AMITIAE - Friday 16 December 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: An Intersection of Time, Location and Cultures

apple and chopsticks


Steve Jobs

When I first heard that Steve Jobs was allowing Walter Isaacson apparently-unlimited access his life and those around him, it was a signal that a line was being drawn. As we now know, it was part of the preparation for his demise that spurred Jobs on to this step and in typical fashion he chose Isaacson carefully.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster; New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-4855-3 (Print version, ISBN 978-1-4516-4853-9).


With Steven P. Jobs now gone, Isaacson's biography has now been released. I pre-purchased it from Amazon and (as befits the subject) in ebook format. On Monday 24 October, mid-morning, the Kindle app on my iPad displayed a cover icon for the book and I downloaded it in a couple of minutes. When I later opened the app on the iPhone, the book downloaded automatically. I was also able later to download it to the Kindle app on my Mac: three for the price of one.

While I have read books on the iPhone, the smaller screen provides less area so viewing paragraphs is not so easy. On the iPad, we have a single page view in portrait mode (larger than a paperback) and double page view in landscape. The default font size gave around 340 words to the page while one step down produced some 375 words. With my reading glasses I found this quite acceptable. The normal view is black text on a white background, but the app (on all three devices) allows white on black and sepia displays. In landscape the side by side pages give around 250 words per page at the smallest size. We may also select a one page (wide) view which will not suit all readers.

After the Albert Watson cover picture (the back cover -- shown at the start of the ebook -- is by Norman Seef), Isaacson introduces himself, not by name but by advertising his accomplishments ( . . . author of bestselling biographies), his foreword explains briefly how the book came about.

The usual book-like admin pages precede Contents -- a list of some 42 Chapters. The titles give an idea that this is not simply a chronological recounting: at critical stages, other information is layered on to give a greater depth to the main subject matter. Isaacson was asked to write Steve Jobs because of his complete approach to his subjects. Some of this is suggested by sections that precede the core of the book: Characters, and Isaacson's own Introduction. Characters lists almost 60 significant players in Steve Jobs' life: the bare details alongside each pre-judge several. It is not clear whose opinions these are.

After the Chapters are brief Acknowledgements, a list of Sources (those interviewed 2009-11), a Bibliography and Notes -- several pages of additional information concerning each chapter. This is followed by a comprehensive alphabetical index

The Index always gives a clue as to the thoroughness of preparation. With the smallest font, and in portrait mode, this extended to 49 pages on the iPad. Some of the entries have several references and, as befits an ebook, these are hyperlinks. It is easy to jump from the Index to to referenced page, but not so easy to jump back and I had to resort to the slider that appears with other tools when the screen is tapped.

The Index is followed by Illustration Credits: some photos are in the body of the text, while some 23 follow the credits. The book ends with a brief Footnotes section.

Early Years

There are several clues to Jobs in the first chapter that deal with birth, adoption and early teens. Many of the outline facts are fairly well-known but the layering that Isaacson is able to produce gives an increased understanding of the character. An early anecdote concerning Paul Jobs' care with the parts of the fence constructed at the family home that no one would see, is repeated several times throughout the book: an example of the attention that detail that Jobs would apply over and over again to the products and the company he left. This mirrored a comment that Jony Ives made at the celebration of Steve Jobs' life held at Cupertino (days before the book was released). He related how he and Steve would work for weeks on a part of a device, even though no one would ever see it. This reverence for craftsmanship was complemented by Jobs' view of Eichler homes built in their thousands in California in the 1950s -- a great design and simple capability to something that doesn't cost much.

In this early section, I also found it revealing that Steve Jobs liked King Lear and Moby Dick (with Captain Ahab), "Two of the most wilful and driven characters in literature." Jobs did not enlighten Isaacson as to why.

While Reed College was expensive for his parents and perhaps not overly productive from an education standpoint, he did learn about himself there in contacts with others. Significantly after he had dropped out, one class he audited was calligraphy and he became fascinated with fonts -- a design trait that remained a part of him and who he recognised as important for the development of the GUI.

In explaining the importance of the early 1970s' countercultures around San Francisco a number of threads (and personalities) are brought in. His use of drugs, and his experiences with India and the east have an importance that is not to be dismissed. Like a multi-laminate structure, small points then have a significance later, such as a visit to Italy where he saw the quarry that produces the same stone used now as flooring in the Apple stores; and the back page of the last Whole Earth Catalogue on which the words, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish" appeared. Those same words are often quoted as an important message in Jobs' famous Stanford Commencement address.

Apple (1)

The arrival of the Apple II provides an interesting parallel with today and the iPad. Commodore were given a look but decided it would be cheaper to build their own machines. When the PET arrived a few months later, Wozniak was annoyed: "It kind of sickened me. They made a real crappy product by doing it so quick. They could have had Apple." Also interesting was Red Holt's switching power supply: designed to keep the heat down because Steve did not like fans; and now used in every computer. They all ripped off Red's design.

The tale of how Apple took up the idea of the mouse that was seen at Xerox is often cited as an example of Steve Jobs stealing ideas from others. As outlined in Isaacson's biography the tale had a remarkable similarity to what I read a few months ago in the New Yorker in "Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation" by Malcolm Gladwell. He describes how the 3-button, wheeled concept evolved into the single button and ball that first arrived with the Macintosh; and makes it clear that the original concept was not from Xerox but Douglas Englebart. I tried to contact Gladwell for a comment on the similarities but there has been no reply.

There is of course an accounting of Jobs' wooing of John Sculley with a host of details and meetings I had not read before. This type of additional information throughout gives a multi-dimensional look inside Apple and inside Jobs giving us a far fuller understanding. The recruiting of Sculley ends with the question that always amazes me (as it did Sculley of course), "Do you want to sell sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?" The second half of that question is a perfect example of a skilled orator's Art in perfect iambic pentameter.

