Walter Isaacson:

"Steve Jobs The Exclusive Biography" (2011)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
The new edition of my book "A History of Silicon Valley" will include this little tribute to Steve Jobs: When Steve Jobs, the ultimate icon and mythological figure of Silicon Valley, died in October 2011, his legacy was the legacy of the whole of Silicon Valley: a new discipline that, borrowing other people's inventions, was not solely about the functionalities of a product and was not solely about the "look and feel" of a product, but was very much about the way that the human mind and the human body should interact with technology. It was a discipline born at the confluence of the utopian counterculture of the Sixties, the tech hobbyist culture of the 1970s and the corporate culture of Wall Street; and it was about creating a new species, a machine-augmented Homo Sapiens (Home Sapiens Plus?). Just like Silicon Valley as a whole, Jobs had mostly copied other people's ideas, but turned them into existential issues. Therefore i was not particularly biased against him before reading this book. After all, here was a billionaire who lived in a regular home in Palo Alto (not far from my own) on a regular street without any of the paraphernalia that are typical of other local billionaires.

I already believed that he fundamentally died of the same hippie "philosophy" that originally led him to Zen gurus and to LSD, and the facts confirmed it: this cancer was possibly curable if taken scientifically, but the old hippie chose spirituality over science and, sure enough, he died of it. However, that's a personal choice, and we're all free to die young of whatever cause we prefer. And i might even admire him for it.

The book is a lengthy and predictable retelling of the saga of the loner who comes back to Apple to reinvent the company around three products, each more "revolutionary" than the previous one: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Each of these products is described in apocalyptic terms. I confess i don't own any of them. I never felt the need. I have gigabytes of digital music but never used an iPod. I make phone calls with Skype and i am a maniac of email, but i never used an iPhone. And the iPad to me is just a small laptop with limited functionalities. I miss the point of the whole excitement. There is nothing intrinsically revolutionary in these products, and certainly nothing as revolutionary as the first digital music player (Audio Highway's Listen Up or SaeHan's MPMan, depending on whether you root for the USA or Asia), the first smartphone (the IBM Simon or the Nokia 9000, depending on whether you root for the USA or Europe, with the Sharp J-SH04 being the first one to incorporate a camera), and the first tablet computer (the GRiDPad or Fujitsu's Poqet, depending on whether you root for the USA or Japan).

On the other hand the book, of course, neglects the fact that Steve Jobs (like his nemesis Bill Gates) totally missed the importance of the Internet and the World Wide Web until he couldn't deny their existence any more. Eventually he jumped on the bandwagon of the Web with a music service (iTunes) which certainly revolutionized the way music is distributed but so had done Coca Cola and McDonald's in their respective fields and we don't really think of their founders as "inventors". (And just like Coca Cola and McDonald's, it is debatable whether the iTunes idea was good or bad for human civilization - Read for example what Pete Townshend had to say).

Ditto for social networking: Steve Jobs was dead last in understanding the power of social networking software the same way he had been dead last to understand the power of the Internet. But I'm sure that, given a few more years, he would have come up with a Facebook-like service that would have "revolutionized" the field.

If we go back to the very beginning, Jobs and Wozniak simply got lucky. The Apple personal computer did not become a big hit for what they had done but for what a very nerdy geeky Harvard business-school student (Dan Bricklin) had done: Visicalc, the "killer application" of 1979. We are not even sure that Jobs truly believed in the future of personal computers: the man who eliminated typewriters from Apple's buildings was Michael Scott with a famous memo of 1980 (it set the example for the rest of the world). The man who had the vision of a "user-friendly" computer (a "computer appliance") was Jef Raskin, who started the Macintosh project in 1979 and hired his former student Bill Atkinson from UC San Diego (Jobs called Raskin "a shithead who sucks", which doesn't sound like an appreciation of Raskin's project although every Apple fan will credit Jobs as the genius behind the Mac).

An "authorized" biography is inevitably an hagiography meant to depict the subject as a hero, a visionary and a missionary; and therefore it is not surprising that his shortcomings get downplayed here.

What truly annoyed me was not the exaggerations (every biographer tends to exaggerate in one direction or another, otherwise the book wouldn't sell). It was the interviews: Jobs' own words. I never thought that i would get upset reading someone criticize Bill Gates, but that could just be the epitome of what Steve Jobs was.

