book review Amid the choking fumes from the Apple flame wars, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs comes as a breath of fresh air.
Jobs, along with the bold company he built, gets people's blood boiling with loyalty and with loathing. Vitriol often is the chief characteristic of debates between fans of Macs and of Windows PCs, between fans of iOS and of Android.
Isaacson, though, has done an admirable job navigating the minefields with his biography, simply titled Steve Jobs. The result is a book that, although not perfect, is a reliable and captivating guide to a man who reshaped the computing industry and more.
It helps that Jobs' life is packed with drama. And it helps that when Jobs died of cancer this month at a relatively young age of 56, Apple finds itself at the height of its power.
There was a risk, as an authorised biography, that the book could have been tame, but it's not. Jobs himself urged Isaacson to write it and, after initial "skittishness", encouraged those he's known to open up to the writer. Ultimately, just as Jobs told Isaacson that "my job is to say when something sucks rather than sugar-coat it", Isaacson has presented an unvarnished view of Jobs. That means we get to hear about the employees he treated harshly, the management incompetence that defeated some of his dreams and got him ejected from Apple, and the first daughter he largely abandoned for years.
It would have been impossible, of course, to overlook Jobs' temper, his impatience, his brutal treatment of co-workers, his callous treatment of his first child and his unforgiving separation of the world's population into A-team gods in the one corner and shit-heads and bozos in the other.
Isaacson, while opining that the "nasty edge to his personality was not necessary", more often presents Jobs' harshness as effective. "Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible," Isaacson wrote.
It's not clear whether Jobs could have left a legacy that was more humanitarian — a sequel, perhaps, to the HP Way that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard established at Hewlett-Packard, a company that Jobs admired. It is clear, though, that Jobs couldn't be bothered to behave otherwise.
"This is who I am, and you can't expect me to be someone I'm not," Jobs told Isaacson.
Jobs' primary legacy certainly will be Apple and its products, just as Mozart's difficult personality has faded as his music lives on. But as his pursuit of Isaacson demonstrates, Jobs cared deeply about how history sees him. His battles with cancer led him to an articulate awareness of his own mortality, and it appears that Jobs made the calculation that an independent but authorised biography would be better than writing his memoirs.
"Jobs surprised me by readily acknowledging that he would have no control over it or even the right to see it in advance," Isaacson said of the biography, which he began in earnest in 2009.
Through the course of more than 40 interviews with the author, Jobs' famed "reality distortion field" presumably was in effect, but Isaacson also interviewed more than 100 others, and Jobs certainly has made plenty of enemies over the decades.
Praise for an industry titan
Isaacson probably is more right than wrong to conclude that history will place Jobs in the "pantheon right next to Edison and Ford", but I fear Isaacson gives the infamously micro-managerial Jobs a bit too much credit for developing products himself.
Clearly he was a profoundly hands-on executive, from the earliest days designing the user interface for his and Steve Wozniak's Blue Boxes for phone hacking to the latter years with iPhones and iPads. And certainly Jobs' leadership was an essential ingredient in the company's present success. But it's hard to assess the true effect of a legion of foot soldiers.
Isaacson nibbles at the issue. He offers anecdotes from employees who saw Jobs reject their ideas one day and present them as his own the next. He quotes Apple lead designer Jonathan Ive as saying, "I pay maniacal attention to where an idea comes from, and I even keep notebooks filled with my ideas. So it hurts when he takes credit for one of my designs." Perhaps it's the nature of biographies, which place a single person at the centre of an episode of a historical narrative, to overemphasise one person's importance.
