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The Book of Jobs
Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson
Member Name: rosebud2001
Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson
Advantages: Lots of access to the subject, honest, incredibly well written
When seeking a pioneer from the 20th century who shaped the 21st century, there can be no doubt that Steve Jobs fitted the bill. But for him, one wonders if Apple would have become the biggest computing company on the planet and if the touchscreen would ever have become the norm when using a mobile phone.
My late husband was a huge fan of Jobs - if not his products. He was a software geek as opposed to a hardware geek and didn't actually buy an Apple product until he finally got himself an iPod in 2004, and for all the admiration he had for Steve Jobs, my husband really didn't like how closed Apple's products were.
Steve Jobs died on 5th October 2011, leaving a legacy which is based upon those closed products which in practical terms leave some questions, including "why am I not trusted to replace a battery in my iPad?" but in aesthetic terms are brilliant. I cannot think of another company on earth capable of producing products so breathtakingly beautiful as Apple does, and certainly there isn't a company on earth right now producing products which instil such strong feelings of desire and even envy in consumers.
These closed products and the beauty of their design reveal much about Steve Jobs as a person, as revealed in this fascinating book by Walter Isaacson.
Steven Paul Jobs was born in San Francisco to an American mother and a Syrian father. His birth mother was a student and was encouraged to give the boy up for adoption by her family. She did, with the caveat that whoever adopted her son would be college graduates. Unfortunately the couple who had been earmarked to adopt the baby decided they wanted a girl so it came to pass that the baby Jobs was adopted by a high school dropout and his, to quote Isaacson, "salt of the earth wife".
Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley, California, and he never left the area. He spent his childhood in Los Altos and by the end of his life the company he created with Steve Wozniack was located in Cupertino to the south and he himself lived just to the north in more affluent Palo Alto.
Jobs embraced the counter culture of the time as he grew up; he famously spent 7 months in India, he had very faddy diets and claimed if he hadn't dropped acid he would have been a very different person. He shared some of these counter culture ideas with Steve Wozniack, who was a computer wunderkind and together the two men came up with the Apple I computer.
There were many men who set up computer companies at this time, including Bill Gates at Microsoft and Larry Ellison at Oracle, but it was Steve Jobs who would become the benevolent face of an industry and Isaacson's book takes a stab at telling the reader why this was the case.
This is an authorised biography and it is to Steve Jobs' credit that he didn't meddle in the writing process or try to censor anything. This may seem a strange thing to say but Steve Jobs - for all his enormous fanbase - was a deeply flawed human being. The one thing that could be viewed as a saving grace however is the fact that Jobs was deeply aware of his flaws when he discussed his life in over 40 interviews he had with Isaacson over the course of two years.
As a result this book is probably better than anything Jobs may have considered writing himself. Isaacson has interviewed many people who crossed paths - and swords - with Jobs over the years so you don't just get one perspective on various events and he's not afraid to ask awkward questions either.
What Steve Jobs got from his father (he refused to refer to his parents as "adoptive" - to him they were simply his parents) was a love of engineering, along with an understanding that just because something looks good from the outside doesn't make it good - Paul Jobs told his son that just as much care needed to go into what a consumer couldn't see to make a something brilliant.
Isaacson studies the young Jobs in depth. Jobs' biggest outside influence in his youth was Bob Dylan and he never lost his love for Dylan's music. He felt drawn towards artistic people, viewing himself as a creative person but he was also hugely inspired in his youth by Zen ideals which engendered in him some beliefs which were clearly at odds with the man he would become. For example, he believed that people shouldn't become attached to material goods. Jobs claimed that consumer desires were unhealthy according to his Zen beliefs. He overcame the rather obvious hypocrisy of this statement by saying the pride he had in what he made transcended these Zen ideals.
He had faddy diets throughout his life and it wasn't unusual for him to eat only one item for weeks on end. He also was a huge fan of fasting, believing there was a feeling of euphoria to be had from doing so. When he started a job at Atari in the mid 1970s he was on a strict fruit based diet which he believed removed mucus from his body, and the potential for body odour. As a result he didn't think he needed to wash or use deodorant, leading to him being put on night shift so as to not offend other people. It wasn't just his BO people found offensive however - his personality could be very offensive too.
If there is one word which perhaps best describes Jobs the man then it would be mercurial. He had the ability to charm the woods from the trees and his talents as a salesman and a showman would become legendary but he could also be deeply offensive and rude. This made him a difficult person to work with but Jobs claimed his temperament ensured Apple got the best out of their staff, with Jobs stating the company was only interested in grade A people anyway.
