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Review #35: Steve Jobs (Biography)

There are some people you look up to but don’t exactly idolize when growing up and for me Steve Jobs was one of them. Growing up with stories on the Silicon Valley meant it was hard to escape Steve Jobs and his antagonist for the most part – Bill Gates. I am unsure how I first came across the Apple story but the notable ones I remember from the 90s are the ‘Triumph of the Nerds’ and ‘Pirates of the Silicon Valley’. Subsequent to it, I suppose I again got a good whiff of Apple when reading Wozniak’s iWoz about a decade back. Although I wasn’t piqued by any of the movies, Hollywood’s sudden interest in Steve Jobs got me to finally pick up his biography, albeit 2 years later. When starting out with the book, the question on my mind was whether it was going to add anything significant to the Apple story that is so inextricable from Steve Jobs.

Turns out that when a biographer has spent years with the subject and has dedicated 42 chapters to it, then there is an awful lot to know. The only other Walter Issacson book that I have read previously is “The Innovators” where the story itself wasn’t new but the perspective of the personalities involved in it was. Here again, Isaacson masterfully brings out the personality of Steve Jobs, even as the story tends to sway chronologically. It feels genuine because it overcomes the so-called “reality distortion field” and doesn’t try to powder over the imperfections and failures of Steve Jobs as a human being. As is already mentioned in the book, it was odd of Steve Jobs to cede control for once and the book is much better because of it.

While the garage to spaceship story of Apple is well documented, there are quite a lot of tidbits to take away from the book. The “why would Xerox give away its secrets” question had me perplexed based on the depictions I had previously read or seen and hence it was satisfying to know that it was once again a case of money doing the talking, or rather getting reticent engineers to give away their secrets. While the “1984” ad was iconic, the book got me to check the awful “Lemmings” commercial for the first time. Similarly, it had me searching for his narration of the “Think Different” ad which inevitable leads to Cook’s speech at Steve’s funeral. While Steve may forever be known for his Midas touch, the book poignantly lays out “Steve’s folly” that worked against him and his company. It is hard to believe that Apple would have sold more “Bicycles” than “Macintoshes”, but it was yet another case of Steve trying to change something he didn’t come up with rather than accept it. Anecdotes like his failure to realise the appeal of the iPod Mini or the ROKR deal indicate that his business acumen was not infallible.

Since Steve Jobs meant the book to be one for his children, it is no wonder that there is also a lot of focus on his personal life. His contradictory stance to those around him feels incomprehensible throughout. His dehumanising trait is captured not only in his distant relationship with his daughter Lisa but also with those he shared a very close relationship. His refusal to give Andy Hertzfeld a bonus because he was on leave or his decision “to give zero” shares to Kottke are shocking examples of his lack of empathy. Such instances are so common through the book that you tend to desensitise and think of it as a case of “Steve being himself”, a defence often put forth by Steve. All said and done, he still seemed to have a soft spot for the Woz, an exception among the rules.

While Steve might have not set the standard in human relationships, he certainly did so in board rooms. The famous board room battle with Scully is certainly a highlight of the book but more so because of the build up to it wherein we not only get to know the personalities but their personal connect or the facade they maintained of it. However, his mini-battle with Amelio during NeXT’s integration with Apple and a bigger one with Eisner from Disney make for far more interesting reads.

The part that I relate to most however is his business principles. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and yet the lack of complexity is generally seen as a manifestation of inability by many in the corporate sphere. Similarly, division of a company in to semi-autonomous divisions with separate PnL is often seen as empowering even as it leads to shortsightedness and incohesion that often hinders the company in the grander scheme of things. A natural consequence of this is the alienation of employees within the same organisation who also fail to connect with the organisation’s vision. Similarly, a company’s fear of cannibalisation often indicates its lack of confidence in its own products. Also appreciable was his ability to prove wrong seasoned business analysts like Christensen and to create a market rather than research it.

At the end of it all, this is a book that leaves you with a lot to ponder over. A story that follows a theme usually doesn’t stick out but this one does because of the contradictions of its primary character. A perfectionist who was far from perfect himself. An unemotional wrecker of people’s spirits who’d express his own emotions in tears. A bold leader who’d break in to sweat when meeting his hero. A Zen minimalist who created objects of indulgence. For all the contradictions, one consistent factor was his desire to push humankind forward and for that the world is a better place.

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