And every now and again, a little bit of the Apple fanboy creeps into Isaacson's view. It's true that Apple has helped improve user interfaces of digital devices, but inscrutable error messages and crashes are hardly unique to Windows. And when Isaacson declares that Jobs "launched a series of products over three decades that transformed whole industries", rightly listing several such as the Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and the App Store for iOS software, he prematurely includes iCloud in the list, too.
iCloud has only begun to hit the market, and Google — often with the very Android products Jobs castigates — has shown a greater ability to transform the world through cloud computing. iCloud shows promise for keeping devices in sync, but when it comes to the deep integration of the internet into computing, Apple so far hasn't been driving the industry. Google Docs, for all its warts, shows more signs of shaking up the Microsoft Office status quo than Apple's alternatives. And it's Google Maps on which so much of the iPhone's location smarts is built.
Tempered by reality
But in the scheme of things, this criticism is secondary. Isaacson — a seasoned author who was managing editor of Time and who has written biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin — didn't write a hagiography. He praises Jobs for his accomplishments, but he also brings up Jobs' mistaken view as a young man that being a fruitarian would neutralise his body odour and allow him to bathe but once a week.
Indeed, sometimes it can be painful reading about Jobs' behaviour. Nowhere is this more true than in his handling of his first child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter of one-time girlfriend Chrisann Brennan.
"At times he was able to distort reality not just for others but even for himself. In the case of Brennan's pregnancy, he simply shut it out of his mind," Isaacson writes. Jobs apparently tried to take some of his own medicine later — the unvarnished truth — but his rocky history with his first daughter showed it to be a lifelong struggle. "I wish I had handled it differently. I could not see myself as a father then, so I didn't face up to it ... I tried to do the right thing. But if I could do it over, I would do a better job."
Brennan-Jobs lived with her father for four years after her school warned that things were bad with her mother. And Chrisann Brennan would walk over to Jobs' house and yell from the yard. But Brennan saw Jobs as having some responsibility for that behaviour and for the problems that led to their daughter moving in with him:
"Do you know how Steve was able to get the city of Woodside to allow him to tear his Woodside home down? There was a community of people who wanted to preserve his Woodside house due to its historical value, but Steve wanted to tear it down and build a home with an orchard. Steve let that house fall into so much disrepair and decay over a number of years that there was no way to save it. The strategy he used to get what he wanted was to simply follow the line of least involvement and resistance. So by his doing nothing on the house, and maybe even leaving the windows open for years, the house fell apart. Brilliant, no? ... In a similar way did Steve work to undermine my effectiveness AND my well being at the time when Lisa was 13 and 14 to get her to move into his house. He started with one strategy but then it moved to another easier one that was even more destructive to me and more problematic for Lisa. It may not have been of the greatest integrity, but he got what he wanted."
Fortunately, Isaacson treats these prickly issues with cool dispassion, neither shrinking from them nor apologising for Jobs' behaviour.
He also accurately assesses the difficulties Jobs must have had reconciling his business success with the Dylan-loving, 1960s-era rebelliousness and affinity for counter-culture: "He refused such trappings as having a 'Reserved for CEO' spot, but he assumed for himself the right to park in the handicapped spaces. He wanted to be seen (both by himself and by others) as someone willing to work for US$1 a year, but he also wanted to have huge stock grants bestowed upon him. Jangling inside him were the contradictions of a counter-culture rebel turned business entrepreneur, someone who wanted to believe that he had turned on and tuned in without having sold out and cashed in."
It's an apt assessment of a man who probably saw the world and himself as more straightforward than either really were. But ultimately, perhaps the fact that the reality distortion field worked on Steve Jobs, too, is what gave him the power to carve out such a position of influence in industry and history.
Jobs got an opportunity to reshape the computing industry. With Apple, he made the most of it — twice — and with Walter Isaacson, he took that opportunity again. Isaacson presents Jobs as he was, but Jobs gets his "One More Thing" moment, too, in the form of 1493 words written shortly before his death, the closing words of the book. It summarises his view of leadership, innovation and changing the world. Countless people will read it.
All most of us get when we die is a last will and testament.
Disclosure:Steve Jobs is published by Simon & Schuster, which like CNET and ZDNet is owned by CBS.