Thursday, October 27, 2011

Isaacson on Jobs

It took me two days to read Walter Isaccson’s new bio of  Steve Jobs.
Isaccson’s book is a breezy recitation of Job’s remarkable achievements over the past 35 years.  As a huge fan of his products, I was dismayed to read  story after story about what a total prick, asshole, and all around champion dickwad Steve Jobs was.  One could totally understand if he acted this way only towards his minions at Apple or his business rivals.  But Steve really was a total dick to EVERYONE.  He would berate waitresses and even an old lady who made smoothies the wrong way at  Whole Foods.   He was always parking in handicap zones we are told.

Isaccson portrays a man often-times unhinged.  We learn that he cried often in front of anyone for any reason.  Emotionally he was essentially a child, but a mean one.   His wife is quoted as saying that Steve lacked basic social graces.  That is one way of putting it.  What is interesting is that Jobs was also interested in things that perhaps would have tamed the beast as he was a serious student of  Eastern religions.  Jobs was a Beatles and Dylan fanatic who did not in any way identify with the underdog EVER. The worst story is when as a teenager  he ripped-off his best friend Steve Wozniak when they worked on an Atari project together pocketing bonus money secretly. Jobs comes across as Anna Wintour and Joan Crawford. Every time philanthropy is mentioned Jobs is described as dismissive.  It gets to the point where the reader wonders if the cancer can't come sooner.  

Ok, he's not that bad.  But even towards the end his ego gets the best of him.  He winces and and is upset when Tim Cook his eventual hand-picked successor says during one of Job's medical leaves that Apple is poised for greatness no matter who is at the helm.   Jobs wanted that too,  but he couldn't  bear to hear someone say it out loud.  
I loved the anecdote from Joan Baez (who dated Jobs) concerning a red dress.  They were eating dinner at a restaurant when Jobs keeps going on and on about what a great red dress he saw at the Ralph Lauren shop and how she would look great in it.  So they went to the store and he showed it to her then proceeded to buy lots of stuff for himself and nothing for Joan including the red dress.  The multi-millionaire never said he was going to buy it for her, only that it would look great on her.  

The smartest moves he ever made were to work with Steve Wozniak in the early days and the supremely talented Jonathan Ive for the past 13 years.  It was Ive who helped Jobs develop his "taste," and Ive's designs are primarily what makes Apple different  from other brands.  Ive's brought "minimalism" to Apple.  The so-called Apple "minimalism" was already the standard look for years of brands like Bang and Olufsen and Braun.  The Apple stores copied the hip austerity that had reigned supreme as the art gallery look for decades.  
All that aside, (and it's a lot) as an Apple customer for two decades, I have always been fond of the company that Jobs created.  I love my iPhone, my MacBook and my Mac desktop too.  They are beautiful,  and wonderful products that make life more enjoyable.  But these are luxury goods.  They are not essential.  Jobs patented many things--like the molded plastic case that each iPhone comes nested inside the box,  but a molded plastic case is NOT a lightbulb.  They are not e=mc2.  They are just the best of each category money can buy.  

He did not invent the graphic user interface.   He did not invent computer animation.   He did not invent digital music players. He did not invent digital music libraries.   He did not invent the smart phone. He did not invent the tablet.  But he did make each of those categories better.  Despite all his huge defects as a human being he was able to embody in himself many of the strengths not normally associated with a regular CEO and in the process drove his company to the heights of the digital age.   His final decade with Apple represents the greatest reign in the history of American business--achieved mostly under  the cruel duress of death staring him right in the face.  

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