Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s lively authorized biography, is the story of a man who was not changed by wealth. Jobs was scarcely twenty when he started Apple Computer with his friend Steve Wozniak, in the garage of his parents’ house. At twenty-five, Apple’s IPO left him with $256 million. Before he turned thirty, the management he recruited had relieved him of responsibility, dismissing him as inexperienced, unrealistic, abrasive, and malodorous.

It seems never to have occurred to Jobs that he might relax. He started a new company, NeXT, for revenge, and ran Pixar for fun, and a decade later returned to salvage the tatters of the company that had kicked him out. Wherever he found himself, Jobs was always at work. He was uncompromising, demanding polish and simplicity in everything, insulting and dismissing everything and everyone who bored him. He was a famously sarcastic and meddlesome manager, quick to humiliate subordinates and suppliers. He never wrote a significant program or made a movie or recorded a song, but he built wildly successful companies that made computers and music players, phones and animated films that people loved.

Isaacson’s biography adds little to our understanding of the work, focusing instead on the billionaire who, disdaining to buy things that were not both beautiful and useful, often sat on the floor of scarcely furnished rooms. As he lay in intensive care after his liver transplant, he wanted to improve the design of the medical equipment surrounding him. He never stopped working, he was always smart, he was sometimes right, and he vexed everyone around him. But then, Isaacson reminds us, that’s exactly the way people remembered him as a little boy.

With Steve, Apple flourished. Without him, it nearly failed. Once he was back, success bred success. The contrast provides a unique opportunity to move beyond the prosperity-gospel fables that dominate American business journalism, but this would require more attention to what Steve Jobs did rather than to who he was, how he dressed, when he bathed, and what he liked to eat. The landmarks of Jobs’s remarkable business career — the repeated transformations of personal computers, the revival of feature animation, Apple’s astonishing move into the music industry, the overwhelming success of the iPhone and iPad, and the transformation of the near-derelict Apple of 1996 to attain the largest market capitalization in the world — are recounted but not interpreted. Isaacson’s study is the man, not the businesses.

But there was also (as in so many of his famous product introductions) one more thing: he created things that people loved — and loved to buy. Jobs was born in 1955, and in the fifty years before his birth, Americans witnessed astonishing technological and business changes: radio, television, cars, trucks, airplanes, department stores, supermarkets, malls. The transformations of Steve Jobs’s lifetime were primarily electronic and chiefly concerned the computer and the Internet. For a generation,  progress has been most concretely realized and experienced through products that bore his imprint.

Why were these products beloved? Isaacson, following Microsoft’s Bill Gates, attributes the excellence of the products to Jobs’s good taste and to his intense personal involvement, which ran from mechanical engineering all the way to packaging. But what saved Apple, after all (as I have argued elsewhere), was not merely great design but the constantly iterated shift from design to execution, from surface to depth, from style to science and back again. The dramatic technical shifts — abandoning floppies, abandoning Pascal and OpenDoc and Java, embracing virtual memory, abandoning the PowerPC, abandoning CDs — masked a steady reengineering of everything. On the other end of the spectrum Jobs grasped the drama of unwrapping, and he took exceptional care that the outside of Apple’s boxes looked good and that the first things you saw when you opened the box looked better.

Analysts ridiculed Apple’s plan to open retail stores, but those stores have turned out to be wildly profitable. Even more impressively, Apple transformed shopping: visiting an Apple store, you never see a cash register and almost never see an employee standing around, waiting, or doing anything besides talking to customers. This performance might perhaps originate in a CEO’s vision, but the actual execution surely depends on complex foundations of training, management, and supervision — crucial parts of the story that are here subordinated.

To Jobs, every employee was either a genius or a bozo. Every product and every idea was good or it was shit, and he sought to impose his taste on every facet of each organization. To acquire sound taste in so many fields, from animation to retail store design, from operating systems to contemporary music, was itself a formidable accomplishment, but this volume is largely silent on how Jobs undertook this epic self-education. Nor do we learn how a man who never programmed a computer oversaw the creation of so much legendary software. We might wish for a retrospective of the ideas behind his work. Isaacson usually settles for an account of contemporary press reaction, but much of this, like the dismissal of the Macintosh for its “gee-whiz graphics,” now seems almost quaint.

Good taste and long hours were not enough for other smart people who set out to work at the intersection of engineering and art. William Morris also tried to combine great design with mass production across the product spectrum. So did Gropius and Breuer at the Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen, and Coco Chanel. The others created modest businesses that were best at selling lovely things to a discerning, elite audience, and when they did reach a mass audience, it was chiefly through derivatives and clichés. None built institutions. Jobs not only proved that there can indeed be a second act in an American life, but left behind such a robust engine of creativity that in his case, there may yet be a third.