Musings on the Steve Jobs Biography

I’ve just finished “Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography” by Walter Isaacson, and I had planned on writing a review, but James Cridland wrote it for me:

I’d heard some stories about Steve Jobs, but the stories I’d heard were nothing to what is in this book.

There’s no easy way to say this: Jobs comes across as a detestable human being. Devoid of any kind of feelings towards anyone else, he shouts, screams, cries and sulks his way through his petulant life.

There are plenty of unpleasant examples of how he uses people up and spits them out: from Steve Wozniak, the co-creator of the original Apple II, to Jony Ive, the design genius responsible for much of the look/feel of Apple’s products since the original iPod. And let’s not start on the way he treats his parents, his first wife and his daughter, the staff at restaurants and hotels, and his Apple board.

The iPod that thieves in Viña del Mar stole from my rental car in December, 2009. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unlike Cridland, I wasn’t surprised by the stories because I read a bio of Jobs 20 years ago, The Journey is the Reward, as well as Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple by former Apple CEO John Sculley. It’s common knowledge in Silicon Valley that Jobs was detestable, although he is usually diplomatically described as “difficult” to work with, and it’s the responsibility of the listener to imagine what that really means.

I read the book because I want to know how such an abrasive guy like Steve Jobs could possibly rescue a moribund company and in 14 years make it nearly as successful as Exxon and Royal Dutch-Shell. I found no satisfactory answer because the book is a biography, not a business analysis. I can only guess that he must have alienated fewer employees during his second stint at Apple than his first, having more to prove than Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, and so was more motivated, less complacent, hungrier.

Apple coasted for many years on profits from their original PC designed by Steve Wozniak. Steve Jobs returned in 1997 to prove that he could design successful products, too. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I found the book unsatisfying because I’ve stayed current with PC industry news during the last 30 years, so much of it was review. Reminders are useful, but I prefer books that educate, forcing me to learn something new. For people younger than 30 years old, the biography of Steve Jobs is an important historical summary of the PC industry. For techies older than 45, I recommend In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, and My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance, by Emanuel Derman, former chief financial engineer at Goldman Sachs.

There has been much speculation that Apple will perform well for the next few years and later slowly decline, mimicking the performance of Microsoft during the years after Bill Gates. I disagree and reckon that Apple will profit more over the long term because Tim Cook is a better manager than Steve Jobs.

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