Steve Jobs: a review
|January 1, 2012||Posted by Elliot Davies under culture, reviews, technology|
Steve Jobs, released just a few weeks after its subject passed away in October 2011, is the only authorised chronicle of Jobs’ life. Written by Walter Isaacson at Jobs’ request, one might expect the book to bear all the hallmarks of a Jobs product: carefully designed, painstakingly revised and strictly controlled. However, this is one instance where authorised did not mean authoritarian; not only did Jobs have no influence over the book, but he didn’t even read it. The only input he had, in his typical style, was to redesign the (now rather elegant) cover after he hated the first attempt.
Despite being initially daunting at over 600 pages, fears of a difficult or technical read can soon be dismissed. Isaacson, previously a managing editor at Time and known for his biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger, writes in an accessible style, explaining technical terms and taking care to introduce the characters in Jobs’ life as they appear. The book is based on Isaacson’s more than 40 interviews with, and continuous observations of, Jobs over two years, as well as the testimony of over a hundred relatives, friends and business colleagues. This unfettered access in conjunction with the author’s experience creates a uniquely insightful and descriptive biography of Jobs’ life.
The book begins, fittingly, with a brief introduction to Jobs’ parents – both biological and adoptive – before moving on to Jobs’ childhood. The reader is then taken on a tour through his education, the founding of Apple in 1973, his ousting from the company in 1985, his time at NeXT and Pixar, his reintegration into Apple in 1997, and the amazingly successful 14 years that followed. Along the way the story is dotted with Jobs’ quirky personal life, various romances, eventual family life and sad struggle with pancreatic cancer. The final chapter ends in August 2011, when Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple due to his ill health, and does not include his death.
It is worth noting outright that Steve Jobs is very much a biography of Steve Jobs the man. It is not an analysis of Jobs’ business techniques or infamous presentation style, nor is it a history of Apple. It is not even a detailed look at the game-changing products – the Apple II, the Macintosh, Pixar animation, the iPod, iTunes, the Apple Store, the iPhone, the iPad – that Jobs cultivated and introduced to the world. Of course, all of these subjects are touched upon, and some in substantial detail, but in every case they are seen through Jobs’ eyes and his thoughts, emotions and reactions.
As one might expect from the only fully-authorised biography of Steve Jobs, there are plenty of interesting tidbits and anecdotes which haven’t previously come to light. Particularly touching are the descriptions of Jobs’ friendships with Steve Wozniak and Jony Ive, the former a childhood friend who co-founded Apple and the latter a British designer whom Jobs describes as his “spiritual partner at Apple”. There are also the amusing memories, such as Jobs telling Obama that he was “headed for a one-term presidency” and proceeding to detail the president’s mistakes, and the quirky, such as the two weeks spent debating the aesthetics of washing machines in order to decide which to buy. Isaacson interviewed a whole cast of tech luminaries for their thoughts; Bill Gates in particular weighs in on various issues throughout, both as a friend and competitor to Jobs, and Isaacson seems to enjoy comparing and contrasting these two titans of the industry.
Isaacson also does a particularly good job of introducing the reader to a side of Jobs that few people knew anything about. Yes, here is a man who was obsessed with perfection, who saw the world in black and white, who was ruthless to those who didn’t meet his standards and who was an awe-inspiringly persuasive negotiator and presenter. His “reality-distortion field”, through which he could make people – including himself – believe in seemingly impossible ideas, is well documented. But here also is a man who cried at any opportunity, who bitterly pined for girlfriends when separated from them, who took annual family holidays to Hawaii and doted on his children, and who ultimately cared deeply about consumers having the best possible experience, so much so that he abandoned his hacker ethics in favour of closed and controlled systems.
At times, and unfortunately for the historical record, it does seem as though Isaacson himself falls prey to the reality-distortion field. The view of Jobs presented in the book is less objective than it might be, and though Isaacson spends plenty of time focusing on Jobs’ oft-scathing remarks and pendulum-like moods – indeed, these are returned to time and again as if to consolidate a point – Jobs often comes across as a victim. Sometimes this is justified, sometimes not.
The book is occasionally repetitive (particularly when reintroducing characters such as Mike Markkula over and over), and the writing is sometimes a little stale; the publishing house rushed the book after Jobs’ death, bringing the release date forward by a month, so there is a slight dearth of editing. It is also laid out in such a way that might encourage a more casual reader to skip sections, which would be a shame.
Overall however, Steve Jobs is an excellent biography and will undoubtedly remain the definitive work on this man’s life. Walter Isaacson’s attention to detail and the sheer volume of information collected easily outweigh any minor flaws in the text, and the easy writing style should serve to make this an intriguing read for anyone wanting to find out more about the extraordinary life of one of the world’s true visionaries. A highly recommended read.