Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs makes some play of the fact that Jobs deliberately ceded control of the ‘product’. Aside from an intervention over the cover photographs, Jobs put his trust entirely in Isaacson, declining to set in train a relentless round of design iterations. It certainly shows.

If Jobs had been in charge of this ‘product’ you can bet the quality of the paper, the presentation of the photographs, the typesetting, the binding, and many other details, would all have been remarkable. And you can bet there would be some aspect of the ‘product’ that would have been innovative, perhaps the first instance of a new technology beautifully perfected, made ready, attractive and accessible to a large audience. By contrast, Isaacson’s ‘product’, with the exception of its subject, is no more than run of the mill.

It’s easy to make these bets, because that was how Jobs got things made. He didn’t repeat existing formulae – that held no interest for him. Rather, he pulled the future, kicking and screaming, out of the present. His gift was that he could see that future, a future in which technical products didn’t just do amazing things, but did so in a way that delighted rather than alienated. Technology’s good fortune was that he was reliably able to surround himself with people from which he could drag the technical and aesthetic solutions to make his vision of the future real.

Clearly, Jobs wasn’t always easy to be around – he was rude, capricious and sometimes cruel. Isaacson’s biography is strong, if occasionally repetitive, when it comes to illustrating this. The book also demonstrates one reason why the best designers and engineers chose to hang around – Jobs’s vision and taste, along with his sheer drive, created an environment where people achieved more than they ever believed possible.

The book is weaker in other areas. It barely addresses Jobs’s key role in creating the desktop publishing revolution, for example. And Isaacson rarely offers us intimate details – moments of humour, kindness or vulnerability – that would thicken the plot by providing counterpoint to the dominant narrative. This lack means that the Jobs shown here sometimes seems cartoon like, only abstractly drawn.

Isaacson also does little to bring out what I suspect is a key reason for Jobs ceding control over the biography project, a key reason why this is not an iBiography. That reason is that Jobs was just not interested in looking back. He didn’t choose to deploy his energy and focus on the past, because he was so fixated on looking to the future.

Consider that when Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of his early actions was to have dumped the company’s extensive historical archive. This was not some carefully weighed act of ‘decluttering’. To ‘declutter’ is to give up something you care about in the reasonable hope that it will bring renewed focus on the future. But, for Jobs, this archive was, literally, junk. It cost him nothing to give it up. It was simply taking up space. It had nothing to do with what lay ahead.

A friend, whom I mildly annoy with my enthusiasm for Apple products, asked me, in all open curiosity, whether Jobs had an interesting story. He did. There’s all sorts of big drama in his personal life, in the big arc of his career and in the very many smaller arcs that made up each product development cycle. While it might not have been Jobs’s cup of tea, for those of us not single-mindedly inventing the future, his is a fascinating and edifying story. Isaacson’s book tells it well enough. But it left me wondering what a ‘product’ setting out to do this job might have been like if someone with Steve-like standards had been in control.

References and Links

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography – Walter Isaacson
–the book under review.

Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story – Pamela Pfiffner
—includes coverage of Jobs’s role in the introduction of the LaserWriter printer. has a PDF extract.
—transcript of a Steve Jobs and Bill Gates interview in 2007. It covers Jobs’s donation of Apple archive material to Stanford University on his return after ten years away.

Inside Steve’s Brain: Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the Man Who Saved Apple – Leander Kahney
—an excellent book on Jobs which, no doubt, will soon be updated to cover the iPhone and iPad era.

What is Narrative Therapy? An Easy to Read Introduction – Alice Morgan
–a great read if you are interested in the battle between dominant narrative (‘thin descriptions’) and thickened plots (‘rich descriptions’).

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.