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 cartoons 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 look good and that the first things you saw when you open the box look 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.
Mark Bernstein is Chief Scientist of Eastgate Systems, Inc. and the designer of Tinderbox.
Reviewer: Mark Bernstein
Read an Excerpt
His personality was reflected in the products he created. Just as the core of Apple’s philosophy, from the original Macintosh in 1984 to the iPad a generation later, was the end-to-end integration of hardware and software, so too was it the case with Steve Jobs: His passions, perfectionism, demons, desires, artistry, devilry, and obsession for control were integrally connected to his approach to business and the products that resulted.
The unified field theory that ties together Jobs’s personality and products begins with his most salient trait: his intensity. His silences could be as searing as his rants; he had taught himself to stare without blinking. Sometimes this intensity was charming, in a geeky way, such as when he was explaining the profundity of Bob Dylan’s music or why whatever product he was unveiling at that moment was the most amazing thing that Apple had ever made. At other times it could be terrifying, such as when he was fulminating about Google or Microsoft ripping off Apple.
This intensity encouraged a binary view of the world. Colleagues referred to the hero/shithead dichotomy. You were either one or the other, sometimes on the same day. The same was true of products, ideas, even food: Something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was shitty, brain-dead, inedible. As a result, any perceived flaw could set off a rant. The finish on a piece of metal, the curve of the head of a screw, the shade of blue on a box, the intuitiveness of a navigation screen—he would declare them to “completely suck” until that moment when he suddenly pronounced them “absolutely perfect.” He thought of himself as an artist, which he was, and he indulged in the temperament of one.
His quest for perfection led to his compulsion for Apple to have end-to-end control of every product that it made. He got hives, or worse, when contemplating great Apple software running on another company’s crappy hardware, and he likewise was allergic to the thought of unapproved apps or content polluting the perfection of an Apple device. This ability to integrate hardware and software and content into one unified system enabled him to impose simplicity. The astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that “nature loves simplicity and unity.” So did Steve Jobs.
For Jobs, belief in an integrated approach was a matter of righteousness. “We do these things not because we are control freaks,” he explained. “We do them because we want to make great products, because we care about the user, and because we like to take responsibility for the entire experience rather than turn out the crap that other people make.” He also believed he was doing people a service: “They’re busy doing whatever they do best, and they want us to do what we do best. Their lives are crowded; they have other things to do than think about how to integrate their computers and devices.”
This approach sometimes went against Apple’s short-term business interests. But in a world filled with junky devices, inscrutable error messages, and annoying interfaces, it led to astonishing products marked by beguiling user experiences. Using an Apple product could be as sublime as walking in one of the Zen gardens of Kyoto that Jobs loved, and neither experience was created by worshipping at the altar of openness or by letting a thousand flowers bloom. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the hands of a control freak.
Jobs’s intensity was also evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions. If something engaged him—the user interface for the original Macintosh, the design of the iPod and iPhone, getting music companies into the iTunes Store—he was relentless. But if he did not want to deal with something—a legal annoyance, a business issue, his cancer diagnosis, a family tug—he would resolutely ignore it. That focus allowed him to say no. He got Apple back on track by cutting all except a few core products. He made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
He attributed his ability to focus and his love of simplicity to his Zen training. It honed his appreciation for intuition, showed him how to filter out anything that was distracting or unnecessary, and nurtured in him an aesthetic based on minimalism.
Unfortunately his Zen training never quite produced in him a Zen-like calm or inner serenity, and that too is part of his legacy. He was often tightly coiled and impatient, traits he made no effort to hide. Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said. This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an asshole at times.
Andy Hertzfeld once told me, “The one question I’d truly love Steve to answer is, ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?’” Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it. Jobs claimed it was the former. “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.
The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible.
The saga of Steve Jobs is the Silicon Valley creation myth writ large: launching a startup in his parents’ garage and building it into the world’s most valuable company. He didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future. He designed the Mac after appreciating the power of graphical interfaces in a way that Xerox was unable to do, and he created the iPod after grasping the joy of having a thousand songs in your pocket in a way that Sony, which had all the assets and heritage, never could accomplish. Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly. As a result he launched a series of products over three decades that transformed whole industries.
Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.
Steve Jobs thus became the greatest business executive of our era, the one most certain to be remembered a century from now. History will place him in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford. More than anyone else of his time, he made products that were completely innovative, combining the power of poetry and processors. With a ferocity that could make working with him as unsettling as it was inspiring, he also built the world’s most creative company. And he was able to infuse into its DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.
The difference that Jony has made, not only at Apple but in the world, is huge. He is a wickedly intelligent person in all ways. He understands business concepts, marketing concepts. He picks stuff up just like that, click. He understands what we do at our core better than anyone. If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony. Jony and I think up most of the products together and then pull others in and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” He gets the big picture as well as the most infinitesimal details about each product. And he understands that Apple is a product company. He’s not just a designer. That’s why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.
When Jobs gathered his top management for a pep talk just after he became iCEO in September 1997, sitting in the audience was a sensitive and passionate thirty-year-old Brit who was head of the company’s design team. Jonathan Ive, known to all as Jony, was planning to quit. He was sick of the company’s focus on profit maximization rather than product design. Jobs’s talk led him to reconsider. “I remember very clearly Steve announcing that our goal is not just to make money but to make great products,” Ive recalled. “The decisions you make based on that philosophy are fundamentally different from the ones we had been making at Apple.” Ive and Jobs would soon forge a bond that would lead to the greatest industrial design collaboration of their era.
Ive grew up in Chingford, a town on the northeast edge of London. His father was a silversmith who taught at the local college. “He’s a fantastic craftsman,” Ive recalled. “His Christmas gift to me would be one day of his time in his college workshop, during the Christmas break when no one else was there, helping me make whatever I dreamed up.” The only condition was that Jony had to draw by hand what they planned to make. “I always understood the beauty of things made by hand. I came to realize that what was really important was the care that was put into it. What I really despise is when I sense some carelessness in a product.”
Ive enrolled in Newcastle Polytechnic and spent his spare time and summers working at a design consultancy. One of his creations was a pen with a little ball on top that was fun to fiddle with. It helped give the owner a playful emotional connection to the pen. For his thesis he designed a microphone and earpiece—in purest white plastic—to communicate with hearing-impaired kids. His flat was filled with foam models he had made to help him perfect the design. He also designed an ATM machine and a curved phone, both of which won awards from the Royal Society of Arts. Unlike some designers, he didn’t just make beautiful sketches; he also focused on how the engineering and inner components would work. He had an epiphany in college when he was able to design on a Macintosh. “I discovered the Mac and felt I had a connection with the people who were making this product,” he recalled. “I suddenly understood what a company was, or was supposed to be.”