November 23rd, 2011
Book Review: Steve JobsBy Dana Sciandra
Check out past book reviews in the Buk Lernin section.
Steve Jobs Was:
- A Perfectionist
- A Visionary
- A Risk-Taker
Steve Jobs Was Also:
- An Asshole
- An Unmitigated Narcissist
- A Tantrum Thrower
- Entirely Self-Centered & Selfish
- A Hypocrite
A (Not So) Brief Disclaimer…
Before reading this review – and in the interest of “full disclosure” – you should know that prior to reading this book, I was not much of a Steve Jobs fan to begin with, nor do I consider myself to be an Apple “fan-boy”…although, I do consider myself to be a fan of their products (I own an iPad & iPod), just not their business model of strictly tethering people to their digital ecosystem.
As I wrote in a recent Boredom Bite shortly after his death, entitled The Beatification of Steve Jobs…”while I don’t deny his contribution to technology, design and animation…the continued beatification of Steve Jobs is getting nauseating…at the end of the day he made gadgets, enough already.”
Harsh? Perhaps. But in the days that followed his death, social media was flooded with the sort of gushing and sycophantic drivel that was nothing short of demanding his immediate Sainthood. Steve Jobs did not invent many of the things that people attribute to him. Computers, MP3 players, tablet computing and smart-phones already existed…if any credit can be given, he simply made them better, more attractive and – in most cases – easier to use. In fact, many of the beautiful design elements that consumers have come to appreciate about Apple products were actually the brainchild of Apple’s Chief Designer, Jonathan Ive…and as the book reveals, Jobs had absolutely no qualms about taking credit for Ive’s genius.
But with all of that being said, the life of Steve Jobs is a fascinating tale and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the inner workings at Apple and the creation of many of their outstanding products; along with learning about the man who founded the company – and who was later ousted – only to return and save the company from bankruptcy and turn it into the most valuable company in the world.
I include this “disclaimer” prior to my review, if only to illustrate that I did not approach this book with the usual “rose colored glasses” relating to the cult-of-personality surrounding the man; but also fully admit that I had a strong interest in learning more about Steve Jobs and his accomplishments. Truth be told, in many cases, the book did nothing to give me a finer appreciation of the man, but rather further compounded my earlier criticisms. In juxtaposition to those opinions, I also found myself rooting for Jobs during certain passages of the book and being amazed (and sometimes disgusted) at his ability to get people (although I disagree with his methods) to do what they (previously) felt was impossible.
So, with this little indulgence out of the way, on to the review…
One of the reasons that I was interested in reading this book was due to the caveat established by the author, Walter Isaacson, that Jobs would have no influence over the content of the book. The book was to be objective, including both flattering and not-so-flattering depictions of Jobs and that Steve would not receive an advanced copy, nor be able to edit any content prior to its publication. This interested me, as I wanted an honest biography of the man and not simply another gushing diatribe that elevated Steve Jobs to the status of some technological and creative deity. Isaacson was not completely objective, as he did (understandably) develop a personal relationship with Jobs over the course of the book’s writing, but overall I feel he wrote a very honest tome.
As with all of my book reviews, I try not to bog it down with too many specifics and anecdotes that those who read the book should discover for themselves, but rather my impressions and whether or not I liked and/or recommend the book.
The Early Years…
Steve Jobs was adopted and – from an early age by his adoptive parents – was instilled with the belief that he was “special.” His adoptive father, Paul Jobs, was a skilled mechanic who first introduced Jobs to the inner workings of machines. His father instilled in him the principle that the inside of a machine, should be just a beautiful (and treated with the same care) as the outside…a principle that Steve carried with him while creating many of Apple’s products over the years.
Developing a love for computers as a teen – after seeing one in action with his father – Steve began attending talks given by engineers at Hewlett-Packard (a company that he greatly admired), in addition to joining the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto, CA. It is here that he developed a friendship with an incredibly talented engineer by the name of Steve “Woz” Wozniak…who later co-founded Apple with Jobs.
