STEVEJOBS. Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2011. 630 pp. 35.00 hard cover.
People live in a designed universe-from their houses to their cars to their computers.
Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” introduces the man who co-founded Apple and whose singular vision has shaped the experiences of millions of users of Apple computers, iPods, iPads, iTunes, and other products.
In 2004, Jobs first approached Isaacson (a Time Magazine managing editor) to write his biography. They had interacted since 1984 when Jobs would approach the big magazines to publicize new Apple products. Isaacson had written a biography of Benjamin Franklin and was working on one about Albert Einstein when he was approached. Then, Jobs’s failing health forced the issue, and in 2009, he was asked again and accepted. By this time, Jobs said he did not feel that there were any skeletons in his closet that couldn’t be shared.
What has resulted is an unflinching portrait of one of the top innovators and CEOs of multiple industries (personal computing and digital animation and movie-making)-replete with drive, vision, and very human foibles.
Steve Jobs was born February 24, 1955, to Joanne Schieble and Abdulfattah ‘John’ Jandali, a Muslim teaching assistant from Syria. Both of the parents were 23, and Schieble’s father forbade her from marrying Jandali. Jobs was adopted by Paul Jobs (a former Coast Guard member and later an auto mechanic) and his wife Clara Hagopian (a full-time housewife) after nine years of marriage and no children of their own.
Paul and Clara were doting adoptive parents, and they strove hard to provide Jobs with plenty of learning opportunities. His adoptive father instilled in him the importance of ensuring elegant design and craft even in parts of a thing that were not public-facing-like the backs of cabinets and the inside parts of fences. This idea of a designed product reaching a mass audience would leave a strong impression on the adult Jobs.
Investments by the US military in the region brought a number of engineers to the neighborhood, and Jobs grew up with the benefits of early exposures to technology. His teachers though needed to work with this willful and bright child-with one bribing him with candy and money to engage him. At 15, he started using marijuana regularly, then dabbling in LSD and hash-to the dismay of his parents. He experimented with sleep deprivation to cause mind-bending experiences.
In high school, he took an electronics course taught by John McCollum, a former Navy pilot, where he met Stephen “Woz” Wozniak, five years his senior, and a crack engineer already. Even though Jobs was known to play pretty loose with facts, Woz by contrast was trained by his father (a rocket scientist at Lockheed) to be extremely honest and to temper his ambition. Both though experimented with making machines, and both engaged in low-level hacking as a rite-of-passage. The two boys worked on building blue boxes for phone phreaking (hacking the phone system) and learned how to collaborate and innovative positively.
Steve Jobs was raised Lutheran but renounced God when he saw a magazine photo of starving children. When his pastor said that God was all-knowing and allowed that suffering, Jobs decided he wanted no part. Rather, he pursued a range of Eastern spirituality beliefs-from Hinduism to Zen Buddhism. From these various influences, he garnered his minimalist aesthetic and a trust in his intuition for design. He experimented with primal scream therapy, which also apparently affected his later management style. In his youth, he started with compulsive dieting and purging, eating only selected fruits and vegetables for weeks on end.
Computers did not fit well into the anarchic mindset which was part of the counterculture; they were seen as tools of Orwellian government. However, many started realizing that computers have great potential for individual expression and liberation. The name Apple Computer came about when Jobs was coming off one of his fruitarian diets and chose Apple serendipitously.
Jobs sets the record straight for when various technology and design innovations occurred. There were eureka moments such as when Wozniak realized that with a microprocessor, he could have a stand-alone desktop computer, not just a terminal that would connect to a remote minicomputer. The fledgling company attracted an angel investor who suggested that they also needed a marketing professional to get their product out into the population and beyond a hobbyist clientele. Mark Markkula’s definition of The Apple Marketing Philosophy focused on three main points: a marketing philosophy that emphasized empathy with the feelings of the customer, focus on what the company did best, and the importance of imputing-making sure that all communications with customers conveyed the company’s message.
