At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology. He built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering. His tale is instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.
I finished the book today and while dinner was cooking flipped through a copy of Rolling Stone magazine that somehow ended up in the house. There was an ad there for the iPad showcasing the Beatles section of the iTunes Store and unexpectedly I could see the principles Jobs emphasised right there on the page. The product that speaks for itself, the clean lines, the no-frills boldness of design, they were all there. Then suddenly I could see it in the biography cover that Jobs himself helped design, the simple black and white photo of Jobs on a clean white background, the genius staring intently at the camera, his mouth slightly curved in an impish grin. Then I remembered the iPod Nano in my purse, the iPod Shuffle in my gym bag, the thrill of every new Pixar movie, the feverish excitement in the eyes of my Apple-faithful friends and colleagues whenever a new iPhone is scheduled to be released and the unbridled delight of a friend when she was showing off her new iPad. It takes something special to turn a garage startup company into the most valuable company in the world with products that people will literally sell their kidneys for and Steve Jobs had that "something".
I don't want to review the man when I should be reviewing his biography but it is such an honest portrayal of a very difficult person that I was often infuriated for the first third of the book because of Jobs' personality. He was undeniably a visionary and it was clear even when he was very young, but the man was a spoiled brat who did drugs and did not shower, and accounts of how he treated people during his first stint at Apple were more than I could read through calmly. Even so, it was fascinating to follow the formative years of the man who would later become the head of both Apple and Pixar as we know them.
The narrative became a lot more palatable to my puritan sensibilities when the focus shifted from young Steve's temper tantrums to the evolution of the technological landscape, the years at NeXT, the beginning of the company that would become Pixar, the antagonistic relationship with Bill Gates and Microsoft, and Jobs' return to Apple. The book is really as much a biography of the Silicon Valley as it is a biography of Steve Jobs because the two are so interwoven they are literally inseparable and the non-techie in me sometimes lost interest when the circuit boards and microchips took over. Fortunately the account is filled with quotes from the people Isaacson interviewed when he prepared to write this book, including Jobs himself, and that provided a welcome balance that kept things moving.
When Apple bought NeXT and Jobs was able to come back to his beloved company the tone of the book changed as the era of unimpeded revolutionary productivity began. It seemed much more "business" from then on, more focused. I felt it was a faithful reflection of Jobs' life at that stage, after all he was a man in his 40s, had a family and two companies to run, and he really couldn't afford any more false starts. He also repeatedly said that he knew he would die young, so intuitive as he was he may have understood on some level that he had to get to work. Or may be he had simply matured sufficiently to focus on being productive more than petulant.
I'm not sure how this happened, but until I read about Jobs being the CEO of Pixar in this book I had no idea that Apple wasn't the only company over which he presided. In retrospect this is not at all surprising because Pixar is another embodiment of technology and art working together to create an excellent product, which is what Jobs has always stood for. I am a huge fan of Pixar movies and I look forward to what Lasseter will do without Jobs.
One thing that struck me as I began reading was how simple the language is. A child could read the book and understand what Isaacson was talking about. If it wasn't for the often mature subject matter I would question who the audience is supposed to be, and then I wonder whether the exceedingly easy to understand writing is meant to make it possible for non-native speakers to read the book without having to wait for the translation.
Research for this biography was a huge undertaking and having all the major players still around to interview was an undeniable advantage. It was really interesting to see how people never really completely disappeared from the picture. They would appear, have their time in the spotlight, then they'd get replaced by a brighter star, but they often reappeared in one capacity or another and towards the end I could clearly see that for all his abrasiveness Jobs managed to maintain relationships with people that lasted decades. And what more, even those who were replaced spoke about him with respect and even admiration. Now that takes talent.
In the first third of the book for all his genius I had little appreciation for Jobs, but by the time I read the last pages I grew to respect him and what he achieved in a relatively short time in his role as CEO, despite the fact that he remained a very difficult person. I feel that it is a testament to the work Isaacson did in presenting to us readers a portrat of Jobs as complete and unbiased as possible and at the end of the day that's what I believe a good biography should do. There's only one last thing I wonder about: can you imagine how much more Jobs would have been able to achieve had he not gotten himself ousted from Apple in the first place?