Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: a review

by Thomas Brady

UPDATE: There’s hope!

UPDATE: Gruber chimes in

In an interview about his recent biography Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson had this to say about the writing experience,

[Steve Jobs] gave me an enormous amount of material, and the book kind of just wrote itself.

Yes, it appears to have. It’s all too easy to tell that this book wrote itself. Books, it appears, are not very good authors, probably because they don’t think for themselves.

There are lots of irksome problems with the book. For instance, the author doesn’t even have a handle on Apple’s rather simple product line. Apple has made an operating system called “Mac OS X” since 2000. The X is to be pronounced “ten,” as in the Roman Numeral (the previous version of the OS was called “OS 9”). You can immediately identify the technical merits of a reporter by how he or she refers to the OS. Any of these indicate a luddite: writing Os X, enunciating “oh ess ex” and writing OSX. That last option presents itself in the book, and I’m readying myself to hear Isaacson commit the middle error if I ever hear him interviewed.

There are passages that appear almost word-for-word several times in the book, making it feel as though the text flowed straight from Isaacson’s word processor to a printer, without passing in front of an editor.

Jobs’s complicated story is diced up and told piecemeal. That’s fine. But Isaacson rarely sets context, at least fully, and jumps from year to year, forward and backward in the timeline such that you often ask yourself, “Is this quote from 1994 or 2011?” or “Was this happening at the same time as the stuff at the end of the last chapter? Or before? Or after?”

Some sentences just don’t make sense. Here’s one:

Because Jobs insisted on keeping his unreleased products secret (even the phone that Gizmodo scored in a bar had a fake case around it), the iPhone 4 did not go through the live testing that most electronic devices get.

In case you don’t know, the “phone that Gizmodo scored” was an iPhone 4 prototype that an engineer had on his person — off-campus, enclosed in a “fake case” — which he left in a bar. It was found and sold to Gizmodo for $5,000. Why did the engineer have it off-campus in a “fake case?” Because he was testing it. “Live testing” it.

There are curious details that I think are incorrect. This is very minor, but odd: Isaacson says Steve Jobs wore a leather jacket to the 1998 Macworld Expo in San Francisco. If…

  1. Steve Jobs weren’t so famous for wearing the same black turtleneck all the time
  2. There weren’t so many photos of that day readily available on the Internet
  3. That wasn’t so important a date in particular (the 1998 Macworld Expo is an incredibly important date in Apple history, as it’s the day Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple to keep it from going out of business), so that there weren’t so many articles written about that day, many of which mention Steve’s clothing choices and fail to mention the leather jacket

then maybe I would just assume this was a trivial detail that only Isaacson captured. As it is, I must assume that Isaacson got this wrong, and I can’t figure out how he could have gotten this wrong. It’s a minor detail, but if he just made this up or so badly misunderstood his sources that he turned a turtleneck into a leather jacket, it erodes my trust in him as a biographer. Just a little.

[UPDATE: Sharp-eyed Tweeter @KevinCrossman points out that I’ve conflated the Macwold San Francisco and Macworld New York conferences from 1998. San Francisco is the site of the supposed jacket, and New York is the site of the famous Microsoft deal revelation. Crossman says there is a photo in the book of the jacket, but I cannot find it. And Jobs wore a white shirt and black vest at Macworld San Francisco 1998, not the famous black turtleneck, for once.]

[UPDATE: Well, thankfully Jason Snell — editorial director at Mac Publishing, publishers of Macworld — was watching. Not sure if there’s a better source for accurate info regarding this detail. The Microsoft investment was announced at Macworld Boston in 1997. So, clearly, these details are easy to miss, but if I can get it right within a couple hours on my blog, Isaacson and the fact-checking resources I would hope he had should have fared far better.]

John Siracusa spent two episodes (42 and 43) of his show “Hypercritical” filleting the book. His overarching thesis is that only one person will ever have had the opportunity to interview Jobs the way Isaacson did, and that Isaacson, due to inherent incuriosity, blew that opportunity.

I have to agree.