Jobs said: "Gates never invented anything." That sounds like a hilarious statement from someone who 1. got rich thanks to the personal computer built by his friend Wozniak which came at least four years after personal computers had been invented; 2. stole Xerox PARC's ideas to make the Lisa/Macintosh; 3. copied the digital music players of Asia to make the iPod; entered the smartphone market only after Nokia and Sharp had proven the concept. Bill Gates did not invent anything, but, by the same standards, neither did Steve Jobs. One could claim that Steve Jobs was the ultimate copycat. By accusing Gates of what he (Jobs) did, Jobs comes through as a pathetic and sore loser (unlike Bill Gates who neither claims to be an inventor himself nor calls others "unimaginative").

Steve Jobs also said of Gates: "He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once". This said from someone whose company's main manufacturing arm is China's Foxconn famous for workers committing suicide (that's how much they enjoy making your iPhone), whose company is one of the main buyers of coltan (the rare material that funds the militias in Congo that specialize in gang rape and forced self-cannibalism, probably after having dropped acid or similar drugs) and who apparently never spent a penny of his billions in philanthropy (unlike Bill Gates, who ranks as one of the top philanthropists in the world).

Steve Jobs: wherever you are, get over it. Bill Gates was richer than you, got a lot more famous than you in a lot more countries where you are hardly known, will live longer than you, and probably has a lot more friends than you ever had.

By the end of the story, one gets the feeling that the real Steve Jobs was the Silicon Valley version of the snake-oil peddlers of the Far West. The fact that millions of people bought his snake oil and think it healed them does not make it anything else than what it was and is: snake oil. These products will be forgotten as new generations of products come to the market and a new generation of users comes of age.

No question he was a master of design, and Apple has indeed become the most valued company in the world (in terms of market capitalization) like Microsoft was at some point, and many other companies have been at some point. Hats off to one of the greatest CEOs in the history of business. Most of those CEOs never claimed to be the new Leonardo or Edison: they simply claimed to be good CEOs. Steve Jobs was not a Leonardo or an Edison, but simply a very successful CEO just like Thomas Watson Jr, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Sam Walton, Walt Disney, George Merck, Bill Allen, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and many people's favorite, Charles Coffin (quote from CNN: "Most people have never heard of Charles Coffin--and that's the ultimate testimony to his greatness").

This book confirms that Steve Jobs did not invent anything; and makes you suspect that he would have been a better human being if he had not dropped acid.

Alas, given the astronomical number of Silicon Valley geeks who want to be the next Steve Jobs, the price of LSD probably just doubled in Silicon Valley. That might end up being the real lasting contribution by Steve Jobs to society and culture.

If one removes the interviews with Steve Jobs, the book is mediocre. So i couldn't help focusing on that part, which, unfortunately, sounded truly annoying. Again, i did not harbor any antipathy for Jobs before reading his own words. He was obviously very successful at what he did. But what he did is not always what he claimed/implied that he did...

Arun Rao sent interesting comments:
  • He was just a great designer of personal objects, so we need to compare him to people who made Louis XIV furniture and so on, or Ming tobacco cases.
  • I don't think Apple is a sustainable company without him, so unlike Rockefeller or Coffin, Jobs wasn't a good enough CEO.

Javier wrote:
  • Quote: "He cheated his friends out of money. He cut old colleagues out of stock options. He fired people with peremptoriness. He bullied waiters, insulted business contacts and humiliated interviewees for jobs. He lied his pants off whenever it suited him - "reality distortion field" is Isaacson's preferred phrase. Like many bullies, he was also a cry-baby. Whenever he was thwarted - not being made "Man of the Year" by Time magazine when he was 27, for instance - he burst into tears. As for critiquing the work of others, Jobs's analytical style was forthright: "too gay" (rabbit icon on desktop); "a shithead who sucks" (colleague Jef Raskin); "fucking dickless assholes" (his suppliers); "a dick" (the head of Sony music); "brain-dead" (mobile phones not made by Apple)."
  • After reading [the above] and also your writings, it's clear to me: the right direction in life is the opposite to the one this man took.

A reply to those who wrote to me that Jobs was the first one to conceive a computer, phone, etc as a designer's aesthetic work. In the 1960s-80s Olivetti (back then the largest computer manufacturer in Europe) often hired famous designers for its products (see this Wikipedia article), including the young George Sowden. Also: listen to Mario Bellini, architect who designed the Olivetti desktop 101 in 1964 (20 years before the Mac): video on Vimeo. Nor is it clear that we can credit Jobs for the design itself: Hartmut Esslinger designed the Mac, Jonathan Ive the iPod, etc. And of course there were many who designed mass-market devices to be cool (Henry Dreyfuss who designed cameras and phones in the 1950s). We can certainly credit Jobs for pushing a device's look and feel (whether it's design or something else) way beyond the standards of his days while continuously improving performance and functionalities.