Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The Apple King
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I had to be convinced by a friend to read this book, similarly to how Isaacson had to be convinced to write it.
Back in 2004, Steve Jobs approached Isaacson and asked if he was interested in writing Jobs' biography. Isaacson declined several times, thinking that it was too soon to write one and that it would be better to wait a few decades. It wasn't until 2009 when Jobs' wife bluntly told him that Jobs was seriously ill from cancer and that there was little time to lose. Isaacson said he hadn't known Jobs was sick; she said few people knew and that Jobs had been trying to keep it a secret.
Isaacson finally agreed to write the biography, and Jobs agreed that he wouldn't have any control over the book, which was rare, considering how controlling and demanding he had been over all the various projects at Apple.
I had been reluctant to read this book for several reasons. First, because Jobs was a known jackass and I wasn't that interested in reading the various examples of his jackassery. Second, I am not a techie, and while I like and use Apple products every day, I was hesitant to spend my precious reading time on a tech book. Thirdly, this bio is more than 600 pages long! That seemed excessive.
A solution was found in an audiobook (read by Dylan Baker), and I am glad I gave it a chance. I was won over early on in the book, when Isaacson included a quote from Jobs in the introduction:
"'I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,' he said. 'Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that's what I wanted to do.' It was as if he were suggesting themes for his biography (and in this instance, at least, the theme turned out to be valid). The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century."
Now THAT is a theme I can get behind. I love the idea of combining artistry and technology, and it's true that Jobs and Apple excelled at creating innovative and beautiful products. Despite my hesitation, I ended up enjoying the stories of how Jobs got his start in computers, and how he met and started collaborating with Steve Wozniak, and the evolution of products at Apple over the decades. Growing up in the 80s, I frequently used those early Apple computers. My friends and I played games on them, and I wrote my school reports on them. Apple computers were just so cool.
I liked learning the details of how Jobs helped design the products, including his emphasis that even the parts that are not seen should be beautiful and well-built. He had learned this at a young age from his father, who was a mechanic and a craftsman, and he taught Steve to make sure that the back of something was crafted just as well as the front, even if no one saw it. Jobs took the spirit of artistry very seriously, and always insisted that the designers at Apple were making art with their products. He even had his design team sign the inside of the computer frames, just as a painter would, even though no one but them knew it was there.
Another part of the book that I found interesting was Jobs' history with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, with whom he had a fiercely competitive but (mostly) respectful relationship. The two men had very different ideas about system design, and computer techies will probably enjoy the debate of open vs. closed systems.
A lot has been written about what a jerk Jobs could be, including telling people to their face that they sucked, that their designs sucked, and that they should be fired for their suckitude. It is also true that he was a dirty hippie, and in the early days of Apple, colleagues had to beg him to take a shower. (Jobs thought that because he was a vegetarian, he didn't need to bathe.) At certain points, I was infuriated with Jobs, both over his treatment of others and later, over his refusal to deal with his cancer diagnosis. When he first learned he was ill, he defied his doctor's advice and delayed having surgery to remove the tumors, giving them months to spread. While impossible to prove, it is likely he could have greatly extended his life had he not been so stubborn in avoiding modern medicine.
In the end, I admit I was fascinated by Steve Jobs. He had a remarkable life and career, and while it is a cliche, his products helped change the world. I would highly recommend this biography.