Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Steve Jobs

Finally finished reading 'Steve Jobs', the only authorized biography of "the greatest business executive of our era". Written by Walter Issacson, a person with pedigree (former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine and who has earlier written about Einstien, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger), the biography is an up close and personal look into the life of a person who, most people agree, has shaped much of the digital era that we live in today. Indeed, the loss of Steve Jobs to cancer on October 5th last year triggered an outpouring of grief, even here in India, that is generally reserved only for the odd sportsperson or movie star. The book, which I believe hit the bookstores just after his death, therefore had to deal with very strong sentiments and high expectations. Besides, Issacson probably had the closest relationship with his subject that a biographer can ever hope to get: long conversations with Jobs (while on walks, Jobs' favourite style) and innumerable interviews with almost all the people of any importance in his life: family, friends and foes alike (and he did make a lot of foes !). And the book does very well in delivering on all these expectations.

Jobs: A great read..
Through the book, Isaccson gives a neat account of not just Steve Jobs' life but also, by extension, of the evolution of the digital age right from the first Apple computer in the mid 1970s. Starting from his early life, his views on being put up for adoption after birth, his flirtations with Eastern philosophy and India (he stayed in India for seven months in 1974), followed by his successful partnership with Steve Wozniak to set up what is today the world's valuable organization, the book charts everything in great detail. And even though the book has the blessings of Jobs himself, it is by no means a loaded account of how great Steve Jobs was. It is inevitable that a person who was such a creative visionary would be lousy at relationships with others. And Isaacson does not sugar-coat or temper any criticism towards Jobs expressed by many of the people who Jobs might have turned the wrong way. His obsession with having full control over what was happening around him (that caused many a rift in Apple, including Jobs himself being booted out of the company in 1985), his tendency to view everything (people or products) in binary terms (either they were 'perfect' or they 'were shit' - and a person could move from one group to the other on the same day !!!) and his insistence on ignoring reality when it was not in his favour (his cancer diagnosis or his daughter born out of wedlock), all of these are described in great detail. In fact, reading through the book, one almost feels terrified at the prospect of having to work with him. Inspite of all these faults, Jobs went to create products that successfully married technology and the arts because 'he was right there, at their intersection'. The book also talks at length about Jobs' famous 'reality distortion field', whereby he was able to inspire, or scare, people around him by distorting reality into something that he thought was achievable.

Some of the passages that are quite engaging are the ones that narrate how Jobs was told to leave Apple in 1985 after his dominating style of work did not go down with the board and also his frequent spars with Bill Gates. In fact, the book gives a good insight by delving, at various points, on the relationship between them (who were right at opposite ends of the open and closed technology spectrum). It is quite refreshing to see their frank comments about each other, underpinned by a layer of respect below it. And while the book does not intend to either glorify, or question, Jobs's greatness as a product visionary (I do not quite agree with the first line calling Jobs as the greatest 'business executive'), there is one small paragraph in the book, that, in my mind, best describes Jobs' legacy. It is from Micheal Noer of Noer was reading a sci-fi novel on his iPad in a rural dairy farm north of Bogota, Colombia. A poor six-year old illiterate boy who was cleaning his stables came up to him. Noer handed over his iPad to the boy. With no instruction manual, and never having seen a computer before in his life, that six-year old began using it intuitively. He began swiping the screen, launching apps and playing a pinball game. Noer wrote : "Steve Jobs has designed a powerful computer that an illiterate six-year old can use without instruction. If that is not magical, I do not know what is !!". While Apple products might not have (yet) changed the world, the passage encapsulates the great beauty of making things simple and intuitive. And no one did this better than Steve Jobs.

Finally, for all Apple devotees (is there any who hasn't yet read the book ? :), it is simply not to be missed. And, like me, if you do not know much about Jobs (or even hates him and his products - there are quite a few of those), this book is still a great read. It offers a wonderful insight into the man, both personally and professionally. And if you end the book with mixed feelings, I think the book would have done its job.


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