Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Book Review: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (2011)

A comprehensive recounting of the life and achievements of a technology design and marketing visionary, Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs is an authorized biography that succeeds in capturing the man in all his brilliance and with all his faults.

To reconstruct the story of a complex life, Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than forty times, and talked with hundreds of Jobs' associates, colleagues, family members, co-workers, collaborators, and adversaries. Writing in a fluid and accessible style, Isaacson provides a well-rounded picture of a creative genius who permanently transformed the technology landscape.

At Apple (twice), Next, and Pixar, Jobs revolutionized no less than four industries: computers, animated movies, music, and mobile phones, and invented the previously non-existent market for tablet computing. He was on his way to re-inventing televisions and harnessing the power of cloud computing when he passed away in October 2011, aged just 56, after a long struggle against cancer.

Jobs was directly responsible for elegantly designed mass-market products that will come to symbolize the 35 year era from 1975 to 2010. The Apple II was the first viable retail market personal computer, and the Macintosh introduced the graphical user interface and made computers accessible to non-techies. Toy Story demonstrated what can be achieved when modern computer processing power is married to superior animation creativity. The iPod, along with iTunes, rescued the music industry and placed 1,000 songs in your pocket. The iPhone simplified personal communications, made the internet accessible in a mobile environment, and spectacularly made touch screen technology de rigueur. And finally the iPad was the device that no one thought was needed, and everyone had to have.

And these are just the highlights. Jobs also oversaw the development of the Apple Operating System, the rescuing of Apple from near-death when he returned to the company, the jaw-dropping design of the iMac, the spectacular success of the Apple Store concept, and the creation of the "app" global development market place. Isaacson brings to life all of Jobs' career highlights, as well as his successes and his personal battles with individuals he perceived as inferior.

And Isaacson spends enough time on Jobs' personal life to vividly crystallize his unique traits and driving forces. An adopted child, Jobs had an often abrasive personality, a forceful intensity, the ability to focus on the task at hand and eliminate all distractions, and the power to motivate teams. His legendary "reality distortion field" allowed Jobs and the people around him to deliver on incredible product and schedule achievements which did not seem possible until Jobs convinced all around him that his seemingly unattainable vision was, indeed, their reality.

Jobs lived at the intersection of technology and the humanities, and was a strong believer in end-to-end, closed system design that integrated hardware with software and controlled all aspect of the user experience.  This placed him completely at odds with Bill Gates and the Microsoft (and later Google and Android) philosophy of inferior designs but open access to all developers and licensees.

Many of the same personality traits that made Jobs so successful also contributed to some significant relationship and health issues, with Jobs' ability to convince himself that what does not fit his plan can be ignored colliding with unavoidable realities related to the existence of his first daughter, and later his cancer.

Steve Jobs is a biography worthy of its subject matter, an impressively comprehensive book about a titan of the technology age.

571 pages plus Sources (including Bibliography), Notes, and Index.
Includes 16 pages of photos.

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