As I read through the “early years” chapters, I was struck by how evident it was that “Woz” was clearly the technical genius of the duo. It was Woz that created the first Apple computer and the wildly popular Apple II, and that without him, Jobs would never have gotten off the ground. Steve was more skilled as a salesman, using his intensity, passion and vision to help convince Woz (and investors) that they could make money off of selling personal computers – something obviously not as commonplace as it is today, as computers were large, clunky and decidedly not “personal.” Woz being a “hacker” at heart, seemed more tickled by the idea of giving away the motherboard blueprints that he and Steve created, and allowing others to add to it or create a computer of their own. A far removal from the later “closed” business model that Steve heavily enforced at Apple years later.
In one of their earliest endeavors, they created a “Blue Box” that had the ability to simulate a telephone operator’s dialing console…effectively allowing them to make free long distance calls. Woz wanted to give it away to friends and fellow hackers, but it was Jobs that saw a business opportunity.
The other thing that struck me was the tone that Jobs and Isaacson gave to Woz…that of a naive child…or as Jobs called him, a “man child.” Considering that Woz was the entire reason that the newly formed Apple even had a working product to sell in the first place, I found this depiction to be disrespectful.
In fact – at least in my opinion while reading the first chapters – it appears that the only contribution that Jobs made in the early years of Apple was in his vision that personal computers should be smaller, “friendly” and non-intimidating…and in his ability to berate the work of Apple’s early employees as being “shit”…a theme, calling other people’s work “shit”, that prevails throughout the book as Jobs’ motivational and management modus operandi. Beyond that, his most important contribution was in possessing what Woz lacked, an arrogant and extroverted personality that helped them to sell initial units of their computers at local hobby shops.
It was this arrogant and impetuous nature that would later get Jobs ousted from the company that he helped to create.
As Apple began to enjoy success in the late 70′s to early 80′s, I found the chapter on the first Macintosh computer particularly interesting, as this was the first time that Steve was creating something on his own (Woz was still on the Apple II team) that he had complete control over. It is during this chapter that you really get a sense of how difficult it must have been to work for him and where his arrogance really began to solidify due to the Macintosh’s initial success.
The following video is from a MacWorld event in which he introduced the Macintosh to the world for the first time. I find it compelling, as it is the first time the world is seeing a truly personal computer, one that can be lifted with one hand and utilizes one of the first graphical user interfaces (that was licensed through Xerox, who actually invented it) and a mouse (also invented by Xerox):
The In-Between Years & Return To Apple…
Throughout the book, Isaacson also details:
- Jobs’ life as a strict vegan and his early “hippie” years in which he spent time in India, tripping on LSD and seeking enlightenment. A time that Jobs recalls as being one of the most important in his life.
- How Jobs’ hygiene became an issue on numerous occasions when he was younger, as Jobs was convinced that his fruit or vegetable-only diets and/or purging would apparently remove the necessity to bathe or use deodorant…a belief that was often proven quite false, especially during meetings with investors and partners.
- The time in Jobs’ life in which he denies paternity of a daughter he had, going so far as to arguing that he was sterile in order to prevent having to pay child support…of which he ultimately ended up paying. He also later names a computer after her (Lisa). As a result, he ends up having a strained relationship with Lisa throughout the remainder of his life.
- The story in which he learns the identity of his natural parents, even meeting his natural mother and re-counting a story in which he met his natural father (who managed a restaurant that Jobs frequented) without realizing it was his father that he had just met. He also meets and develops a strong relationship with his sister (a famous author by the name of Mona Simpson), whom his natural parents had after Steve was given up for adoption.
- His battles over power with different CEO’s at Apple and his lifelong competition with Microsoft’s, Bill Gates. Including when Gates saved Apple upon Jobs’ return in the 90′s thanks to a large investment…only to be met with boos by an audience of Apple’s faithful when introduced as the partner who helped save the company.
- His famous, “reality distortion field”, wherein he believes he can change the facts or reality itself just through the power of his will and personality. At times, it is successful…at others (like his initial reaction to being diagnosed with cancer), it is irresponsible and false.
- His early successes and failures at Apple. Being ousted from the company. Starting a new computer company (neXT), his time at Pixar (and subsequent bouts with Disney over IP) and his triumphant return to Apple in the 90′s.
