the book really made me dislike Jobs. Although being consistently rude to folk paid a fraction of what you are, does not make you Hitler, it is fairly inexcusable. To borrow the terminology from the Bob Sutton book, Jobs was not just an ‘armhole’ he was the whole jumper. The Apple ethos of minimalism and informality increasingly seemed to be an ostentatious gimmick, while Jobs burned through mountains of cash and burnt out employees on arty minimalist vanity projects.
I would give the first half of the book five stars, the second scrapes two stars. The editor should have split this into two books, there is a decent and important story here, but as it progressed this feels increasingly like a folksy and rushed job, cobbled together from interviews and press releases.
on 26 October 2011
As an avid tech news fan, and Steve admirer, I couldn't wait for the release and quickly finished the book in two days. Steve, not Isaacson, is the shining star and his life makes for a fascinating story regardless of who is telling it. Steve's accomplishments, boldness, twists and turns, wisdom, intelligence, abrasiveness and intuition all contribute to intriguing reading. However, how good a job did Isaacson do?
Isaacson's job was "fair" for a couple of reasons. On the plus side, Isaacson appeared mainly objective in describing Steve, which is an important and difficult task, giving the controversial nature of someone like Steve. Isaacson, reveals both Steve's brilliant and ugly sides (I was a bit skeptical Steve would insist on a biography only painting him in a positive light). It was great to see his human side and get an understanding of Steve's polarized personality.
However, it was a little frustrating how much Isaacson re-told of which was already out there. I knew much of what he wrote about Steve - elements of his business strategy, dealings and philosophies and the Apple products he helped create and market. Most of the book's contents I was aware of through watching his keynotes, AllThingsD interviews, Stanford address and reading the articles about him on Wired, Time and other tech news sites. In fact, Isaacson often used such sources which I found slightly disappointing - like getting second hand info. On the bright side, I have not noticed any contradiction in these sources with Isaacson's version of Steve - it's accurate.
Having said this, Isaacson does give a fair amount of novel insight into Steve's family life, relationships and younger years which is not readily available through other sources. There is also a fair amount of detail about his Pixar years which I'm sure many are unaware of. Otherwise, light is shed on his relationship with colleagues and much about his personality, health and lifestyle are revealed. I think those unfamiliar with Steve and Apple might find this biography particularly enlightening about this talented, eccentric individual.
Finally, I do have a sense of Isaacson rushing this biography. The early and mid years were well covered, however later years were lacking on fresh insight and thoroughness. Chunks of story seemed glossed over or un-researched such as his relationship with Cook, Mark Papermaster's ousting, the reaction to Steve's passing, the future of Apple and perhaps more about his final days.
Something worth mentioning, is that the book did reinforce lessons I had learnt from Steve, the ones which stand out I will summarise:
* Life is short, make the most of it.
* We stand on the shoulders of giants, and it's our job to extend their work further.
* Focus on a few things you do well.
* Conflict can be very helpful in driving things forward.
* Love what you do and don't do it for money. Money is helpful in that it is there to improve the product/service.
* Keep re-inventing yourself.
Overall I find the biography easy to read, fairly thorough, provides some novel insight and balanced commentary and contains some profound words from Steve too. Reading a book about a man with this amount of intuition, energy, perfectionism, persuasiveness and determination can only enrich your life.
on 2 December 2014
I'm not in the tech industry. I don't even know much about the industry to be honest, if you asked me the guys behind Google I would need to search memory for minutes. But I am interested in Steve Jobs as a person. I watched every Apple event in the 2000s, his main interviews, and read some-good-some-bad stories about him. He was a character and as someone who is interested in psychology I was curious to learn more about this man; how he thinks, what might be the reasons behind his actions and decisions..etc The book does a great job giving you all you want to know about Steve. By the half-way with what you learned about him in the first half, you can take some guesses on how Steve will react to the new events in his life.
