Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. A Review

Reviewed by Andreas Ramos

Steve Jobs. A Biography by Walter Isaacson

For me, Steve Jobs was a local guy. I live in Palo Alto. On weekends at a nearby café, we often saw him and his wife having breakfast. I often went to visit friends at Apple and he'd be in the lunch room. Once, two tables over, he was talking with Muhammad Ali. Jobs lived a few miles away and he's also buried within walking distance of my house.

Isaacson's book has many stories about Steve Jobs. I've heard some of these, and I've heard many more from friends at Apple.

Although it's 630 pages, it's a quick read. You can read it in a weekend. If you don't want to read the whole thing, then at least read the first half, up to the photos. That covers the early days where Wozniak and Jobs created Apple and all the fun happened. The second half is a bit of a standard corporate biography. It's okay, but the first half is better.

Many other reviewers summarize the book. I'll do something different. Apple is successful: how did it get there? What can we learn from Jobs' life? What was his business method? What can we learn from this book?

Steve Jobs as a Person

Okay, first, what about him as a person? What aspects of his personality produced his success? Isaacson's book is filled with many stories about how Jobs' interacted wtih other people. Starting in high school and through his early twenties, Jobs fell into the California 60s and 70s counterculture haze of drugs and fring religions. Involved in a number of cults, Jobs learned to use an intense, silent stare to intimidate others. In arguments, he switched positions without pause or admitting that he has switched positions. He lied brazenly. If that didn't work, he bullied people with vicious personal insults. If that didn't work, he screamed at them. And if that didn't work, he started weeping. He was manipulative, obnoxious, rude, nasty, cruel, and indifferent. His targets were everyone around him: girlfriends, buddies, business partners, teams, and staff. He belittled waitresses, hotel clerks, receptionists, secretaries, and nurses. He went through sixty-seven nurses. As a manager, he created a workplace atmosphere of constant fights, politics, intrigue, backstabbing, and cliques and he ruled with screaming fits every twenty minutes. Swinging between ecstasy and depression, he stole ideas from staffers and days later, claimed he thought of those ideas. Often, he ridiculed ideas without any reason. A developer wrote code and without even looking at it, Jobs rejected it as garbage. Based on what? The most bizarre thing was his habit of emotionally seducing his business partners to make them dependant so he could manipulate them. He also did this with journalists and editors so they presented every Apple release as a historical turning point. The book has few nice stories about him.

Jobs talked about Zen but he never really understood it. He never learned to clean his rice bowl. Whatever he may have thought of zen, it did not affect his personal life or his business life.

Jobs also pretended to be above money, but he was obsessed with it and did whatever he could to get more, including stealing from his business partners or lying to them. For the sake of financial goals, he fired entire teams without notice or severance. He refused to give stock to his closest friends who worked with him through the early years. He stripped away stock from teams that built his companies. Simply to avoid child support, he denied paternity of his daughter. When he took over Apple, he shut down all philantropic and community projects.

Why did Jobs behave like a spoiled 5-year child? It was pretty much the only thing he could do. A number of Silicon Valley CEOs are dropouts, such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Sergy Brin, Larry Page, and so on. But Jobs didn't really qualify as a dropout, since he only went for one semester and didn't even finish that. Steve Jobs was intelligent, but he was also uneducated, without a basic knowledge of history, mathematics, physics, or chemistry. He didn't have the technical skills to compete with others, so he covered up his limitations by attacking others. It's not clear that Jobs was self-aware or honest enough about himself to understand this. By combining his vicious personality with his judgements on "design" and "esthetics", which were areas where nobody could win an argument at the time, Jobs could overwhelm people. He had the bad luck to become rich early, which allowed him to bully people throughout his life.

Steve Jobs as a Businessman

Steve Wozniack was the brilliant hacker and computer hobbyist who built the first desktop computers. As his partner, Steve Jobs turned out to have a flair for theatrical salesmanship. He built the initial sales strategy at Apple.

As a manager, however, Jobs created so much meddling and emotional turmoil that he was thrown out of the Apple Lisa team, which was Apple's lead product at the time. He took over the Macintosh project, where Apple hoped he would be harmless. When it became apparent the Mac would be incompatible with the Lisa, sales of Lisa collapsed. Why buy a computer that soon would be useless? Jobs focused on irrelevant and trivial design issues and ignored technical aspects because he didn't understand those, so the Mac was underpowered. Jobs didn't like the idea of a fan so he banned that as well, which led to overheating, so components failed. By 1985, sales were only 10% of expectations. The Mac was dead. Apple fired Jobs.

