Monday, November 28, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The hottest book this fall is Walter Isaacon's biography of Steve Jobs, entitled Steve Jobs.  It has been at the top of the best seller list since Jobs' untimely death in October 2011.  For anyone interested in technology, product development, business, the seismic changes in the music or movie industries or entrepreneurship generally, this is a must read.

The basic contours of Jobs' story are well known.  Steve Jobs, the college-dropout, hippie, Zen-oriented, whiz kid, created the personal computer with his friend in his parent's garage.  The computer, the Apple, becomes a runaway hit, evolved into the Macintosh (and the mouse and user interface that most of us currently use), and created an entire industry.  On the heels of his success, Jobs was fired by the company he created.  He created a new computer company, Next, which flopped.  After finding some humility, Jobs found his way back into Apple, reinvigorated the company, learned from his mistakes and then revolutionized the PC industry, the animation/movie industry (by creating Pixar, which made megahits such as Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story etc.), the mobile phone industry (the iPhone) and mass-marketed touch computing.  He then created the tablet category of computers with the runaway hit, the iPad.  Jobs did not market test his ideas; he believed that consumers did not always know what they wanted.  He designed a closed ecosystem of computing that allowed him to create and control an optimal and complete computing experience.  For years, his approach was derided as Microsoft grew and grew.  Finally, with the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, the rationale for the closed eco-system took off, making Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world.  As a marketing genius, entrepreneur and visionary, Jobs was incredible.  Jobs demanded perfection from himself and those who worked for him.  As a business leader, there is a lot to learn from him.

As a person, Jobs was a flawed (i.e., normal) human being.  He made mistakes and often learned from them.  Jobs was adopted as a baby and well cared for by his adopted-parents.  Yet, as a young man, Jobs fathered a child and essentially abandoned her.  Later in life, he brought her back into his life.  This is surprising behavior from a man who presumably should be most sensitive to the damage caused by abandonment.  As a boss, he could be demeaning  and unnurturing.  His ability to warp reality (what those around him called the "reality distortion field") was not only a powerful business tool, it also carried into his personal life with negative consequences.  When Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer, the man who was at the forefront of technology and possessed contacts and money chose to ignore his cancer, essentially trying to will it away and ignore it.  About nine months later, he finally began to come to terms with it and started treating it by more traditional means.

Several years before his death but after Jobs knew about his cancer, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography.  Jobs believed that his legacy was worth chronicling (as it was).  Isaacson had published successful biographies about inventors/geniuses (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Einstein: His Life and Universe; both are excellent reads).  Jobs saw himself as the continuation of these stories.  He was probably right.

Isaacson had full access and complete editorial control over the book.  Jobs seemed to have shared everything.  The only criticism of the biography is that Isaacson became to close to his subject.  Occasionally, it shows. Yet, who wouldn't be in awe of the man who created and/or reshaped the technology, movie, music and mobile phone industries.

Two interesting notes for the literary oriented reader.  Jobs dated Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad and personally installed a Mac for her.  Jobs' natural sister, Mona Simpson, is a writer, who incorporated her brother and his life into her bestselling books.  The biography is filled with interesting tidbits and should be at the top of everyone's reading list.

[Full disclosure -- this review was written on a Dell.  Soon enough, I'll be on a Mac.]

Many of you will remember this famous 1984 Superbowl commercial that launched the Mac:

The launch of the iPhone in 2007:

Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech:

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