The best part of the book was it is an honest book. I don't like biographies that show people as a superhero or saint who never ever do any mistakes or don't hurt anybody. Nobody is perfect and I like to learn about the imperfections about someone when I read their biographies. This book does this incredibly well. There is Steve Jobs in the book, with his very talented side, his weaknesses, his mistakes, his maturing as a person over the years, his quirky side.
The only warning I think I should give is there are a lot of full names in the book. Which is actually great for those interested in the tech industry, it's informative and can be used as a reference book. For those like me who are not that interested it gets a little hard to remember all the names and what their job was. Not that I'm complaining.
on 28 October 2011
I was eagerly anticipating this biography. Steve Jobs is a man who has fascinated me for many years and I looked forward into gaining an insight into the man who has had such a big effect on the modern world. Another reason why this biography was so potentially interesting was that it was authorised by a man who for a long time was intensely private, but was now facing his own mortality.
The book itself is written by famed biographer Walter Isaacson, who had previously written critically acclaimed biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. However interestingly this is the first time he had written one about a living person, especially one he knew well.
The biography itself starts off promisingly with a description of Steve Jobs early life, his adoption, his immersion in the counter culture and the early days of Apple. I think what is most fascinating is the ability for someone like Jobs to just walk into a job with no qualifications or experience, which shows a lot about Silicon Valley in those days. As the story unfolds we see the other side of Jobs, the petulant individual who could antagonise as much as inspire. It becomes clear that one of Jobs talents was his ability to understand the motivations and weaknesses of an individual. However he as often as not used that ability to destroy as much as achieve.
The story moves on to the breakup with Apple, his creation of NeXT and Pixar and his triumphant return to Apple. It is at that point that I feel the autobiography looses steam. The description of his success at Apple could have been written just as well by someone at Apple PR, and while his successes should be celebrated, there is not enough critic of the mistakes made on the way. We also lose Jobs the individual as it concentrates on Apple and some of the individuals there. Maybe its because the author was talking to people still employed at Apple, but we get less of Jobs the petulant tyrant and more of Jobs the inspirational genius. The book ends with Jobs fight against cancer. This is again where we get a better insight of his true character.
If you are buying this book like me to get a insight into the true Steve Jobs, you may be disappointed. I feel it is not often the biographer pierces the veil. Strangely, probably he is the most open when he is discussing the music he had on his iPod. There is also a nagging feeling that Steve Jobs was using this book to extend his famed reality distortion field beyond the grave and I feel the author to often did not go deeply enough into some of the issues raised. For example Jobs stated a number of time that he felt the use of LSD was an important contributor to his success, but the author never questioned his feelings on drug taking and how it affects society. Also the contrast of a man who was proud of his counter culture values, but at the same time amassed billions, sometimes at the expense of close colleagues, and never was a believer in philanthropy was never adequately explored. In some ways you feel the author got too close to the subject and at times loses his objectivity. In that he is not alone, Steve Jobs had that affect on people.
However despite its flaws it is still a recommended read and if nothing else provides a fascinating insight into the early days of Silicon Valley. It is also the closest anyone will now get to the modern day sphinx that was Steve Jobs.
Just one more comment. The kindle version does not include that iconic photo that graces the book versions cover, despite this being the only part of the book that Steve Jobs was directly involved in. If Steve Jobs was alive now I'm sure his reaction would be that that decision sucked.
