So it’s out. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (titled simply “Steve Jobs”) hit my Kindle around 6pm today and I dove right in. I’ve been kind of shell shocked on a personal level since Steve Jobs died and I hoped this would provide a bookend for the last couple weeks. A way to honor him (by learning more about his life) while at the same time moving on.
Having just finished it my opinion basically boils down to this: : It’s a good read but it’s a bad historical account.
I feel pretentious saying that because obviously I wasn’t there when things unfolded at Apple (in fact I wasn’t alive for the early parts). But I’ve read many, many accounts of the events detailed in this book. Those include…
Apple: The inside story of intrigue, egomania, and Business Blunders (My personal favorite)
Infinite Loop: How the world’s most insanely great computer company went insane
Apple Confidential 2.0
Return to the Little Kingdom
The Second Coming of Steve Jobs
iCon: The greatest second act in the history of business
iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon
The Pixar Touch
Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple
On the Firing Line: My 500 Days At Apple
Barbarians Led By Bill Gates (the Mac deal from a Microsoft employees perspective)
So I know a little about this. I mean, everyone spins the story a little differently but when the same facts come from 4 or 5 different sources you start to get an accurate picture.
In the case of “Steve Jobs” the problems are mostly ones of omission. For example, it’s easy to portray John Sculley and Gil Amelio as “Bozos” if you omit their earlier successes. It’s easy to portray Sculley’s tenure as having coasted on Jobs’ laurels and then dropped if you ignore the fact that Sculley actually turned the company around twice (and was ousted before he could try a third time). It’s easy to accuse Microsoft of copying the Mac if you don’t know the internal story of Microsoft’s development procedures (procedures Apple insisted on and inspected themselves).
There’s also a lot of hero worship that hurts the book. Clearly these interviews were done at a time when the people being interviewed knew Mr. Jobs could die soon. So what you find are a lot of employee accounts that contradict what those same employees said at the time these events took place. This is especially clear in how fast the author glosses over the Mac vs Apple II conflict that eventually led to the lackluster Apple III (produced by a completely demoralized team) and was partially responsible for Woz leaving Apple. You also don’t get a clear view of just how much the Mac took from Lisa (remember Jobs was in charge of Lisa before he started on the Mac) or how troubled Jobs’ relationship with Pixar has been over the years.
Then you have the author’s personal opinion that is sprinkled throughout the book. Here’s an example (the author’s words are in bold while the rest of the text is a Sculley quote):
At every opportunity Sculley would find similarities with Jobs and point them out:
We could complete each other’s sentences because we were on the same wavelength. Steve would rouse me from sleep at 2 a.m. with a phone call to chat about an idea that suddenly crossed his mind. “Hi, it’s me,” he’d harmlessly say to the dazed listener, totally unaware of the time. I curiously had done the same in my Pepsi days. Steve would rip apart a presentation he had to give the next morning, throwing out slides and text. So had I as I struggled to turn public speaking into an important management tool during my early days at Pepsi. As a young executive, I was always impatient to get things done and often felt I could do them better myself. So did Steve. Sometimes I felt as if I was watching Steve playing me in a movie. The similarities were uncanny, and they were behind the amazing symbiosis we developed.
This was self-delusion and it was a recipe for disaster.
John Sculley had his flaws and I can’t imagine anyone arguing he was AS exceptional as Steve Jobs. But the man was exceptional. There’s no question of that. The man was responsible for a business strategy that Pepsi uses TO THIS DAY. Beyond that Steve Jobs clearly thought highly of him before their falling out. So it really isn’t fair to bash the man for drawing comparisons. Negative portrayals such as that take away from the historical value of the piece. It would be like a book on John Adams downplaying the intelligence of Thomas Jefferson.
Moving on there are also factual inaccuracies that, because they are presented as Mr. Jobs’ opinion, are put forth unchallenged. Like…
It had taken Microsoft a few years to replicate Macintosh’s graphical user interface, but by 1990 it had come out with Windows 3.0, which began the company’s march to dominance in the desktop market. Windows 95, which was released in 1995, became the most successful operating system ever, and Macintosh sales began to collapse. “Microsoft simply ripped off what other people did,” Jobs later said. “Apple deserved it. After I left, it didn’t invent anything new. The Mac hardly improved.”
So Quicktime, the Newton, Claris, Copland, and a host of other innovations were nothing? The truth is, from every insider account I’ve read the opposite was true. They created an unprecedented amount of things but the management was so bad they couldn’t capitalize on any of it. Apple created no less than 3 different operating systems that were more advanced than System 7 but couldn’t get a single one out the door. Beyond that almost every account I’ve ever read has said Windows 3.0 did not succeed because of its technical superiority. It succeeded because it was cheap and good enough.
I know it seems like I’m defending the period between Jobs’ ousting and his return but I’m really not. That period was just the easiest to find examples from since Mr. Jobs had a clear distain for everything that happened during that period.
Beyond the above flaws the book is interesting from a “what Steve Jobs believes” perspective. Plus the account of his childhood is more detailed than anything I’ve ever seen and that alone is worth the price of admission. Then there are little revelations that make it worthwhile. The fact that Jobs wanted to make a “Mac in a book” (aka a Tablet) after seeing touchscreen technology in 1985 is a fun fact. And of course there are post iPod stories, an era that haven’t been written about much (since most of the insiders from this time are still working for the company making historical accounts hard to research).
Just to be clear I think Steve Jobs deserves hero worship. I’m glad he’s getting it. Because of him a whole generation of technologists have grown up knowing usability is as important as features and that’s put technology on a better path. But at the same time the whole point of history is to pass on lessons from the past. If the genesis of those lessons becomes white washed then the lessons themselves get lost.