Steve Jobs is a figure about which I cannot avoid having mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s in charge of creating incredible gadgets while on the other he’s in charge of generally pricing them out of my reach and artificially limiting their capabilities. Regardless, Jobs is one of those prophets under whose shadow my life is being lived: as an IT professional, as a child growing up in the PC era, as a gadget freak, wherever I go I am affected by Jobs and his creations. When I heard generally favorable feedback for this biography of his, I decided it was worth spending my time on if only to expand my understandings of this Information Age world we are living in.
You know what? Once I started reading the book I couldn’t look back. For a few weeks, Steve Jobs became an integral part of my life. Coincidently, I happened to buy my first Mac during the reading of the book.
Steve Jobs (the book) offers a very comprehensive look at the man’s life. Built as individual stories covering different aspects of Jobs’ life and told in chronological order (although some overlap is unavoidable), we follow Jobs from the time baby Steve was given away for adoption to the Jobs family and up until his immanent [recent] death. There’s him growing up, him building the first Apple computers with the other Steve [Wozniak], him artistically borrowing the Xerox interface to build the first Mac, him getting cast out of Apple, moving on to NeXT, Pixar, and then his resurrection back at Apple to turn a dying company into the world’s number one company, for better and worse. In effect, we have the rise, the fall, and the resurrection of the Jobs Messiah.
By far the greatest achievement of Steve Jobs, the book, is its careful depiction of a complicated reality. More than any book of fiction can do, Steve Jobs’ biography manages to portray a reality so complicated and involving so many characters that it feels real; it feels as if the book is taking its reader right inside Jobs’ world as his character evolves. The experience is simply fascinating: far from the normal portrayal of characters as either the defenders of all that is good or as the masters of all evil, this biography manages to portray Steve Jobs as a person. A person with ups and downs; a person that can be good and a person that can be bad. An utterly convincing person. A person just like the rest of us. I cannot recall a book that manages this feat as convincingly as Walter Isaacson does it here, be it from the fiction of non fiction department.
As comprehensive and thorough as the biography is, I found myself thinking a lot about the bits that weren’t there, the stories that were only half told, and the truths that were misrepresented. There are plenty of those around! On the omissions side, I found the book’s failure to mention the “I’m a Mac [and I’m a PC]” ads quite puzzling, especially given the ample room given to Apple’s advertising and marketing storydescribing. On the half truths side we have Ridley Scott, the director of Apple’s famous 1984 Big Brother TV ad, described as a director coming straight off the success of Blade Runner; alas, at the time Blade Runner was considered a major flop. It took years, decades, for the film to be recognized as the Pièce de résistance we tend to regard it as now. Another case of presenting the Apple version of the truth comes with the telling of the various shenanigans of the iPhone 4, such as Antennagate and the story where a Gizmodo editor’s house was raided by police at Apple’s request after Gizmodo managed to put its hand on an iPhone 4 prototype. The book describes the incident as a normal police raid, and tells the story in a non flattering way, portraying Apple as a company that tries too hard to take control over the world. It glosses over Apple describing the phone to the police as an item so valuable it cannot be priced; as with the later search for the elusive iPhone 5, Apple does not mind putting itself above the justice system.
All these deficiencies are worth pointing out because Steve Jobs’ biography tries to create an image of a person trying to create the best technological gadgets people couldn't even dream of through a vision of one company that controls everything from start to finish in order to create simple products. That’s fine; that’s what so great about Apple. But hey, what about all those third world people that pay for Apple’s success in sweat and blood? What about Apple’s abuse of its own customers, where the company happily killsits products once they reach their second anniversary? You won’t find much mentioning of that in the book.
The Steve Jobs at the beginning of the book was a pirate who built his success on the efforts of others. I say that in the most flattering of ways: that is what human civilization is all about. The Steve Jobs at the end of the book is almost the exact opposite: a person wary of collaboration, a person who – in many aspects – became an opponent of a sharing culture. A person that could be said to have sold his soul on his way to the throne.
So yeah, I think this biography missed out on some key aspects of its subject matter. As an advocate of the open source philosophy, I consider this disregard crucial if the purpose of the book was to provide a conclusive review of the person that was Steve Jobs. Indeed, it is clear to me that Steve Jobs and I would have never got along well with one another: he would have probably labeled me a B person, and I would have dismissed him as an inconsiderate two faced person that spat into the well he used to drink from. What this biography makes pretty clear to me is that the person I take as the real hero from this book is the other Steve: between his engineering smarts, easy character and willingness to share, Steve Wozniak is clearly a person I would have loved a chance to be friends with. Sure, Apple would not have become what it ended up as without the Jobs' Steve; but then again, the whole of human civilization is built on many bad things that took place in its history, things that at the time we would have preferred to have gone down better. In other words, I argue that the end results of Steve Jobs’ ventures do not justify the means with which they were achieved.
Despite all my criticism, once I regard Steve Jobs’ biography for what it is – a book, not the ultimate word of god – I cannot avoid crediting it for what it is. It is a complex portrayal of a complex person, and as such it is an intriguing, and an often touching, read. Given that, and given the amount of creative thinking the book had generated, I cannot avoid crediting it with 4.5 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended!