Book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Mediocre, which is a huge shame

December 18, 2011

Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs

Simon & Schuster, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4853-9

571 pages (main text)


About a month ago, on his blog Daring Fireball, John Gruber linked to an episode (later expanded to two) of John Siracusa's podcast Hypercritical. In those podcasts, Mr Siracusa, chatting with Dan Benjamin, discusses his thoughts about Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. I find Mr Siracusa's analysis extremely accurate and highly compelling. In particular, I find it considerably superior to the analysis of the book offered in The Economist and and the analysis offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.

I will have very little to say here that Mr Siracusa has not said or quoted first. But since those two podcasts are, together, almost three hours long and Mr Siracusa meanders a bit during them, there may be some value in giving my version of that argument briefly here in text.

The essence of the matter is that Steve Jobs is a pretty mediocre book. If it were a random biography of Steve Jobs, I would probably write a review that said, pretty much, "This is an OK book. Read it if you think you'll like it. But I hope that something better will come along that really does justice to this remarkable person." Unfortunately, this isn't a random biography of Steve Jobs. This is the only biography that Steve Jobs ever cooperated with. By writing a pretty casual and lightweight biography of Mr Jobs when he had that access, Walter Isaacson squandered a unique and historic opportunity.

There is some new information in the book about events after Mr Jobs's return to Apple in 1996. But there are no penetrating insights here and not even any very thorough analysis. Indeed, whether or not the book even reaches the standard of good journalism is debatable in my opinion.

Many people know the broad outlines of the story: Steve Jobs was born in 1955 and was the love-child of two Wisconsin university students. He was adopted into the working-class family of Paul and Clara Jobs and his family moved to Silicon Valley when he was young. Both high-tech manufacturing and California's counterculture were in the air as he grew up.

He spent a short time at Reed College, worked for the video-game maker Atari, and went to India to find himself. In 1976 his friend, the brilliant engineer Steve Wozniak, designed the Apple I and Mr Jobs persuaded him that he shouldn't just give away schematics, but that they should build a few and sell them. The Apple II was an even bigger success. Realizing that they needed someone experienced in business to manage the growing company, Mr Jobs persuaded John Sculley to leave Pepsico and become Apple's CEO.

Mr Jobs obsessed over every detail of the original Macintosh and he was fired by Mr Sculley in 1985 shortly after its introduction. He then founded NeXT, another computer maker, and bought Pixar, which then mainly sold computer systems to animation studios. Neither was particularly successful for some time.

But then Mr Jobs persuaded Disney to finance a Pixar movie and in 1995, Toy Story was released to pretty nearly universal acclaim. In 1996, Apple bought NeXT and in the next year Mr Jobs replaced Gil Amelio who was doing an even worse job than John Sculley had as CEO. Mr Jobs had Jonathan Ive, a brilliant designer who was about to quit, design the iMac, which was introduced in 1998, and he subsequently guided Apple from strength to strength until shortly before he died from complications of cancer this past October.

That's a good story and additional details make it better. Still, there's little (or maybe nothing) about Mr Jobs's life and career up until his firing in 1985 in this book that hasn't already been published elsewhere. About the period after Mr Jobs's return to Apple, there is information that wasn't previously available. And some of it is quite interesting. Who would have guessed that Mr Jobs was adamantly against making the iPod compatible with Microsoft Windows? It could hardly have become the tremendous success it has if it hadn't been. And who knew that Mr Jobs had decided to kill the iPod Mini and had to be persuaded to change his mind? (The Mini left many pundits unimpressed too, but it turned out to be a considerable commercial success.) There are also some touching scenes near the end.

But just telling the story isn't really enough. Mr Jobs’s life and career present some big questions that the book hardly addresses. Many people know, and this book amply documents, that Mr Jobs was very emotional, mercurial, and often rude and self-centered. Those aren't obviously desirable qualities in a company's CEO. And yet in his second stint at Apple he was, arguably, the best CEO of his era. How did this former hippie do that? And most big companies become a lot like the one in the comic strip Dilbert. Yet Apple under Mr Jobs was by all accounts an excellent place to work and produced a remarkable number of innovative products. How did they do that? Are those two things related? If so, how? Mr Isaacson barely scratches the surface of those questions.

The closest that Mr Isaacson gets to answering those questions is, "Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly" (p. 565). I expect that that’s true, as far as it goes, but it's not much of an insight. Would anyone else who did both of those things relentlessly have been equally successful? It seems unlikely.

Mr Isaacson doesn't just ignore big questions. He also ignores smaller ones that might have led him to insights into the big ones. Mr Jobs wanted a particular sort of glass for the iPhone. It turned out that Corning had developed a glass like that (they called it "gorilla glass") in the 1960s, but had stopped making it because it hadn't found a market. Mr Jobs said that he wanted as much as he could have in six months. Corning's CEO Wendell Weeks said that it would be impossible to re-purpose one of Corning's factories that quickly. Mr Jobs assured him that it would be possible for him to do that. And the people at Corning managed it. Mr Isaacson quotes Mr Weeks saying, "We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we made it work" (p. 472). But that tells us hardly anything. It would be fascinating to know exactly how they made it work. Inspired leadership? Dedication to a great cause? Brutally long workdays? A mistake in Mr Weeks's initial estimate?

It's a commonplace about Mr Jobs (and it appears often enough in the book) that he was able to get better work out of people than they thought they would be able to produce. Here was a perfect situation in which Mr Isaacson could have followed up on the matter and found out what the mechanism was in this case. And that might have led to insights about how other things in this story took place. But Mr Isaacson is content to attribute it to Mr Jobs's "reality-distortion field". This biography shows neither an over-arching understanding of its subject nor a mastery of the details.

The book also contains a disconcerting number of mistakes. That's not just bad because it's preferable for non-fiction to be accurate, it also indicates the casualness with which Mr Isaacson and his editors took the creation of this book. Here are some that I noticed:

"Because the games were designed for the American rate of sixty frames per second, there were frustrating interference problems in Europe where the rate was fifty frames per second" (p. 45). The European standard for alternating current is for 50 cycles per second and the American standard is for 60, but those values don't translate directly into video frames per second.

"There was a hacker subculture — filled with wireheads, phreakers, cyberpunks, hobbyists, and just plain geeks..." (p. 56). The word "cyberpunk" was first used as the title of a story written by Bruce Bethke and published in 1983. Given the meaning of the word, it is difficult to imagine that there were very many people who fitted it in the 1960s, which is the period Mr Isaacson is referring to.

"As Jobs's design sensibilities evolved, he became particularly attracted to the Japanese style and began hanging out with its stars, such as Issey Miyake and I. M. Pei" (pp. 127-128). Mr Pei was born in Canton, China and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He has lived in the United States since 1935. He is a deservedly famous architect who has done excellent buildings in Japan among other places, but his architectural style is not Japanese.

"Jobs flew to the Black Forest region of Bavaria to meet him and was impressed not only with Esslinger's passion but also his spirited way of driving his Mercedes at more than one hundred miles per hour" (p132). The Black Forest is in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, not Bavaria.

"'I drew a circle,' Warhol exclaimed proudly after using QuickDraw" (p. 180). The sentence is literally true, but I suspect that Mr Isaacson means "MacPaint". QuickDraw was the name for the low-level graphics routines in the early Macintoshes' ROMs. They were used by all programs to draw on the screen. MacPaint was the original program that people used to draw graphics on the Mac.

Mr Isaacson quotes Bill Gates saying that the NeXT machine's optical disk had "too low latency" (p. 229). Latency refers to the time you have to wait before you can get a response. It's something you don't want. That machine's drive had very high latency. That's not a mistake that Mr Gates would be likely to make.

Bill Gates is also quoted as saying, "Amelio paid a lot for NeXT, and let's be frank, the NeXT OS was never really used" (p. 303). I'm willing to believe that Mr Gates said that, but it's plain wrong. When someone who's writing a program to run on a modern Mac or iPhone or iPad creates an NSApplication, an NSString, an NSArray, or any of a zillion other objects, they're paying homage to the debt that those modern OSes owe to NeXTSTEP, NeXT's operating system.

"Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?" (caption, 4th page of photos following p. 328). That quote (spoken by Mr Jobs to John Sculley) has appeared in various places, but all of the other places that I've seen have rendered the words "sugar water".

"OSX" (pp. 366 and 380). Should be "OS X".

"Apple Computers" (p. 419) should be "Apple Computer".

Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, Mr Isaacson says, "He came by the Jobs house a few years later, sat in the living room, pulled out his 1733 Stradivarius cello, and played Bach" (p. 425). The Stradivarius cello that Mr Ma plays was made in 1712.

Speaking of porting OS X from Motorola's PowerPC CPUs to Intel's x86 CPUs, Mr Isaacson says, "This would not be a simple task. It was akin to writing a new operating system" (p. 447). This statement is also plain wrong. Porting a program that's going to contain a good deal of assembly code to a new CPU architecture is real work, but it's not akin to writing it again from scratch.

"The blogosphere erupted with speculation about his health, much of which had the odious smell of truth" (p. 479). I can't recall at the moment a less apt metaphor.

Mr Isaacson quotes Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner as saying, "Steve can go readily from the overarching principals into the details" (p. 506). That should be "principles".

To me that’s a pretty depressing list for a serious book.

I hope that eventually a book will be published that does justice to this remarkable person.