Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

By Professor Jeffery Atik

If only Lytton Strachey had written this biography of Steve Jobs. He would have punctured Jobs, ridiculed his dirty feet and preachiness, his unshattered conviction of his own primacy. Not that Jobs wasn't a great figure: he certainly was. But there is something off-putting when a biographer lets his subject declare (and so establish) his own importance. The temptation in reviewing this biography is to assess the subject and not the book. And the subject is certainly compelling. Jobs' accomplishments are familiar, his eccentricities less so. And so there is sordid attraction exercised by his abandonments, his eating disorders, his cruelty.

Isaacson relishes his access to Jobs and produces a work Larry King would envy. Certainly Jobs' foibles are presented -- but simply because a biographer has a license to report 'warts and all' does not discharge his critical responsibility. Isaacson does not judge Jobs. At best, he reports -- in various fragments -- the partial judgments of Jobs' many friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Joan Baez is perhaps the most honest of all: she has little to say beyond a typifying story (Jobs is clueless) and leaves the impression that she meant more to Steve than Steve ever meant to her.

No doubt many readers of this book will search for easy recipes for replicating Jobs' phenomenal business achievements. Jobs seems to have had two running theories for Apple's success. The first account celebrates Apple's industrial design. The design story is complex -- and has deep psychological roots. Jobs learns from his father (a modest man he greatly admired) of the importance of finish, even for elements hidden from view. Design does not reflect the creator's integrity; it assures it. But design involves more than form following function -- the book is replete with stories of Jobs' rejecting engineers' design compromises that duly reflect functional concerns. The aesthetic trumps the functional in these stories (Isaacson gives no counterexamples), at times leading to stunning product, and at other times, to disappointment and delusion. In the affair known as "Antennagate," Jobs had insisted that a gorgeous steel rim surround the iPhone 4. Unfortunately, this compromised an essential function: the phone dropped calls at a higher rate. The technical solution adopted by many (and offered by Jobs) was an ugly case which, of course, masked the iPhone 4's design!

Jobs had a wonderful design sense, though he became increasingly closed off to new aesthetic experience. Dylan remained the center of his musical universe (his iTunes list is true to baby-boomer form). He perceives Bach's greatness -- but stops there (though Yo-Yo Ma is a 'friend'). Had Jobs been more intrigued by music -- and willing to explore - he may have found artists who better reflected his simplicity instincts.

The second account of Apple's success draws on Jobs' insistence in controlling the user's entire experience. Isaacson describes the consistent Apple practice of developing both software and hardware. Microsoft's Bill Gates plays the role of advocate for the other stance: that software success is best achieved by maintaining an 'open' philosophy, licensing to a wide variety of hardware manufacturers. Notwithstanding Apple's triumphs, Gates may have the better view.

The Jobs/Gates relationship fascinates Isaacson -- one is up when the other is down throughout their intertwining careers. Each is suspicious of the other, each hesitates to praise the other's strengths. Yet we're told of Gates' visit to Jobs' home soon before Jobs died: "Is Steve around?" Gates asks Jobs' daughter. In an enterprise version of the Great Man theory, Isaacson reduces the Microsoft/Apple rivalry to a personal contest between the firms' respective CEOs.

If there are prescriptions to be found here, they are the kind that cannot be followed. Make great products. Sure thing. In the end, Jobs is not a customer first guy. Nor is he, in his self-judgment, a product first guy. He is a company first guy, at least when that company is his. Jobs was, as Isaacson tells us, thrown out of Apple -- and when he returns, he works for a long stretch as an unpaid interim CEO because Apple remains throughout 'his'. Jobs' identification with Apple (and Pixar, the other major company he runs) is complete; it absorbs all his passion. No surprise that little part of Jobs was left for family. Steve Jobs declared that Apple would be his legacy -- he hoped to leave behind a great company that would persist in reflecting his values. Yet he was witness to the inevitable drift that befell two great companies -- Hewlett-Packard and Disney -- distancing them from the visions of their respective charismatic leaders.

A magical character dances through this story of Steve Jobs' life: his ever abused, frequently forgotten, yet always forgiving partner and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak. I like Woz.
Steve Jobs is shortlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

See my reviews of these other shortlisted books for the 2012 FT/GS Book Award:

Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can't Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets

Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail - The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Follow me on Twitter @jefferyatik

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