Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
(London: Little, Brown, 2011)
568 pages

I have read this fascinating biography with considerable interest. I’m a long time user of Apple products: after having a couple of Amstrad PCWs, our first ‘proper’ computer was a Classic II, and the first thing I did with it was to typeset my wife’s MPhil thesis on it—we found cables and software to transfer her material from NewWord (a WordStar clone) on the Amstrad to Word on the Mac. Through a modem (remember those?), I first connected to the internet with it and used email, and upgraded to System 7 when it appeared. I finished my doctoral thesis on a PowerBook 165c, which had a trackball (and used EndNote 1.0 and Accordance 1.0 to do so!). I’m writing this on my 15 inch (mid 2012) MacBook Pro, which I’ve gradually upgraded by switching the hard drive for a 1TB SSD and now a 2TB SSD. It’s on its third battery, for it’s now 8 years old and still going strong. I also use a 4th-generation iPad and an iPhone SE, each the successors of earlier versions of those devices.

To write this book, Isaacson interviewed some forty people who knew Jobs well, including the man himself. He tells the story broadly chronologically, although separating out some chapters thematically, such as on Jobs’ involvement with Pixar (which overlapped with NeXT and his return to Apple). What emerges is a remarkable, talented, focused, and flawed human being. Jobs’ achievements are amazing: with the Apple II and then the Mac (collaborating with Steve Wozniak), he revolutionised personal computing, not least through adapting Xerox’s user interface to the (now familiar) style of the Mac, and then did it again with the introduction of MacOS X (as it was to become known). He changed the nature of film animation through the tools and people developed at Pixar (Toy Story, Cars, Wall-E, etc.). He transformed the way we obtain and listen to music through the iPod and the iTunes Store. He changed the way we shop for digital products with the physical Apple Stores and the online App Store. He gave us a worthwhile mobile phone and introduced true smart phones with the iPhone. The iPad changed the way we work with much online content. The development of iCloud integrated the ‘ecosystem’ of iPhone, iPad and computer by enabling us to share information seamlessly between these devices. All of these were widely imitated by Windoze, Android and the like, but never (IMHO) even close to the quality and simplicity of Apple’s products.

Famously, when Jobs was seeking to persuade John Sculley to leave Pepsi to join him at Apple, Jobs’ clinching question to Sculley was, ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?’ Jobs certainly did change the world. What was it about him? It wasn’t that he was the engineer who made everything happen, but it was that he was the visionary who saw the future and then drove people (pretty hard, by Isaacson’s account) to make that future happen. He was certainly a micro-manager of the products which Apple made, involving himself in the details of their appearance and user interface, particularly. He had no time for consumer research, to find out what people wanted: his view was that people didn’t know what they wanted until you showed it to them. ‘Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.’ (chapter 42) His means of achieving the future was to gather ‘A’ people around him—very talented people who were prepared to work very hard—and get them to deliver his vision. (Sir) Jony Ive, the British designer who worked with him in his second spell at Apple, is a great example. The evidence of Isaacson’s book is that Jobs was very demanding, and also very black and white in his judgements of what was presented to him—something was either shit or brilliant, and there were no shades of grey in between. He could shout at people, and yet valued those who argued with him from knowledge and expertise.

Key to Jobs’ thinking is focus and simplicity. At one point after his return to Apple he put a four-box grid on a whiteboard with the categories ‘consumer’ and ‘professional’ down one side and ‘desktop’ and ‘laptop’ across the top. He wanted Apple to simplify greatly the computers they produced from the quite large number available at the time, so that they could identify for a given customer which of the four boxes they were in. This focus on a small number of things which can be controlled is a key to Jobs’ success on his return to Apple, when his leadership was vital to bringing the company back from the brink. Similarly, the design of the first iPod, with the trackwheel, and the demand that a user be able to access a song in no more than three clicks, shows his love of simplicity. The closed Apple ecosystem of iPod, iPhone, iPad and the Mac, together with iCloud, is beautifully integrated and intuitive to use because of Jobs’ insistence that it had to be like that. ‘Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly.’ (chapter 42)

I don’t think I’d have found Jobs an easy person to work with. His temper, as Isaacson reports the story, was at times extraordinary, and his black-and-whiteness about judgements made him a person who lost colleagues who were more easy-going, such as Steve Wozniak, the brilliant engineer who designed the Apple II. And yet, achieving real change involves upsetting people at times: as the saying goes, to make an omelette, you have to break eggs.

Reading this biography has reminded me afresh of the apostle Paul, also a driven man who travelled widely to call others to follow Jesus, who worked tirelessly to do that, and who was intolerant of others (such as John Mark) who didn’t share his utter commitment. I think I’d have found Paul tough to work with too. And yet, Paul inspired the same devotion and admiration which Jobs seems to have done, for Paul shared the commitment to focus and simplicity which Jobs exemplified.

I’ve read this book with enjoyment and appreciation. Steve Jobs was a remarkable person, and I benefit from his drivenness and focus. Highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs

  • Rachel

    ‘He had no time for consumer research, to find out what people wanted: his view was that people didn’t know what they wanted until you showed it to them.’ That is so helpful for church leaders. Consulting doesn’t always lead to vision.

    • Steve Walton Post author

      Thanks Rachel. It’s interesting that Jobs did ‘consult’, but with those who could help him see what the technology could do (within and outside Apple), rather than with consumers. Although he was something of a ‘rugged individualist’, he worked closely with his team and took their input on board. I’m not sure what the analogy with church leaders is, but it’s worth reflection!


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