AWhile he focused on functionality and design, Wozniak worked on the engineering. “The Apple II would be marketed, in various models, for the next sixteen years, with close to six million sold. More than any other machine, it launched the personal computer industry. Wozniak deserves the historic credit for the design of its awe-inspiring circuit board and related operating software, which was one of the era’s great feats of solo invention. But Jobs was the one who integrated Wozniak’s boards into a friendly package, from the power supply to the sleek case.”
Many innovations came out of Apple, too. Over the years, Steve Jobs had his name as one of the developers of over 212 patents. Apple engineer Bill Atkinson developed the illusion of overlapping windows.
Apple went public in December 1980. Jobs was 25 years old and worth $256 million. Over the years, Jobs would attain billionaire status, but he was never very philanthropic. He lived in a basic house and did not have security guards. He disliked how money changed those around him. The largest personal gift known publicly was to his adoptive parents ($750,000 in stock options).
He thought of himself as an artist. He emphasized the importance of personal technology being intuitively obvious, playful, and not intimidating. He distrusted having feedback from the public because he felt that a company should shape desire-to help consumers know what they wanted. He was very hands on from product development all the way to the managed public launches and clever advertising campaigns (“Welcome, IBM. Seriously.”). He hired people very selectively-particularly those who were “creative, wickedly smart, and slightly rebellious.”
In 1985, following a boardroom coup, Jobs was ousted from the company he founded. He sold off all of his 6.5 million shares of Apple stock but held one, so he could attend shareholder meetings. He started his own company NeXT, which never quite found its niche. His ousting matured Steve Jobs and broadened his understanding of managing and leading an efficient business. Without Jobs at the helm, Apple slid. In January 1997, while still at Pixar, he agreed to get on board as a part-time advisor. He maintained a grueling schedule running both Pixar and Apple and maintaining his family. He refused to commit more to Apple without the necessary concessions to be successful. He returned as interim CEO in Sept. 1997, with the fiscal year ending with a loss of $1.04 billion and less than 90 days from insolvency.
Jobs purged the board, instigated massive layoffs, and got rid of 70% of the company’s product lines. He drew out four quadrants on the white board explaining the core competencies of the company: Consumer, Pro, Desktop and Portable, and he indicated that the company needed one great product for each quadrant. He reduced inventory. Steve Jobs observed: “For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so.” It was that 30% that he strove to create by bringing on A-level players. He would host an annual meeting among the Top 100 employees to brainstorm ideas, and then he would eliminate all but the top 3.
He insisted on end-to-end development-with Apple handling the hardware and the software whenever possible. Many of his biggest fights were with third-party software developers who would not create software for certain Apple operating systems. Others were with companies that used ideas that Jobs felt were Apple’s. And he and Bill Gates had an uncomfortable freenemy relationship.
Under Steve Jobs’ leadership came the iPod, a music device that would be dormant if not used but would awaken if any key was touched: “Suddenly everything had fallen into place: a drive that would hold a thousand songs; an interface and scroll wheel that would let you navigate a thousand songs; a FireWire connection that could sync a thousand songs in under ten minutes; and a battery that would last through a thousand songs.”
iTunes was unveiled in the Jan. 2001 Macworld as part of the company’s digital hub strategy. Beginning in 2005, there was a secret effort to build a tablet computer, which would become the iPad. The work on this tablet computer shaped the origins of the iPhone, which made it to market first. The iCloud was launched to provide seamless access to digital resources from multiple devices. He worked to design a four-story three-million square foot headquarters for Apple in Cupertino.
In 2003, during a routine checkup, his doctor found a shadow on his pancreas in a CAT scan and found a rare tumor. Relying on various diets to fight his cancer, Jobs refused to undergo surgery for it until 9 months later, during which time the cancer had spread to multiple organs. He later said in a speech to graduating students at Stanford University that his mortality helped him get to the essence of his identity and stripped away “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure.”
His cancer had spread to his bones and other parts of his body by July 2011. Jobs died at 56 after admitting to Isaacson that he had “a very lucky career, a very lucky life.”
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.