Book Review: Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson


Walter Isaacson has done an admirable job of trying to tackle such a complicated biographical subject. But for many aspects of his life, from his childhood upbringing to his relationship with Patty Jobs to his time at NeXT, the book is lacking.

Walter Isaacson has done an admirable job of trying to tackle such a complicated biographical subject. The book explores in some detail Jobs's early career in computing, is eventual partnership with Steve Wozniak, the rise-fall-rise of Apple along with the politics and reasons behind the upheavals, and a smattering of his personal relationships outside of the Apple/Pixar sphere. But for many aspects of his life—such as his childhood upbringing, his relationship with Patty Jobs (his adopted sister), and his time at NeXT among others—the book is lacking and leaves a sense that the focus was more on mythologizing (however much Isaacson says otherwise) than really understanding the many facets of Jobs.

Because much has already been writing about his time at Apple and Pixar, Isaacson would have done the reader a greater service by really digging deep into the relationships and events in Jobs's life that one could only shed light on by having direct access to the man himself as Isaacson did. While I appreciate Walter being up-front about the history of the book's creation and the goals being pursued, along with the important fact that Steve was onboard and didn't have editorial say, there is a lingering sense, especially near the end, that Isaacson has given Jobs something of a pass.

Throughout much of the book, we are treated to Jobs's terrible, brash, condescending, rude, and other forms of socially unacceptable behavior. These are presented as character flaws, rather than an attitude of arrogance that could have been manifested differently if Jobs's had chosen to. There is a particularly enlightened encounter in the last third of the book that reveals something about Jobs and an underlying weakness that is never explored in much depth:

Jobs said he doubted it was good enough, and he started explaining to Weeks [Wendell Weeks, Corning Glass CEO] how glass was made. This amused Weeks, who of course knew more than Jobs about that topic. “Can you shut up,” Weeks interjected, “and let me teach you some science?” Jobs was taken aback and fell silent. Weeks went to the whiteboard and gave a tutorial on the chemistry, which involved an ion-exchange process that produced a compression layer on the surface of the glass. This turned Jobs around, and he said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months.
-Walter Isaacson (2011) Steve Jobs.

Several other times in the book it was mentioned that Jobs could easily be called out, given that he often knew very little about the technical aspects of specific parts of a project. And yet no one did. Why? Was this solely because he had a penchant for choosing 'yes' men to work for him? What exactly about his personality caused people to be drawn in, in the same manner that many people describe when being in the presence of the early/mid 20th century dictators and revolutionaries?

What was Steve Jobs childhood like and why did he end up such a prickly person? Isaacson doesn't explore the origins of Steve's personality in great depth nor the actual parenting style of Paul and Clara Jobs (his adopted parents). Beyond Paul Jobs's attempt to get Steve into mechanic style work and his work ethic and style of searching for deals (e.g. Jobs's noting that Paul could get the best deals at junkyards because he knew more than the attendants there about the value of a part), there isn't a lot of meat about his childhood, what he was like at school during his younger years (beyond a couple stories), or detailed clues as to how his personality developed.

Nor does Isaacson seem to really explore Jobs's relationship with Laurene Powell, his long-time spouse. Did she stabilize him? Were there crucial moments when he would have made large mistakes without her guidance? These are seemingly left unanswered and we are left wondering what role she played in his life, especially given his myriad of other romantic relationships beforehand that seem to be explored in greater depth.

While Isaacson brings in Mona Simpson (his biological sister), talks about their reunion, and mentions her several times after, Patty Jobs (his adopted sister) is only mentioned three times and one is "My adopted sister, Patty, and I were never close." This last one should open up a lot of questions, was it because she wasn't an artist/genius or didn't serve him some purpose? Many times siblings at least become somewhat close as they get older and mature, but this is never explored in great depth. This same issue plagues the placement of Jobs's work within the broader context of computing history.

While Jobs's undoubtedly helped transform aspects of computing, Isaacson either doesn't give the necessary background about the specific areas (from personal computing before the Apple II and Macintosh to the actual state of the smartphone before the iPhone) for the reader to properly get a bearing for why they were revolutionary. Yes, he asserts that most smartphones were lackluster before the iPhone, but the Blackberry (Curve and other models) were, and having had to use one recently still are, highly usable devices for the purpose they served. He also is quite uncritical of Apple's borrowing of ideas from other sources (e.g. Xerox) while letting Steve's assertions that Microsoft 'stole' Apple's ideas go unchallenged. There are many cases like this where it seems that in his entrapment with writing about Jobs and doing interviews with him, that Isaacson didn't take the time to step back and survey the broader landscape to make sure that Jobs was really as important as everyone wants to make him appear.

This is a book worth reading, but I think if one wants a book that gives lessons both about the times a person grew up in, their relationships with various people, and a better understanding of how their relation to the world, and it to them, helped produce the man and the times, The Years of Lyndon Johnson is infinitely better. In the end, this book came off as a little too much attacking Jobs's personality as a way to hide the very obvious attempt at hagiography. Near the end, Isaacson attempts to put Jobs in the pantheon of great industrialists, when it is not entirely clear just how long Apple can continue on its path without him. Apple has more or less coasted by the last couple years holding down and building out the Apple fortress on the products he helped launch (the Apple Watch is not ground breaking in the same manner as the iPhone). The biography is not so much a story about Steve Jobs as it is a story about Steve Jobs and Apple, with Pixar thrown in to add to the drama. His lack of philanthropy, his childhood and relations with his relatives, and other aspects of Jobs's life are left completely open and we are left with a biography that seems to have a defining lesson: if you are an asshole to people but are successful while doing it, then you will be justified in the long arc of history.

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