Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson


Let me first disclose that I have been a Mac user for all my adult life. My first computer was a Mac and I have owned several since. I currently own a MacBook Pro and an iMac as well as an iPhone and an iPad.

When I work on something made by Apple, I feel delight. When I have to work on an ugly piece of junk running the incredibly tedious Windows operating system, I feel depressed.

Steve Jobs is the person primarily responsible for creating that delight. His greatest achievement is to insist on high artistic standards in a world used to settling for mediocrity. That attitude led to defeat in the PC wars but also to a stunning turnaround and numerous victories after his return to Apple in the late 1990’s.

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Image via Wikipedia

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs clearly illustrates this fundamental genius, this obsession with doing things right rather than “good enough.” However, Isaacson is equally graphic about the man’s flaws: his habit of publicly humiliating others, his occasional deviousness, his strange dietary habits. The result is a balanced view of a person who had a tremendous impact on people all over the world, but also a person with defects like any other human being. Both his achievements and his defects were of the extreme variety, for the essential core of Steve Jobs was an endlessly burning intensity, and Isaacson certainly captures that all-consuming drive.

Unfortunately, it takes him a while to get there and find his literary rhythm. The first few chapters read like a biography rushed to publication too soon in order to capitalize on someone’s fame. The formula of anecdote/quote from Jobs becomes old very fast and I came very close to closing the book and moving on to something more interesting. What kept me going was I wanted to read the story of how Jobs saved Apple from destruction and as the story progresses, Isaacson’s writing becomes less formulaic and more compelling.

It is difficult to comprehend how low Apple had fallen in 1996. I had a PowerMac 7500 at the time running System 7.5.2 and I can’t tell you how many times each day the familiar exploding bomb would appear on the screen and I’d have to restart. They produced a laptop that kept catching fire. They were led by old, tired men in suits. Market share vanished, the stock bottomed out. The end game was near; Apple would either go belly-up or be carved up like the turkey it was.

Fast forward to 2011. For a couple of days, Apple was the richest company in the world. Apple stores have redefined the retail experience and are nearly always full of customers playing with various devices. iTunes and iPods created a new normal in music distribution. The iPhone and iPad redefined the mobile communications and entertainment experience.

How did Steve Jobs pull this off? This is where Isaacson’s story shines. The narrative is both exciting and educational, as it describes not only a marketer on top of his game but also the clear-headed strategist and the visionary synthesizing new opportunities that were on no one’s horizon. But while the story of Apple’s turnaround confirms this book’s value, the early years before, during and after Apple provide the paths that led to later success.

I want to make two small points. Bill Gates actually emerges as a respectable character, something that may offend some of the hardline Apple fanatics; he and Jobs simply saw the world differently, and both views had their value. Second, I have greater confidence in Apple’s future because Jobs simply didn’t create great products, he restructured the company’s DNA to ensure that his focus on artistic excellence would outlive him. It also doesn’t hurt that Jonathan Ives, Jobs’ equal in design, is still with Apple.

The general consensus is that this is a 4-star biography, and I would agree with that assessment. Weak opening aside, this is an educational book from a business perspective, a cautionary tale about self-balance and narcissism, and a story of how, in too rare circumstances, artistic vision can work to change the world.

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