Walter Isaacson “Steve Jobs” – book review

There are many adjectives that I would use to describe Steve Jobs – „dull” is not one of them.

I don’t think I would have had the patience to read a biography of this length if I hadn’t been listening to it on Audible. I listened to it over a few months, dipping in at leisure, and taking breaks when it got to be a bit too much.

Steve Jobs had asked Walter Isaacson to become his biographer. Jobs was seriously ill at the time, but he didn’t like to admit as much- neither to the public nor to himself. Isaacson had only written about great dead men (Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein).  It had seemed arrogant of Jobs to request the same treatment.  But Isaacson only agreed to the task on the condition that he would be allowed free reign over whom he interviews and what he asks.

Isaacson’s magisterial biography captures many of the contradictions that marked Jobs’s life. He was given up for adoption by his parents, who insisted that his new parents had to be able to send him to university. He was brought up in Silicon Valley at the time when things were just beginning to get interesting. As a teenager, Jobs called up the co-founder of HP to get parts for his school project.

Jobs saw himself as a counterculture rebel.  The company name „apple” comes from a commune he lived in:  an apple orchard. He famously refused to shower for weeks and subjected himself to fasting or strange diet regimes (for example, eating only apples or carrots) for weeks at a time.  But despite all his overt hippie obsessions, he became the embodiment of American capitalism.

On the one hand, he was all for innovation, on the other very much a believer in closed systems that users cannot customize.

He got fired from the company he started. Abandoned as a child by his birth parents, he first refused to acknowledge his first-born child, Lisa, and then he named one of his computers after her.

A perfectionist in the smallest details, he divided his world into shitheads and geniuses. Often one person could morph from one to the other in a question of minutes.

His opponents accused him of knowing nothing about computers. Many would say that one of his best ideas was the “click-and-point” mouse idea, copied from Xerox labs. When Microsoft was sued by Apple for purportedly stealing the idea behind the “click-and- point” cursor, Bill Gates apparently said

„Well, Steve I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found that you had already stolen it’

There is something everyone agreed on: Jobs was obsessed with design.

Jobs’s childhood suburban home was designed by Joseph Eichler and Jobs believed that Eichler’s focus on beauty and simplicity for the masses profoundly affected his life. Another story Jobs was fond of telling was about his dad’s garage. His Dad showed him that a good craftsman always takes care that a product was beautiful inside and out. He credited his Dad’s inspiring him with his perfectionism when designing Apple’s factories.  Jobs’s passion for design is evident in his friendship and respect for creatives such as John Lasseter (Executive Producer, Pixar) and Jony Ive (Chief Designer Officer, Apple).

Names like these are a crucial part of this book. We learn that Gates originally designed excel only for the Mac. We learn that Ella Fitzgerald sang at Jobs’s thirtieth birthday. Apple’s cooperation with U2-lead Bono and Jobs to become friends. I had never realized that Jobs had gone out with Joan Baez.  Though most of his friends suspected it was because she, in turn, had slept with Bob Dylan, whom Jobs idealized.

There is a lot of factual research that has gone into this book, but it really comes into its own in the realm of the anecdote. One of my personal favorites is when Apple was accused of censorship for banning apps with porn. Jobs was accused of being a tyrant.

Jobs response was characteristic “People do have the freedom to watch porn. They can buy an android.”

The book is not just the story of Steve Jobs. It’s a story of the revolution in the tech industry. It is thorough, and at times digressive and exhausting but like Steve Jobs himself- never dull.

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