Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Steve Jobs

When I read that Walter Issacson was asked by Steve Jobs to write an authorized biography of his life, I assumed that it was to be a sycophantic white-washing of everything Jobs did. But excerpts from the book led me to believe that Jobs did not ask for control over the content, and that the book would cover all aspects of him, not just his crowning achievements. I checked the book out from the library and found myself consumed by it.

Much of the story has already been told. For instance, Wozniak's book was written mostly because Jobs had taken so much credit for Apple, leading many to believe that Jobs had a key role in inventing the earlier Apples. Sure enough, Issacson covers that portion, including several folks explaining how Jobs tends to take credit for other people's ideas without apology.

The first third of the book covers Job's early life, his adoption, and his college days. There's a section about how he picked up his charismatic approach to talking to people from another college student, but taking it one step further. This is good because many assumed the Jobs' ability to charm was innate.

The second third of the book covers the early Apple years. It is here that Issacson seems to show a lot of Stockholm syndrome. At times the book reads like an apology for Jobs as Issacson points out all the things Jobs did that created the company. This was a bit distracting because most of those things were something anyone with a business background could have done, but without screwing his partners, his friends, and in general pissing off everyone around him. The section ends with Wozniak explaining that while he still considered Jobs a friend, he questioned his integrity. If you know anything about Wozniak, you'd know that's probably the worst thing he could say about somebody, but Issacson lets that go without comment.

The final part of the book covers the wilderness years and his triumphant return to Apple. I once said that I'm not qualified to write a book about politics, but if you want to know how to do corporate politics well, here's a great tutorial on the topic, though most people probably wouldn't have enough of a Narcissistic personality disorder in order to pull it off. Issacson points out all the obsessive attention to detail that Jobs brought to the table, along with Jonathan Ives. While I'd heard about these details (mostly from Apple fans), this book covers all the details closely, and is worth reading for that section alone. While I have respect for all the work that goes into making these details, as a user I've frequently found that Jobs' approach frequently eschews function over form. For instance, laptop batteries are subject to abuse by most consumers (myself included), and it's not unusual for laptop batteries to die within a couple of years of purchase. Designing a laptop with a non-user removable battery for the sake of aesthetics seems lame to me. Obviously, the market for Apple machines doesn't agree with my evaluation of aesthetics versus functionality, but I'm also one of the people who gets asked to fixed such things. To his credit Issacson does mention this particular problem in his book.

The last section was obviously rushed into print, and reads a lot like a bunch of notes all strung together without any attempt to weave a narrative around it. Nevertheless, the lack of polish allows us insight into a man who transformed the industry in many ways, and despite my immense dislike of Apple products, gave me insight into why he did what he did. Despite the rush to print, the book's extremely readable, and easy to plow through.

Recommended even if you dislike Apple products. If you like Apple products, you probably bought this book before reading my review.
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