While it is only weeks since the untimely death of the great visionary Steve Jobs it is matter of historical certainty to place him firmly in the linage of great inventors and technological pioneers which include names like Bell, Faraday and Edison. Perhaps this book on Jobs life by Walter Isaacson previous biographer of Einstein and Franklin comes to soon after his passing away, alternatively you could argue that's its publication is ironically like a well timed Apple launch. This is particularly the case since it appears that Jobs had typically taken a long view and in 2004 first approached Issacson with this idea of becoming his biographer. The latter hesitated at that point but in 2009 when the tumor inside Jobs pancreas was taking a crippling hold his wife Laurene Powell firmly informed the author "that if you are ever going to do a book on Steve, you'd better do it now" Issacson's biography was informed by over 40 interviews with Jobs, access to friends and colleagues and a complete free hand. Sadly Jobs never got to read it since it is a generally solid if rushed biography and while it is hugely sympathetic to the main protagonist it shows all facets of Jobs not least his infuriating (but understandable) perfectionism, his vindictiveness and the exercise of a level of overpowering influence on those around him. Issacson casts this as Jobs "reality distortion field" a term coined by Apple employees to describe how he created his own unique cultural/organizational norms.
The book starts by covering his adoption by the family of mechanic Paul Jobs who enshrined in his son a love of design and brought him up near Palo Alto the epicentre of a place which was "just about to turn silicon into gold". The development of the Blue Box with Steve Wozniak's innovative design was the starting point. This showed that Jobs brilliance at another key facet namely marketing even though at the time he was a highly opinionated vegan obsessed hippy with a penchant for drugs. The rest as they say is history not least through Wozniak's uber inventive phase in Jobs garage with initially the Apple 2 computer and that seminal moment in 1984. Here the first iteration of the foundation stone of modern computing was released enshrined in the Macintosh where the mouse and GUI sealed the deal. Jobs provided the hard commercial logic behind this although its impact was far from immediate as the world shifted towards its dalliance with Bill Gates.
Granted there are times in Issacson's book when things feel quite superficial and judgements are undercooked. An example is the chapter on Jobs love of music that is fashioned in relation to the ubiquitous question "what's on your IPod". It shows an enduring fanaticism for Dylan and a true fondness for Joni Mitchell's song about her daughters adoption "Little Green" which clearly resonated with Jobs. The problem here and in other parts of the book however is that the text feels like an extended magazine interview and not a weighty biography which in turn is a problem with the books immediacy. In one sense it is all too raw and recent, whilst truly great biographies do require distance and the passage of time. As such Issacson certainly will not be the last word on Jobs. Alternatively the book is strong on Jobs re-takeover of Apple and later involvement in Pixar but absolutely essential in describing the development of the IPhone and IPad. Jobs frustration with attempts to partner with Motorola on a new mobile phone with their cumbersome RAZR product is a key moment. As his frustration builds he exclaims, "I'm sick of dealing with these stupid companies...lets do it ourselves" (Kindle location 8024). The world turned at this moment. Equally on the IPad the brilliance of Apple marketing and technology combined to make the Wall Street Journal excitingly comment on its launch that "the last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it" (Location 8474). Immediately the post PC era was born.
His demise at the age 56 begs the question of where Jobs would have taken Apple in the era of cloud computing and how strong is his legacy. Jobs was a restless and impatient innovator and as Issacson observes he launched products that transformed whole industries. But he also concludes that Jobs "Zen training never produced in him a Zen like calm or inner serenity". And yet in 1997 in Apple's "Think Different" campaign Jobs wrote his own obituary when in high rhetoric he stated "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers .....They push the human race forward".
on 9 November 2014
There are times when the best form of defence is attack, and Jobs, whilst having a dubious record in all kinds of areas, cannot be thought of as anything less than a brilliant strategic thinker and probably the world's greatest salesman into the bargain. As such, when cancer looked like it might claim him early, he commissioned Walter Issacson to write the version of himself that he would wish on posterity. Issacson's Jobs is selfish, petulant and devoid of any redeeming features, and this of course, is the point. Jobs undoubtedly knew any future biographer would struggle to find anything edifying to say about him, and commissioning this book was his first shot at controlling the damage that time will inflict on his compromised legacy. If stealing is so wrong, as Jobs claimed in the development of iTunes, then why did he do so much of it? From friends, competitors, colleagues and girlfriends, Jobs' lack of a moral compass meant that such scruples were not for him, but for the customers he wanted to entice. The Zen buddhist in him did not apparently stir when telling colleagues young or old that their work was 's***', or that they were 'brain-dead', but was somehow quietly at work doing all those designs we really should attribute to Jonathan Ive (even bystanders like waiters or receptionists were insulted in this way: very Zen). The hypocrisy and callousness that produced some of the most vicious and controlling systems in the world also sold them to us in the form of freedom and counter-culture, which is what makes his lies quite so astonishingly outrageous, and this book certainly lays this out for us. He must have been absolutely ghastly.
