In the early summer of 2004, I got a phone call from him. He had been scattershot friendly to me over the years, with occasional bursts of intensity, especially when he was launching a new product that he wanted on the cover of Time or featured on CNN, places where I’d worked. But now that I was no longer at either of those places, I hadn’t heard from him much. We talked a bit about the Aspen Institute, which I had recently joined, and I invited him to speak at our summer campus in Colorado. He’d be happy to come, he said, but not to be onstage. He wanted, instead, to take a walk so we could talk.
That seemed a bit odd. I didn’t yet know that taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation. It turned out that he wanted me to write a biography of him. I had recently published one on Benjamin Franklin and was writing one about Albert Einstein, and my initial reaction was to wonder, half jokingly, whether he saw himself as the natural successor in that sequence. Because I assumed that he was still in the middle of an oscillating career that had many more ups and downs left, I demurred. Not now, I said. Maybe in a decade or two, when you retire.
But I later realized that he had called me just before he was going to be operated on for cancer for the first time. As I watched him battle that disease, with an awesome intensity combined with an astonishing emotional romanticism, I came to find him deeply compelling, and I realized how much his personality was ingrained in the products he created. His passions, demons, desires, artistry, devilry and obsession for control were integrally connected to his approach to business, so I decided to try to write his tale as a case study in creativity.
And some is definitely intended for future generations. “Indeed,” Mr. Isaacson writes, “its success came not just from the beauty of the hardware but from the applications, known as apps, that allowed you to indulge in all sorts of delightful activities.” One that he mentions, which will be as quaint as Pong some day, features the use of a slingshot to launch angry birds to destroy pigs and their fortresses.
So “Steve Jobs,” an account of its subject’s 56 years (he died on Oct. 5), must reach across time in more ways than one. And it does, in a well-ordered, if not streamlined, fashion. It begins with a portrait of the young Mr. Jobs, rebellious toward the parents who raised him and scornful of the ones who gave him up for adoption. (“They were my sperm and egg bank,” he says.)
Although Mr. Isaacson is not analytical about his subject’s volatile personality (the word “obnoxious” figures in the book frequently), he raises the question of whether feelings of abandonment in childhood made him fanatically controlling and manipulative as an adult. Fortunately, that glib question stays unanswered.
Mr. Jobs, who founded Apple with Stephen Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in 1976, began his career as a seemingly contradictory blend of hippie truth seeker and tech-savvy hothead.
“His Zen awareness was not accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind or interpersonal mellowness,” Mr. Isaacson says. “He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed,” he also writes. But Mr. Jobs valued simplicity, utility and beauty in ways that would shape his creative imagination. And the book maintains that those goals would not have been achievable in the great parade of Apple creations without that mean streak.
Mr. Isaacson takes his readers back to the time when laptops, desktops and windows were metaphors, not everyday realities. His book ticks off how each of the Apple innovations that we now take for granted first occurred to Mr. Jobs or his creative team. “Steve Jobs” means to be the authoritative book about those achievements, and it also follows Mr. Jobs into the wilderness (and to NeXT and Pixar) after his first stint at Apple, which ended in 1985.
With an avid interest in corporate intrigue, it skewers Mr. Jobs’s rivals, like John Sculley, who was recruited in 1983 to be Apple’s chief executive and fell for Mr. Jobs’s deceptive show of friendship. “They professed their fondness so effusively and often that they sounded like high school sweethearts at a Hallmark card display,” Mr. Isaacson writes.
Of course the book also tracks Mr. Jobs’s long and combative rivalry with Bill Gates. The section devoted to Mr. Jobs’s illness, which suggests that his cancer might have been more treatable had he not resisted early surgery, describes the relative tenderness of their last meeting.
“Steve Jobs” greatly admires its subject. But its most adulatory passages are not about people. Offering a combination of tech criticism and promotional hype, Mr. Isaacson describes the arrival of each new product right down to Mr. Jobs’s theatrical introductions and the advertising campaigns. But if the individual bits of hoopla seem excessive, their cumulative effect is staggering. Here is an encyclopedic survey of all that Mr. Jobs accomplished, replete with the passion and excitement that it deserves.
Mr. Jobs’s virtual reinvention of the music business with iTunes and the iPod, for instance, is made to seem all the more miraculous (“He’s got a turn-key solution,” the music executive Jimmy Iovine said.) Mr. Isaacson’s long view basically puts Mr. Jobs up there with Franklin and Einstein, even if a tiny MP3 player is not quite the theory of relativity. The book emphasizes how deceptively effortless Mr. Jobs’s ideas now seem because of their extreme intuitiveness and foresight. When Mr. Jobs, who personally persuaded musician after musician to accept the iTunes model, approached Wynton Marsalis, Mr. Marsalis was rightly more impressed with Mr. Jobs than with the device he was being shown.
Mr. Jobs’s love of music plays a big role in “Steve Jobs,” like his extreme obsession with Bob Dylan. (Like Mr. Dylan, he had a romance with Joan Baez. Her version of Mr. Dylan’s “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” was on Mr. Jobs’s own iPod.) So does his extraordinary way of perceiving ordinary things, like well-made knives and kitchen appliances. That he admired the Cuisinart food processor he saw at Macy’s may sound trivial, but his subsequent idea that a molded plastic covering might work well on a computer does not. Years from now, the research trip to a jelly bean factory to study potential colors for the iMac case will not seem as silly as it might now.
Skeptic after skeptic made the mistake of underrating Steve Jobs, and Mr. Isaacson records the howlers who misjudged an unrivaled career. “Sorry Steve, Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work,” Business Week wrote in a 2001 headline. “The iPod will likely become a niche product,” a Harvard Business School professor said. “High tech could not be designed and sold as a consumer product,” Mr. Sculley said in 1987.
Mr. Jobs got the last laugh every time. “Steve Jobs” makes it all the sadder that his last laugh is over.Continue reading the main story
By Walter Isaacson
Illustrated. 630 pages. Simon & Schuster. $35.
The Books of The Times review on Saturday, about “Steve Jobs,” by Walter Isaacson, described Angry Birds, a popular iPhone game, incorrectly. Slingshots are used to launch birds to destroy pigs and their fortresses, not to shoot down the birds.