- His meeting with President Obama and how initially Jobs refused to meet with the President unless Obama called him directly to request it, as though his (Jobs’) time was more valuable than the President of the United States.
But I mostly wanted to focus on the impressions that I took away of Steve Jobs as I read the book and whether it would affect the opinion I had of him prior to reading it. The rest of the review will cover that.
Steve Jobs: The Man & CEO
Steve Jobs was an asshole. There really isn’t any other way around it. At no point in the book did I feel entirely sympathetic towards him. Even during the chapters that discusses his bout with cancer, Jobs is obstinate, waits too long to agree to surgery that could save his life and is never kind to those around him who are concerned for his health.
Chapter after chapter is filled with nothing but self-aggrandizing stories of Jobs, his berating of employees and friends, ignoring his children, telling other people how their work is “shit”, crying, whining and leading an otherwise self-centered existence. Part of the reason I was so bothered by the reaction after his death, was due in part to people’s desire to pretend that somehow he was this amazing visionary that should be placed on a pedestal as an example to follow. And while I do admit that he was a visionary, I disagree with his style and the way that he treated people. Sure, he made cool gadgets that we all love (including myself), but as a man and a CEO he appeared to be nothing more than a petty tyrant.
Many will argue that, “Well yeah, but he got results.” True enough…but do we really want to elevate a man who, by most accounts, was a prick to work for or know? Examples of how he, “got the job done” was by humiliating employees in public, randomly firing people for no real reason (to the point that employees didn’t want to share an elevator with him, for fear that they would be out of a job by the time it arrived at their floor), yelling at them and calling them idiots in front of their colleagues, manipulating people by being nice when he wanted something and dismissing them when they were no longer of use to him or throwing his famous temper tantrums.
At times, I appreciated how he got the best out of people. One anecdote revolves around the start-up time for the Macintosh. He wanted it to be faster and asked the engineer working on it, “If your life depended upon it, could you shave off an additional 15 seconds?”…the engineer was able to shave off nearly 30 seconds. In that regard, I can appreciate his desire to get people’s best work.
But, that one anecdote doesn’t absolve Jobs of the fact that his way of “getting things done” was to manipulate, cajole, berate, humiliate, double-cross and, if need be, cry (and he cried and threw temper tantrums a lot) to get his way.
As the psychiatrist father of a friend noted, “Jobs is a textbook narcissist.” Not exactly someone I look up to as an example to follow, no matter how cool the toys he creates are.
Even the advances and designs that he is given credit for, many of which were invented by others or outright stolen…but it didn’t stop him from taking the credit wherever and whenever he could…for Jobs, apparently, it was always about all praise being heaped upon him personally. I mentioned Jonathan Ive earlier, the Chief Designer at Apple, who in one of the later chapters expresses the hurt he felt when, during the launch of the iMac (which helped to get Apple back on the map), he listened to Steve take all of the credit. This is a theme that is very common throughout the book: Steve Jobs taking credit for the ingenuity and genius of others.
Even plans for the iPad appear to have been drawn up during a birthday party of a Microsoft employee, also attended by Bill Gates, in which the employee was bragging about a new touch tablet they were working on at Microsoft and how Jobs should license the interface. Jobs was annoyed by the employee’s bragging and his (Jobs) own belief that he could do anything better than Microsoft…therefore the creation of the iPad comes across as being done almost entirely out of spite.
You know Apple’s refusal to support Adobe Flash on their mobile and tablet devices? Yeah, well the book tells a story of how Jobs approached Adobe back in the 90′s to create a video editing software for them, only to be turned down by Adobe in favor of supporting PC’s that had a much larger market share than Apple. This infuriated Jobs and the book makes it clear that Apple’s lack of support for Adobe’s Flash platform was, again, purely out of spite…despite Jobs’ other public proclamations and reasoning on the subject.
Much is also made of the $1 salary he took when he came back as the interim CEO of Apple in the 90′s. How “magnanimous” of him. However, as the book reveals, this was all part of Jobs’ desire to control his public image…while negotiating (borderline illegal, of which was investigated by the SEC) stock option deals for himself behind closed doors.