The book is, however, an attempt to limit the damage by offering up an account of Jobs that seems fair-minded, but in reality doesn't even come close to capturing either his ruthlessness nor the damage done through his work. He comes across like a modern Stalin, capricious and arbitrary, an encounter with whom could get you promoted or have you sent to a gulag, preoccupied with micro-managing details, but actually devoid of real insight into what makes some things work and others 'suck', to use a favoured phrase of Apple's little darling. He was, undoubtedly, considerably worse than this. Issacson is right to compare him to Edison or Ford, given they suffered from the same absence of morality in pursuit of their business goals. In this, Jobs is rightly an American hero: destructive, uncontrollable and prepared to take credit and make money from the weakness of others.
Whilst not wanting to accuse Issacson of hagiography, there are times when the Jobs' spell overcomes him as much as any of the characters he accuses of succumbing to it. Whilst he occasionally raises questions about the impact of Jobs' work, and rightly makes the connection between Jobs' controlling personality (complete with lifelong eating disorder and psychological problems over his adoption) and the products Apple produced, he never quite gets to make connections into how much Jobs' example has meant to others, especially where his need to control overpowers the autonomy of users. Surely putting up with a few crap products might be worthwhile if the trade-off is being forced into Apple's 'insanely great' world of what it is to make them richer (and, rather consciously, into making you poorer: after all, these are consumer devices, not business products). If it shows nothing else, the book is a very good account at how being effective at business will protect you from the consequences of your actions, and for that we should be grateful.
on 21 December 2011
For anyone interested in business and design this is a must read; what is so interesting about it is the extent to which the ultimate success and triumph of the man was built on a succession of what can only be described as failures; getting booted out of Apple; the NeXT adventure which can only be described as random and the chance success of Pixar; a revelation inasfar as it was based as the man himself admitted on luck and instinct against the conventional business tools he had acquired as a leader at Apple. This last deal really made the man and his subsequent unparalleled triumphs with Apple were based on the philosophy that he was true to in his business career; namely the preeminence of good design in creating products of unimaginable beauty and simplicity. Given this life story and the eccentricities of the man (esp. his quite awful behaviour at times) it would be hard to produce a book that was anything but interesting. At times it does go too deep and descend into areas that are unnecessary and irrelevant as is the wont of biographies of major US business success stories and leaders who are viewed as demi-Gods; but it certainly brings out the chain of events that made the man the success he was, exposes his strengths and weaknesses and brings more life to a story that a story that has become a part of our culture. You cannot ask for more than that.
I purchased Walter Isaacson's 'Steve Jobs' believing (perhaps naively) that I could pick up some pointers for my own business venture and learn from the former Apple CEO, who sadly passed away only recently. As it turned out, I made more notes on the paper than my University text books.
But was I entertained? Absolutely - perhaps more entertained than I've been with a book in a long time. However, this doesn't mean that I finished the authors work with a feeling of fulfilment.
The pacing of Isaacson's work is, on reflection, a rather disappointing experience if you were hoping to gain a better understanding of Jobs's psyche. For whatever reasons, his life as a child and that following his second cancer diagnosis (particularly during the iPad period) both read a bit flat and lacking in quality research, whilst in stark contrast, the episodes surrounding his reign in the Macintosh team (1984) are composed with great care and attention to detail for almost any aspect of the man's life at that point in time. It's possible that, because the development of the Macintosh was so significant and packed to the brim with drama for a good five years, Isaacson felt the era warranted more input and research that was easier to undertake. With more conflict and different sides to a story, the views expressed are taken into more consideration.