Jobs stomped off and started another company company called NeXT. His grandiose design obsessions went out of control: the computer case was a perfect cube, it had designer screws, it was built in a gleaming white robotic factory, and he outfitted the place with $20,000 black leather chairs. But that was as far as his ideas could reach. Once again, his lack of technical skills meant the NeXT was nothing more than UNIX with a windowing interface in a pretty box. The machine cost over $10,000. There are a number of windowing environments for UNIX, but nobody uses those, because UNIX is for complex applications and a windowing environment is a limitation. When the NeXT finally came out, years late, they expected to sell 10,000 per month. They sold only 400 per month. Another disaster.

(A friend asked me why this is an issue. What's the problem with a windowing environment for UNIX? I remember the NeXT. At the time, I worked at SGI and SUN, which made UNIX-based high-performance computers for industrial use. A windowing environment is WIMP (which meant the computer uses windows, icons, mouse, pull-down menus). Microsoft Windows and Apple Macs use WIMP. This is nice for a non-technical computer user (i.e., mom and most office workers) because they can point and click to do email and simple tasks. But for scientific or engineering work, you don't need a mouse or even windows; a text-based interface is better because it allows you to enter strings of commands in order to manipulate massive amounts of data (oh, 500 million rows of data...). Throughout the 90s, computer science students wrote a number of WIMP interfaces for UNIX, but nobody used those. Asides from the NeXT's performance failures, the NeXT offered a solution that engineers didn't need. As for Jobs' gorgeous design, quite simply, engineers don't care about design. They look at technical performance. That's why the NeXT failed. The failure was entirely Jobs' fault: he didn't understand any of this.)

How did Jobs return to Apple? By 1996, Apple was down to 4% market share and dropping fast. They needed to present a new generation of computers, which meant they needed a new OS. Out of desperation, they bought NeXT, with the intention to use the OS for their new line of Apple computers. But the upper management of Apple was mostly sales and corporate management people, who didn't understand it was just a windowing interface to UNIX. But that didn't matter. Jobs was inside Apple again, where he began a relentless vendetta to get rid of his enemies. By mid-1997, Apple continued to lose sales, the stock dropped, and it was less than 90 days from bankruptcy. In August 1997, Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple and agreed to continue developing Microsoft Office for Mac, which meant Apple could be used for more than just games. Without Microsoft's support, Apple would have ended. Jobs would have been wiped out. Although Steve Jobs has taken every public opportunity to ridicule and attack Bill Gates, in reality, Bill Gates saved Apple. As was usually the case, what Jobs said was the opposite of reality.

(Another aside: A friend pointed out that Microsoft kept Apple alive probably in order to be able to say it didn't have 100% of the market. As long as Apple had 2%, Microsoft could say there was a choice. Just as the cat keeps the mouse alive so she can have a toy, this may explain Jobs' hatred for Bill Gates.)

What about Jobs' business skills? Steve Jobs is famous for demanding total control over the product. Users can't open the machines or modify the hardware. You can't even change the battery. This is not without irony: Apple originally started as a machine that encourages hobbyists to modify it. But is this good as a business strategy? Apple refused to license the OS or its software. They also refused to allow others to make and sell Apple computers. In contrast, IBM and Microsoft enabled hundreds of companies to make Windows-based IBM clones. Mass production lowered the cost of components, which dropped the price, which increased sales, which increased the number of users, which increased sales. In 1983, Apple sold 420,000 computers. IBM sold 1,300,000 computers. Although Apple had invented the personal computer market, IBM and Microsoft Windows took over. The same happened with the iPhone. Google Android has seized market share. The same will happen with the iPad. Jobs invented a number of new markets, but his limited business sense and irrational decisions allowed others take over those markets. The strategy of total control is a plan for failure.

Steve Jobs' Sense of Design

So what about Apple's design? Many insist that Apple's success is based on great design. Isaacson thinks the core of Steve Jobs was his fanatical attention to detail and design. Yes, his products have nice design, but look, folks, better design doesn't guarantee sales. Look at any collection of modern design (try and you'll see thousands of products with brilliant design and no sales.

