I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs. It’s not the first book written about Jobs and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Not having read any of the other books on Jobs, I can’t compare it with the others that are out there. Clearly Isaacson, whose output includes a very well-received bio on Einstein, has an advantage because he had access to Jobs himself, as well as Jobs’ family, friends and professional associates.
First of all, I’d say that the book is even-handed. It makes the point, repeatedly in fact, that Jobs wasn’t much of a human being. Prone to temper tantrums, fits and crying at work as well as at home, when given a choice he’d generally go for the jugular, trying (and often succeeding) to humiliate those around him who did not live up to his standards. I didn’t know him, I wasn’t likely to ever meet him and after reading the book I don’t feel any loss for not having known him.
But that’s okay. He was human. Everyone has their flaws. And almost everyone who achieved something deemed “great” by society seems to have had more than their share of them. Many of the great artists and creators were, to one extent or another, monsters as human beings. Not only is it a part of who they are, it goes without saying that they wouldn’t have hit the same heights if they didn’t have those flaws. I know this firsthand, having once worked for Stanley Kubrick. No, I’m not saying he was a monster, not by any means. But after talking with him briefly on more than one occasion and, more importantly, having heard dozens of stories from people who worked with him for ages, I know he loved “humanity” but had little use for people, outside of a chosen few. Kubrick and Jobs shared one key trait: an almost fanatical attention to detail.
So the second half of Isaacson’s book is about how that attention to detail paid off. It progresses through most of Apple’s product line – here’s how the iPhone was developed, here’s how the iPad was made, etc. If this sort of thing is interesting to you, then you’ll love this, because here the pay-off is extensive quotes from Jobs and associates on what the inner circle was thinking, the battles that took place, how the product developed over time. There’s a level of detail here that you won’t find in most other accounts of these products and I found this stuff fascinating.
It’s so well done that I’m thinking about going out and buying copies of this book to give to the managers who report to me at work. The lessons here are that the little things do indeed matter and that success comes from intense focus on the customer experience. I think there’s a lot in the book that I can actually use on a daily basis at work and I’m hoping that at least some of the people who work with me would have the same reaction. Whatever else one might think of Steve Jobs, you have to credit him for coming into a company that was 90 days from shutting down and within a period of 14 years turning it into one of the highest valued companies in the world – and it wasn’t just the capitalization value or the billions of dollars in the bank, it’s also the way that Apple consistently leads in every consumer satisfaction survey.
I think the clearest evidence of that customer focus and what the lack of it can mean comes in the stories around the creation of the iPod and the comparison to Sony. Sony was the consumer electronics giant. They created the Walkman, a truly revolutionary product in its time. Plus Sony owns Columbia Pictures and the Columbia record company. They could have done the same end-to-end thing that Apple did, but they didn’t. The reasons are obvious now, as they should have been at the time. When creating digital devices, Sony spent about no time on what the consumer might have wanted and put all their focus on protecting each of their silo’d divisions. The result was one failure after another and Apple came along and ate their lunch.
I can remember back to the early days of the iPod – not so long ago and yet it seems like decades. I’d already owned two other MP3 players, one from some Korean company and then I think one from Creative. They both did the job and yet they both sucked. When the iPod came out, it was a Mac-only device. I kept bookmarking sites that gave instructions on how to hack the iPod to make it work with Windows. Then an authorized Windows version came out, using 3rd party software called MusicMatch and that’s when I finally bought one. From day one, it was a joy to use and it only got better when iTunes was finally ported to Windows. I had no second thoughts about trashing MusicMatch at that point. Today I think that iTunes is approaching bloatware. I appreciate the fact that I only need one piece of software to be the hub for all my mobile devices and a lot of what I do at home. But I hate its restrictions on video formats and the software crashes on me on an almost daily basis. (Maybe it would be different if I was running it on a Mac?)
Of course there are also plenty of comparisons with Microsoft. We get to hear from Jobs about Gates and Microsoft, we get to hear from Gates as well. We’re flies on the wall when Gates and Jobs meet for the final time at Jobs’ home. It’s an extraordinary chapter.
Jobs understood that the hackers who liked to take things apart and put them back together in different ways represented just a small portion of society. Most people don’t want to jump through hoops of fire to get stuff to work, they just want it to work. And mostly, Apple stuff does work and works well.
One could argue about the virtues of open systems vs. closed ones. Isaacson does in the book. He presents both sides and of course he basically agrees with Apple’s approach. But this is one of the technical things he glosses over to some extent. This is not Isaacson’s forte and it shows. Something similar shows in the discussion around “antenna-gate.” Yes, it was a typical example of Jobs’ famous reality distortion field at work and yes, it was way overblown by the media and Apple’s response to it was something that will be taught in business and marketing schools as an example of how to do things right, yet I felt something was missing here, without being quite able to put my finger on it.
Towards the end of the book, we get the Apple stock scandal (Jobs is shown as being greedy but blameless) and far greater detail about the progression of the cancer and its effects on Jobs. About the liver transplant. About the tremendous weight loss and the almost constant pain he suffered in his final days. I don’t think anyone will do a better job of describing this than Isaacson has done. At the end, Jobs takes greatest pride in building what he hopes is a company that can thrive after his death, much like HP or Intel, and yet in typical fashion he gets upset when Tim Cook says essentially the same thing to the press.
So it comes down to this for me. When Jobs died, some treated it like the passing of a demi-god. And then came the inevitable backlash. ”He was a billionaire who did no charitable work.” That part is certainly true. He actually seems to sneer at all of Gates’ charitable endeavors. There’s no defense for this and Isaacson doesn’t attempt one. It’s mentioned in the book but never really addressed. ”He invented nothing.” That part I can’t agree with. He was the conceptualizer, he was the refiner, and not one of the Apple products that we know and take for granted today would have been the same without him. I give him full marks here. I think he had vision and passion and it shows in everything that bears the Apple name.
Where will Apple be without him? Only time will tell.