Another explanation could be that this book was subject to a rush-release in order to coincide with the passing of Jobs, and if such was indeed the case, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Few factual errors exist throughout, although in some cases, they read like a Wikipedia article (this itself is a great shame as the former source will often provide more interesting information). Isaacson even suggests questionably that Ridley Scott was "fresh from the success of Blade Runner" when he was contracted by Jobs, despite the fact this film was a commercial flop on its initial release and took at least a decade to gain a majority positive response.
As it stands, I feel the pacing only filters out some of the more important points to be taken from the book, and that is how Jobs actually matured. Without knowing what interested Jobs as a child, what activities he enjoyed taking part in and what is social life was like (a theme largely absent in itself), I simply couldn't process his actions in later life. As such, the book has left me asking many more questions than that which I started off with.
The second question is, do I respect Steve Jobs any more than before? No. In fact, I actually dislike the man very much now. This obviously comes down to my own personal taste (and I'm sure will be scorned at by Jobs Tribes), but I have found the so called 'genius' to not be a founder of great ideas, but rather, the bully who squeezed them out from others whilst, in the process, complicating the relationships and lives of those around him and taking credit for their work. Indeed, the early days of the personal computer were a "dog-eat-dog" world, but it is clear that Steve Wozniak - who was able to fulfil Jobs's vision - left the big picture with barely any credit that he so deserved.
This is a trait I found cringeworthy - that Jobs so blatantly enjoyed belittling anyone who stood between an idea and its inception. From the present accounts, he could turn quicker than old milk on his colleagues and generally governed his relationships through a 'reality distortion field' which Isaacson was fascinated by. It was with this field that he manipulated people for the good and the bad. At times, he behaved like a spoilt brat who simply had to get his own way and could only be undermined by those willing to stand up to him (which on a positive note, he encountered more in later life). What's more, Isaacson recalls of how Jobs would cry when he was losing an argument or struggled to control others. That, in itself, is quite pathetic for a grown man.
Although these actions were likely just a part of his make-up, it did not help that Jobs considered himself 'special' because of the three defining events in his life; being told he was adopted, taking LSD and being made to feel like a messiah whilst learning Zen in India. Jobs's suggestion that few will understand him unless they've tried LSD is profound, to say the least. He was obviously so out of touch with descent social skills that, for a large part of his life, he confused and misled those around him because his charisma made up for a lack of technical knowledge.
The upside to this? He enabled staff to get the best out of themselves and to produce the best work possible - often, when they believed it impossible to do so. I admire his drive for perfectionism, and hundreds of time through the book this is well-documented. It proves that he was willing to settle for nothing less than 'insanely great' aesthetics because he recognised that perfecting little details made a whole form much simpler, more pleasing to users. Many critics are often polarised by Apple's 'walled garden' control of their products and eco-system, but this itself has its up and downsides. Focusing on the ups, it enabled Jobs and Apple to create some of the most unique user experiences of the past century.
I'm absolutely glad I got through this book and have a deeper understanding of how Apple operates (which was a surprising side-effect), but most importantly, I am no longer under the illusion that what you see on stage is the real thing. Jobs's Keynote presentations pretty much sum up what the guy was all about... as Isaacson himself says, "Steve could be charming, secretive and cold, but which of these you see depends on what side of his linear world you stand in".
on 15 August 2013
After so much hype, I was really expecting a riveting read here but Apple followers will be a bit let down. The first two thirds of the book cover (obviously) identical ground to iCon (the previous comprehensive biography) and really don't add anything to that. The remaining third is really a whizz through the years of triumph without a lot of the juice, especially in the battles with the music companies which I recall were much more fraught and brutal than depicted here, with not too much fly on the wall dialogue. It's a record - but that's it.