He was able to use his charisma and the self taught ability to stare at people for long periods of time without blinking to generally get what he wanted from people. He would regularly proclaim something to be "shit", but the next day he may come back and proclaim it to be the best thing ever. To his credit he did prefer people who stood up to him but sadly when one reads this book it's evident that he did harbour grudges over things which in the grand scheme of things were fairly petty.
Jobs was also a pretty hands off father. He had become a father in his 20s by an on-off girlfriend and generally ignored his eldest daughter until she was 10. When he married his wife Laurene they had three children. Jobs doted on his son but tended to be less interested in his daughters. Jobs is quite open about this and so is his wife. All the family describe him as "prickly".
Through Isaacson's detailed research the creation of products such as the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad come alive. Jobs didn't invent any of these products himself but his own identity is obvious in each of them, particularly in the rounded rectangular shape which would become his design hallmark at the company. Jobs was obsessive about the design of the products he sold and he found his design soulmate in Jony Ive, the Brit who designed the iPod.
Jobs had never been one for cheap mass produced "crap" as he would have said, and Ive describes how he felt many electrical consumer items had an air of disposability about them. With this in mind he wanted the iPod to be "significant" and he achieved this by giving the product a stainless steel back which was designed to contrast against the pure white plastic front. This was something Jobs could entirely relate to - and he gave high priority to design at Apple.
Isaacson relates how Jobs perfectionism could drive colleagues to distraction. When the Apple II computer was being manufactured he was presented with 2000 shades of beige to choose from for the casing. He rejected all of them, saying none were "excellent enough" for his product. Similarly when it came to opening the Apple stores, only slate mined from a specific location in Italy produced the right kind of flooring for the stores. His ability to believe the impossible was possible is related here many times, with Isaacson referring to it as his "reality distortion field".
Perhaps one of the best examples of Jobs' obsession with good taste comes from a story Isaacson relates regarding a stay in hospital once he got sick with cancer. A pulmonologist had tried to place a mask over his face when Jobs was deeply sedated. To the surprise of all around him, Jobs ripped the mask off and mumbled that he "hated" the design and refused to wear it. He was barely able to speak but managed to order the staff to bring him five different options for the mask so he could pick a design he actually liked.
The book also tells how Jobs bought Pixar and helped it grow from a small computer software company to the greatest animation studio in the world. I had been completely unaware of Jobs' link with the company until he died so it was fascinating to read about how he helped shape it and hear his thoughts about the relationship the company had with Disney and how fraught it could be at times.
Jobs final years are, understandably perhaps, the most moving in the book. Jobs initially refused surgery when his pancreatic cancer was first diagnosed and Isaacson relates an interview he had with Jobs a few years later where he notes the regret Jobs felt about that particular decision. The delay had allowed the cancer to spread but Jobs couldn't let go of his belief that diet alone could cure him. You can feel the frustration his wife and friends felt when he refused the initial surgery in the book and I couldn't stop thinking "if only he had had the surgery" as I read it.
The book doesn't specifically mention Jobs' passing but it doesn't hide how ill Jobs became, describing the board meeting when he stepped down as CEO of Apple. By this time Jobs was in almost permanent pain and needed a wheelchair to get there in person and you'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to be moved by the proceedings.
I am sure there will be more books written about Steve Jobs but this one has to be contender for the definitive biography. Isaacson's free access to his subject and the fact Jobs didn't interfere in what he wrote gives the reader the best of both worlds. There is the ability to read Jobs' own words on many subjects but also to get the other side of the coin because if ever there is a contentious event being discussed, Isaacson ensures he gets both sides of the story.
All those closed systems that Jobs created does give rise to the thought he was a control freak - and certainly that's how I thought when reading the book, but when asked the question directly, Jobs denied it, saying for him the reason his products worked were because everything was exclusive to Apple. He was similarly paradoxical about how for so many years he pitched his company as the underdog yet it somehow became the biggest company in its field. He remained convinced Apple's strength was in appearing to be the underdog yet the company has almost completely sewn up the mp3 player market with the iPod.
This book is a fascinating insight into this mercurial, paradoxical and hugely charismatic man and even if you only have a passing interest in computers and big business it's still a compelling read.
Summary: The best book you'll ever read about Steve Jobs
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