Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Job Lot

I've started loads of books in the last year but the one that really held my attention to the end was the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It's the everyday story of a Californian hippy with blue collar, adopted parents who went on to found and develop the most profitable tech company in the world. In between he re-invented the music industry, developed the personal computer, revolutionised the telephone, developed "Toy Story" and became one of the most charismatic business leaders since Henry Ford. Oh, and he also got fired from the Company he founded and was brought back to save it when it was months away from bankruptcy. It's a thriller plot that would be thrown out at too far fetched by most editors.

Although the subject cooperated fully with the author this is in no way a hagiography. Isaacson interviewed over a hundred of Jobs contacts from Joan Baez to Bill Gates and was at pains to give a rounded picture of the monster as well as the man. The fact that Jobs knew he was headed for premature death from cancer makes it all the more piquant.

Steve Jobs wasn't an inventor or even a technologist - he was just one of those rare people who has vision combined with a relentless drive to change the World. He had a grasp of the big picture coupled with an almost neurotic attention to detail which manifested itself in his inability to accept that things were impossible, a trait christened his "reality distortion field" by subordinates. Most of the big ideas of Apple came from outside, be it Xerox or the small independent Company which developed the touch screen technology that Apple exploited so well. Jobs' talent was in spotting the winners and pushing them with unreasonable levels of expectation which often inspired them to brilliance.

The book is a gripping journey through the peaks and troughs of Jobs' amazing life including a blow by blow account of his sacking from Apple by the high powered Pepsi Cola executive John Scully whom Jobs had brought in to run the company. The numerous independent sources give the account a depth and drama that others miss.

Another memorable theme is the ongoing rivalry with Microsoft and the clash of two vastly different personalities in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Gates the geeky technologist believed in spreading and licensing his technology as widely as possible, enabling third party development of the systems in an open and expandable way. Jobs was obsessively controlling in wanting to provide the customer with an "end to end" experience whereby every aspect of software and hardware is seamlessly integrated. He spent months developing packaging, smooth designs and even Apple Stores so that the Apple customer becomes cocooned at every stage and a slave to the system. It is ironically close to the 1984 portrayal of the PC World that Apple attacked in their famous 1984 Macintosh launch advert.

I could identify with the story at every step as the rivalry was the technological soundtrack to my life. I once used an original Macintosh, fell out with Apple once Microsoft got Windows sorted out but came back to them with open wallet once the iPod and later the iPhone arrived. The Jobs philosophy of an integrated technical experience that needs simple intuition rather than a 400 page manual wins through for me in the end.

This is a fascinating and gripping story of a bloke that you wouldn't want to work for but cannot help but admire. One can't help feeling that a Steve Jobs running the Country would get things done better than our politicians
who have become slaves to market research and focus groups. Jobs didn't believe in market research.

One little tale made me smile. When Jonathan Rubinstein, chief Apple Engineer, went off to work for Palm (who were trying to develop a competitor to the iPhone), Jobs got on the phone to complain to Bono (yes Bono) who was co-founder of a private equity group that were investing in Palm. Bono rang him back and said "You should chill out about this. This is like the Beatles ringing up because Herman and the Hermits have taken one of their road crew".


Liz said...

I love biographies. Real lives are always so much more interesting than anything a fiction writer could come up with.

Martin said...

His commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford University is a 'must'.

Z said...

Ronan dislikes the controlling aspect of Apple, but even he is thinking of buying an iPad because it's so much better than anything else of its type.

Rog said...

Liz: I'm not too keen on historical biographies. Unless it's a scientist or engineer such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Martin: Indeed. Posted here last year.

Z: I was with Ronan. But the quality of interface is just so bequiling!

dinahmow said...

I've heard this dissed and lauded.Being completely non-geek myself, I think I'll wave my library card. :-)

Roses said...

I'm not at all a fan of biographies, but I do find Steve Jobs fascinating.

Over the last 14 months I have become an iConvert. It started with an iPod and six months later an iPhone and then followed by a MacBook and iPad.

All of these Shiny gadgets talk to each other seamlessly. You load stuff on to them and it works. And they are all beautiful. The experience of purchasing them in the Apple Store is exemplary, as is the customer service.

Yeah, he might have been a bastard. And? I'd argue that those traits allowed him to create the giant we all know and love to hate. I didn't have to live with him.

Rog said...

Dinah: that's the ticket!

Roses: yes I think there's sometimes no gain without pain.

mig bardsley said...

I don't often read non-fiction but I might be tempted.
As for Apple, I'm definitely hooked after a few months with an iPhone. Can't wait for my netbook to break down so I can get an iPad.

Magwitch said...

Thanks for directing me to this fascinating book Rog.

I managed to get my hands on a copy from the library and it has kept me enthralled over the last week.
As well as a great story much credit must go to Walter Isaacson for his superb writing style. His weaving together of storyline, quotes and anecdotes was seemless. No wonder Jobs insisted that Isaacson write his story.

The book was also quite a revelation; where Apple got some of it's technologies from, that Jobs and Gates were, in fact, quite good friends even if they did disagree on the business model for computer development and why Jobs hated Adobe. Given that in the early days most graphic designers used Macs with Photoshop and Illustrator I thought there would have been a close partnership between Warnock and Jobs. Every new computer device needs its "killer app" and surprisingly the one for the Mac came from Microsoft not Adobe....Well I never!

So thanks again Rog. Great book, great blog. I'm off to try and get hold of Isaacson's book on Benjamin Franklin now.

Rog said...

Cheers Mig and Mag!

I'm pleased you liked it Magwitch - It certainly came as a revelation to me. I agree that it was odd about Adobe & Apple but it explained why Flash still doesn't get a look in on iPhones. A chap who could certainly hold a grudge!