Now I am not saying he should not be compensated (and compensated well) for what he did to save Apple, however to promote a public persona to maintain his “rebel, not in it for the money” persona…while behaving antithetically to that public persona in private, is just shady.
Even the battles over Android, a technology that he feels was stolen from Apple…coming from a man who once said this:
I am sure that Palm would have a lot to say about stolen ideas and improving upon them, Steve.
During the chapter when Jobs said he is, “going to destroy Android, even if it means spending every dollar that we have in the bank to right this wrong…I am willing to go thermonuclear on this”, there is an interesting comment from him as he explains his outrage. Essentially he says that it pissed him off that Google entered the mobile phone market with Android (to compete with the iPhone), because “we didn’t enter the search market and compete with them, so for them to enter the mobile phone market, pisses me off.” He say this without the slightest hint of irony or the understanding that other phone manufacturers probably felt the same way when Apple entered their market with the iPhone.
All in all, there are moments in the book where I am on Steve’s side…but they are heavily overshadowed by the many moments in which he just comes across as a self-centered, ego-driven, rude, immature and whiny asshole. As I said earlier, I like the products…I don’t have to like the man.
Final Thoughts On Jobs’ Legacy
By now, you probably assume that I have nothing nice to say about the man…this is not true…and besides, this is supposed to be a book review (whoops).
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and gaining this kind of insight into the inner-workings of Apple and Steve Jobs…for better or for worse. The topics discussed in the book and the creation of the devices that so many of us use, makes this biography an enjoyable read. I may have my opinions about the man, compounded by the many stories in the book, but getting this kind of view into such a traditionally “secretive” company is extraordinarily interesting…and I didn’t have to have my door kicked in and my personal files, computer and cell phone seized to gain it. Such a far departure from their famous 1984 Super-Bowl ad…who’s Big Brother now?
A lot of credit goes to Isaacson for writing such an honest book and to Steve Jobs for not wanting to exhibit control (something he has demanded in everything else in his life) over its content. As a result, although it does not paint the man in the most favorable light, it is honest.
I concede that Steve Jobs has had an incredible impact on the world today. He transformed the music and animation industries, streamlined personal computing (with a lot of help from effective marketing and showmanship) and moved beautiful design (*ahem* Jony Ive) to the forefront of creating very attractive consumer products.
As I said previously, he invented nothing…he merely improved upon the ideas of others. I will, however, give him credit for his taste, as he had a skill for understanding what makes a product beautiful to consumers. To me, his biggest impact is on music (the path to iTunes was beaten by the likes of Napster, Rhapsody and others who brought music online…legally or illegally) and cellular phones…and to an extent, obviously making computing “personal” with the introduction of the Macintosh. It is my belief that we were moving in this direction already, but part of Steve’s genius was knowing this before the rest of us did. As a result, we received these innovations probably a decade earlier than we would have otherwise.
Steve Jobs helped to create a digital ecosystem that he had complete control over. For some, this is wonderful. For others (myself included), I prefer the more open model that allows me to tinker, improve and upgrade my computer on my own and not being forced to buy overpriced proprietary hardware and software (I side with “Woz” here), use my music however I see fit (and not be tethered to a particular company’s devices) and not be told what I can and cannot have on my phone or tablet devices based upon the taste and opinion of one man.
Steve Jobs introduced – and Apple engineers actually created – great products, there is no denying that. I may not have bought into staying wholly within the “Apple Universe,” but I do enjoy some of their products that I personally own.
I recommend this book because almost all of us own an Apple product, therefore learning about the man who helped bring them to you and the company and talented individuals who created them, makes for a very compelling read.
Steve wanted to create a lasting company and in that endeavor I believe that he succeeded.
By: Dana Sciandra
I leave you with his commencement speech at Stanford, a wonderful address that I enjoyed for its message:
Check out past book reviews in the Buk Lernin section.
Note to Publishers & Authors: If you are interested in having a book reviewed, please contact me. I will only review books in which the subject matter personally interests me. I will also make all reasonable effort to post an honest review prior to the scheduled release date, therefore (when sending an advanced copy) please allot enough time for this prior to publication. Should I enjoy the book, I will also honor requests to interview the author on the podcast. Thank you!