Steve Jobs was a remarkable man. Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” is a remarkable book, fully capturing its brilliant, maddening, sometimes appalling, always fascinating subject.
Written in a short span as its prime source lay in the grip of mortal illness, “Steve Jobs” shows no signs of haste in its reportage, writing or critical thinking. Its sole concession to the unusual circumstances of its creation is that, unlike Isaacson’s previous biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, it doesn’t attempt to place Jobs in a broader historical context. The focus here is on the man, what he achieved and how he achieved it.
The overarching theme of those achievements was Jobs’s ability to locate himself at the nexus of technology and the humanities. His experiences as an acid-dropping, India-sojourning, Dylan-loving ex-hippie had at least as much to do with his eventual success as his fascination with things electronic.
He was shaped, too, by a complex family history. Born out of wedlock to parents who later married, produced another child -- the novelist Mona Simpson -- and then split up, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, a working-class couple in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Isaacson sees this as the origin of a sense of abandonment that eventually led Jobs to seek substitute father figures throughout his business career. It’s worth noting, though, that Jobs himself rejected that analysis. To him, the most important message of his childhood was the one conveyed by the Jobses.
“I have never felt abandoned,” he told Isaacson. “I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.”
The specialness manifested itself in the form of academic achievement and an unruly and sometimes volatile personality. Then, in high school, he found Steve Wozniak, who shared his love of electronics and mischief.
Together, they made and sold “blue boxes,” gadgets designed to rip off the telephone company for free long-distance calls. Eventually, they gravitated toward the nascent field of personal computing, making first a kit they sold to fellow hobbyists, then a revolutionary breakthrough: a complete, plug-and-play machine that normal people could use. It was the Apple II, the first true personal computer.
If much of the technological wizardry was Wozniak’s, it was Jobs who burned to create a business around it. At one point, Wozniak’s father confronted Jobs to demand a larger share for his son. “Wozniak, however, understood better than his father the symbiosis they had,” Isaacson writes. “If it had not been for Jobs, he might still be handing out schematics of his boards for free.”
In short order, the Apple II launched the company now known as Apple Inc., landed Jobs on magazine covers and made him a millionaire. It also made him insufferable, particularly to the series of poor saps tasked by investors to manage the unmanageable boy wonder.
Indeed, one comes away from “Steve Jobs” with a sense of pity for figures like John Sculley, recruited by Jobs himself from PepsiCo Inc. to become Apple’s chief executive. Jobs developed the Macintosh, yet another revolution in computing, then mismanaged and schemed his way into a boardroom showdown with Sculley that he lost.
On the Defensive
In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Sculley is so demoralized even in victory that he tells his wife he’s thinking of resigning. She jumps into her car, hunts Jobs down in the parking lot of a Silicon Valley restaurant and confronts him, demanding, “Do you have any idea what a privilege it has been even to know someone as fine as John Sculley?” For once, it’s Jobs on the defensive.
Far more often, though, Jobs was the one orchestrating confrontations. Isaacson doesn’t sugar-coat his behavior, recounting the screaming tirades, tears and perhaps the worst insult he could aim at employees, colleagues and competitors: dismissing them as bozos, worthy only of contempt.
And yet. Somewhere along the line, perhaps during his years in exile, he honed his vision of that technology-humanities aesthetic. Or maybe it’s just that the technology finally caught up with where his mind had been all along.
From “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, he acquired a tiny computer company called Pixar that, working with a supremely talented staff, he built into a motion-picture powerhouse that he took public and eventually sold to Walt Disney Co. -- but only after a memorable clash with Disney CEO Michael Eisner that brings to mind the old line about irresistible forces and immovable objects.
Then came his return to a nearly bankrupt Apple, where he engineered the ouster of yet another “bozo” CEO, seized the reins himself and began the string of products that revolutionized -- there’s that word again -- how everyday people do everyday things: the iPod, iPhone and most recently the iPad.
As proud as he was of those accomplishments, Jobs told Isaacson, his most important goal was to do what an earlier pair of Silicon Valley giants, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, had achieved: to “create a company that was so imbued with innovative creativity that it would outlive them.”
As Hewlett-Packard Co. lurches from management crisis to management crisis, that seems a far-fetched desire. Yet HP has strayed far from the culture instilled by its founders. The question for Apple as it looks to the future is whether the vision will prove strong enough to sustain it in the absence of the visionary.
“Steve Jobs” is published by Simon & Schuster (630 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)