Jobs' obsession with design led to technical failures. There are silly examples such as Jobs rejecting 2,000 shades of beige. Isaacson writes that Jobs even changed circuit board traces (the solder lines on a circuit board) so they would look better. That reduces the efficiency of the circuit board. Engineers use software to optimize the performance of a board layout. Aesthetics is not a criteria. And there is usability. By the mid-90s, developers quickly realized computer mice with two buttons and a wheel were better. However, this complicated the simple look of the mouse, so Jobs refused to allow this. Apple mice had only one button. Users were forced to work with a poor product for the sake of design. The Onion (a satirical newspaper) ridiculed Apple by announcing an Apple laptop with only one button. You would spin the wheel back and forth to select each letter, o-n-e-by-o-n-e. That's funny, but it's even funnier that Apple actually planned a one-button cell phone. Really. Design, taken to the extreme, becomes useless.

I have an iPad and I like it. But it also has many serious flaws, such as its lack of a USB connection. I can't add or delete files directly to the iPad. This forces the iPad to be a secondary device to a computer. If it had a USB port, it could move beyond desktop computers. Another serious failure is the lack of file standards for apps. Apps can't share data with each other. The iPad is basically a web content consumption device: it's great for checking email and browsing the web, but it's pretty much useless for creating anything.

What Do We Learn from Steve Jobs?

All of Jobs' issues came to a head with his cancer. His pig-headed diet ideas, his inability to deal with people in a sensible manner, and his belief that he could bend reality created a bad situation. In 2003, his doctors found that he had a form of cancer that could be easily cured. But Steve Jobs, who ignores experts for the sake of bizarre ideas, chose to treat himself with a diet of only apples and carrots. Family, friends, and business colleagues pleaded with him, but no, he refused treatment, so after years of horrible pain, Steve Jobs died of a curable disease.

Steve Jobs did have a number of successes. The iPod was successful, both as a consumer product and a strategy in the music industry. But put his successes on the same table along with his failures, and it becomes difficult to see the strategy of success. He destroyed the Lisa, the Macintosh was a failure, and the NeXT as well. The iPhone was successful for a while, but Android is burying it, for exactly the same reason he lost to IBM. The same will happen to the iPad. Jobs was successful at creating several new markets, but he was not able to hold on to them.

What's the future for Apple? Steve Jobs' powerful personality shaped the company and staff into a reflection of himself. Apple products are a reflection of his personality. However, Jobs had weak technical skills, and Apple products reflect that. Will Apple finally begin to develop devices that offer peak technical performance? What will happen when people realize he is no longer around to scream at them? The board of directors are docile lap dogs and must be replaced. By mid-2012, Apple will begin to change. Apple will either license the products and software to others for manufacturing, or they will be pushed out of the market again, just as it has been so many times before. If sales and marketing people take over, as they do in many other companies, they will destroy Apple.

What will be his legacy? It won't be in philanthropy. He left nothing to charity. His name is closely tied to his products (the iPhone, iPod, iPad), but none of these existed five years ago, and they won't exist five years from now.

The book will sell millions of copies. Many baby MBAs will read it and think this is the management secret for success. They will scream, belittle, and weep. Look, let's be realistic: it works. Yes, a jerk can go into a good restaurant and humiliate the staff. When dessert arrives, he launches into a shrieking fit that the food was horrid. He won't have to pay! Jerk wins! It also works in business: be utterly irrational. Most people won't know how to deal with him and often, he'll win deals. But that's a horrible way to live.

So, what can we learn from the Book of Jobs? It's a great story to read. A major Hollywood movie is in the works. The comic book version is out. But when you read the book, you'll realize he wasn't much as a person and in business he was too erratic. There's nothing to learn from Jobs.

Isaacson's biography is well-written. He tells the story of how Jobs grew up and got involved with computers. He interviewed dozens of people and added their comments, yet he keeps the focus on Jobs. There are a few problems. Isaacson doesn't know much about technology, so he relies on whatever people tell him and doesn't know beyond that. So he thinks computers are just something that has to do with design for consumers. He also falls into Job's fantasy world. Apple stores are indeed pretty and Isaacson thinks this was another of Jobs' brilliant ideas. But beautiful stores are standard in high fashion. Isaacson should go to see the Ralph Lauren store at the Stanford Shopping Center or the flagship stores for Louis Vuitton, Cartier, or Prada. Isaacson also writes that Jobs planned a new Apple campus because Jobs "wanted a showcase headquarters, something that no West Coast technology company had" (p. 535.) That only means Isaacson has not seen the headquarters for Oracle or Google.

Get the book. It's fun. You'll have lots of Steve stories to tell your friends.

If you've read the book, add your comments below. What did you think of the book? Of Steve Jobs?