The period around the creation of the Macintosh and up to the time of the falling out with Sculley shows Jobs at his worst. And his best. I tried hard to find a word to describe him, but there were so many versions of Steve Jobs -- even by his own admissions -- that the best might be, "contradictory." Or mercurial, petulant, dynamic, erratic, but all miss so much more of what he was. None fits every Steve Jobs. Like a child stretching his limbs to test his strength, Jobs early attempts at management were inept but helped define what Apple would become 20 years or more later. He was totally unsuited to a management role in the 80s, but what he learned in the wilderness years by reflection would serve him (and Apple) so well from about 2000 onwards that the company became a force majeure in the IT industry and its future has been laid out for a long while to come.

NeXT and Pixar

Act II -- NeXt -- was where Jobs had the hardest lessons with what are described as "brilliant failures". As we now know the creation of the NeXt operating system laid the groundwork for OS X and (now) iOS. It also paved the way for Jobs' return to Apple.

One of the many examples of his (perhaps) obsessions with detail, concern the creation of the logo. It also reveals that those who stood up to Jobs (with good reasons) could have their way, something that Tim Cook and others relate in later chapters. Jobs had already accepted being told by the designer, Paul Rand, "I do not do options". He niggled over the dark yellow that was used for the "e". Rand banged his fist on the table at Jobs' house: "I've been doing this for 50 years, and I know what I'm doing." Rand won. Jobs also insisted the factory walls were painted white and machines there were also repainted. Further attention to detail concerned the production line itself that was reversed -- moving from right to left -- so that visitors in a gallery above would have a better viewing experience.

I was surprised to see Isaacson using the adjective, "Jobsian", which usually appears, with a sneer, in articles on the Register along with their 1950s-style juvenile vocabulary. Several times the text slipped into an over easy style and did not have the hardness I was expecting throughout.

There was an interesting comment in "Prometheus Unbound" (Chapter 18) -- also the title of a Shelley poem -- that was first seen in an Esquire article concerning a meeting at NeXt and an animated Steve Jobs, whose hands ". . . are slightly and inexplicably yellow." One wonders if this were an early sign of the cancer that was to take him.

Meanwhile Pixar was reforming itself from a hardware company with software, to a software company with movie skills. Jobs left John Lasseter (who only recently was awarded a star on Hollywood Boulevard) in day to day charge, while he was the deal-maker. At Pixar, the staff recognised that Jobs was so charismatic that you almost had top get deprogrammed after you talked to him.

There are occasional difficulties when Isaacson injects himself into the narrative and it is not always clear when this occurs if it is Jobs, Isaacson the narrator, Isaacson the man, or a third party who is speaking. He has become a part of Steve Jobs' life as we were also able to see with the many TV appearances he made shortly after publication. I asked myself the same question as when reading works of literature: can we trust the narrator?

NeXt became the key to saving Apple after Scully, Spindler and Gil Amelio, while Pixar perhaps saved Disney (but with some sleight of hand retained a separation from Burbank) and Jobs began the task of saving Apple.

Final Years

Act III is the more recent history and starts with the return of Jobs to Cupertino via the NeXt back door. When he came back, the company was a mess. The contrasts with what he found and the ruthlessness of how he acted are lessons for many corporations with extensive product lists. We have seen similar executive slashing in other companies, when the results (and the CEOs) are praised for what has been done, even when the eventual result -- like the UK coal and motor industries -- has been massive contraction. This was different and displays the type of clear thinking that is worth taking on board.

Some of what happened is outlined by Phil Schiller. Steve had listened for weeks to the justifications for their products put forward by the teams, until he finally stopped them and, on a whiteboard, drew a horizontal and a vertical line -- Consumer and Pro, Desktop and Portable. The teams were told "to make four great products, one for each quadrant."

There is also a point here about presentations and PowerPoint which Jobs hated (not the product per se): they "use slide presentations instead of thinking" and "People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. His own mastery of the presentation medium -- which Jobs explained was by imagining explaining an idea to a few friends -- was earlier detailed in 2009, in Ernest Gallo's The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of any Audience.

Some of the threads from his earlier experiences, both in industry and from his travels come to have a greater significance here. Always looking for a new way to incorporate better materials into anything that would improve the design or the experience, we are reminded of the stone from Italy as well as a sort of love affair with glass (iPhone, Apple Store stairs, New York store cube).

As with all the other sections, some significant players are also interviewed as in the earlier parts of the book. They help to contradict in some cases, but more often to confirm and enhance the mysteries of Apple's phenomenal growth. Of particular note in the later chapters is input from Tim Cook, now CEO, who helped reorganise Apple's supply lines; and Jony Ive, who has long been responsible for design at Apple. These two are important parts of the cohesive structure that Apple now is.


Jobs was perhaps created by a unique intersection of relationships, time, place and cultures. Isaacson's biography captures some of the motivations that created the company and its products, perhaps enabling Jobs himself to draw a line in the sand before other inevitable (and probably less favourable) biographies follow.

Isaacson has completed a magnificent and difficult task in gathering the material and forging this work, which will stand as a definitive examination of Steve Jobs for the present. Some may question some of his input as he was clearly convinced (in the text and when interviewed on TV) that Jobs was on the right track, although there were clearly faults.

Having seen Jobs in action at a keynote presentation, and being a long-term fan of Apple products, I am biased; but I would be wrong if I left open the question of Isaacson's own experiences: was the writer himself a victim of the so-called reality distortion effect?

Steve Jobs

The above review was first put out on the AMITIAE site on 6 November 2011 and (tidied up slightly) is now available here as that site is now closed.



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