On page 331 of the printed version (in chapter 25), Isaacson quotes Steve Jobs saying, of Yoko Ono, “I can see why John fell in love with her.” Again, this is may be a very minor detail, but Isaacson quickly moves on in the story. I think this is a blatant example of his incuriosity. When have you ever heard someone take Yoko’s side in the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” argument? The fact that Jobs, as die-hard a Beatles fan as there ever was, could say such a thing is intriguing, to say the least. This, I think, could have been a whole chapter. Steve Jobs was, apparently, the kind of person that, unlike the rest of the Beatles, could see what John saw in Yoko. A little exploration of what that says about Jobs’s and Lennon’s common traits would have been fascinating.

What this incuriosity leaves us with is a good amount of raw material (thankfully), far too much thoughtless, undefended commentary (how many times did Isaacson toss the words “unfairly” or “correctly” into a sentence with no explanation?) and an almost complete lack of holistic analysis.

When I say “analysis,” I’m not talking about psychology. There’s plenty of that. Isaacson seems to enjoy pointing out that Jobs never really overcame the pain of knowing that his parents gave him up for adoption. But all Isaacson’s armchair, Psychology Today thinking rendered from the source materials was a self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freak.

There are two reasons that’s a complete shame.

  1. We already knew that about Steve Jobs.
  2. I know lots of people that could be described that way (we seem to have been breeding them in the US over the last couple (few?) decades), and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world.

What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

The only question I wanted answered even more than that was the question of what happened to Jobs between NeXT and his return to Apple. Jobs’s story goes from failure at Apple to failure at NeXT to almost immediate runaway success in his second term at Apple. And it’s not just that he suddenly knew how to make products that inspired real consumer lust — though that’s definitely a part of the equation. When he returned to Apple, he suddenly had business savvy well beyond his years, and certainly beyond what he seemed to have at NeXT. What happened?

Not only does Isaacson fail to answer that question, he doesn’t even think to ask it. Harvard Business Review’s James Allworth thinks Steve Jobs Solved The Innovator’s Dilemma. If that’s true, his contribution to business strategy might even overshadow his contributions to technology, if we can deconstruct his strategy. But if we’re going to do that, we’ll have to start somewhere other than this biography.

By the way, my theory is this: there’s one other key thing that happened to Jobs around the time in between NeXT and his return to Apple. He got married. To a Stanford Business School MBA graduate, who spent three years as a strategist at Merrill Lynch before going to business school. (Laurene Powell Jobs | Wikipedia)

A human interest piece on Steve Jobs is interesting. He certainly had an unusual life. But there was so much to have been gleaned from his story, about business and quality and philosophy and how in the world you unite those things in a singular vision. Steve Jobs took a company from being 90 days away from bankruptcy to having billions of dollars in cash in an extraordinarily short time, when doing so in twenty years would have been impressive.

And no one will ever again have the chance to do “more than forty interviews” with Steve Jobs to find out how he did it.

I have to agree with John Siracusa. Steve picked the wrong guy.

One more thing. This isn’t even a nit to be picked as much as it is a personal agenda that was overlooked. In the Linus Torvalds — who, for convenience’s sake we’ll call the inventor of Linux — biography Just for Fun, it’s mentioned (pg. 149-151 of the first edition) that Steve Jobs met with Torvalds in 1998 and told him “the best thing [he] could do for Linux was to get in bed with Apple and try to get the open source people behind Mac OS X.” This period at Apple isn’t covered very thoroughly in Steve Jobs to begin with. Isaacson’s understanding of how much NeXT software ended up in Mac OS X is shaky, at best. But if Isaacson knew of this meeting, he should have been very curious. What did Steve Jobs want with Linus Torvalds? What did he want from the Linux community? Around this time, there was a vocal contingent that thought Linux might be just a year or so away from being a viable consumer desktop OS, and a free (as in “free beer”) one at that. Microsoft sure seemed to take this as a serious threat. History shows that Linux was “just around the corner” from this goal for enough years that most people gave up. It’s still not consumer-friendly. The Steve Jobs described in Isaacson’s book doesn’t seem like he would have been duped. He would have taken one glance at the Linux desktop’s UI and scoffed. The design-by-committee approach employed by the open source community would have given him hives. So what could he have been after? Did Isaacson miss something? Was Jobs actually desperate enough at this point to hope that the he felt he needed help from the open source community? Was there some other power-play in mind? Unless Avie Tevanian, who was in the room, decides to talk some day, we’ll probably never know.