Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

I promised you a special post devoted to Walter Issacson’s wonderful biography of Steve Jobs.  Here it is: part review, part memorial, part personal history…

#86 Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson (K)


OK, let’s get it out there first – Yes, I am an apple fangirl.  Here’s the proof:

And I was being selective. I took the picture with my iphone and I have a mac mini for my office desktop and an apple tv (never worked very well) and a time machine (worked very well, just got full).  So, aside from my magic trackpad, apple keyboard, and apple mouse, you see my imac, my ipad, my ipod classic (I had another one – I gave it away), my first gen macbook air, and, the gateway gadget that got it all started: my fuschia ipod nano.

Just three years ago I was a luddite.  I had music players: a walkman, a cd walkman, tape players, a stereo, boomboxes…  But for a long, long time I had no cell phone (until three years ago), no home internet (until three years ago), and no desktop computer (until two years ago).  I did have a fairly lousy laptop that weighed fifteen lbs bought for my last sabbatical when I needed to have some kind of computer to work on at home.  But it was a virgin – it had never gone on the internet.  And it was a pc laptop.

What got me started was my friend, Hugh, four or five years ago, showing me his ipod nano and telling me how cool it was.  And how great it sounded.  And how it came in different colors (I had no mp3 player at the time).  And how you could buy music for it at the Itunes store (mind you with no home internet I had to beg my work IT folks to upload Itunes to my work computer –  which they did.)   But it was a pain because Apple is always updating Itunes and I had to keep bugging the IT people to update it.  And there was no really great reason having Itunes was directly related to my work.

And then my friend, Hugh, said three years ago “You know, you don’t have home internet so you can’t get email at home.  They have this new Iphone thing which would be really good for you because you could get email at anytime even without home internet.”  Mind you, Hugh considers himself, in general, a late adopter (the nano being the exception).  He still doesn’t have an Iphone (his wife does, but for her job).  So, basically he was getting me to buy gadgets he wouldn’t buy.

So, I bought an iphone.  We live in a rural area.  Iphones work off cell towers (used to be just ATT).  ATT cell towers are VERY SLOW up here – no 3G (much less 4G) at least not for ATT.  So I was using “E” instead of 3G.  E for everlastingly long time to download anything.  For awhile I was so excited about surfing the web (mind you this was before apps) and getting email and listening to music on my iphone that for at least a few weeks I was happy with my iphone.  But again, it was tied to Itunes (you need it for updates and if you don’t have wireless at home for accessing the app and itunes store) and I didn’t have home internet much less a real home computer.  So, it was getting tiresome.

So, I bought a macbook air for my iphone and I bought it home wireless (it was very appreciative).  And pretty soon, say within a year, my nano just wasn’t cutting it anymore – it didn’t hold enough music – so I needed an 80 gb ipod classic.  And then that wasn’t enough, so I bought a 160 gb ipod classic (they don’t make them anymore).  And, of course, lots of music to fill them in addition to my pretty decent cd collection that I uploaded to them.  I quickly figured out itunes was too expensive and subscribed to emusic which was great until their prices went way up.  At that point, I took to calling up Hugh and impersonating Steve Jobs thanking Hugh for turning this “Ruby” chick onto Apple stuff.  Which Hugh found hilarious.  Every time.  I promise you.

So, now I’m paying $75/month for my iphone and $75/month for fast wireless (I stream netflix, hulu plus, and amazon to my tv with my roku box and I need fast speeds).  And pretty soon (maybe 1.5 years ago) I realized that I needed a real desktop computer, so I got a 24 inch imac.  And lots of associated gadgets: hard drives, mice, keyboards, time machine, pogoplug, on and on.

And then the ipad came out in 2010 and I held off for three months until I was in a meeting with one of my research groups and everyone else had one and I had to have one.  So, I got one and it was a game changer.

So: you believe me now?  Meanwhile, Hugh tootles along with his mac mini and his nano.  As I heard someone say once: “If it’s shiny and Apple makes it, I have to have one.”  That is pretty much me.

So, you are thinking – how about some book reviewing?  OK, sure, that’s the point…  Steve Jobs piloted, micro-managed, harangued, inspired, humiliated, and shaped the talented thousands responsible for all of this and it has changed my life pretty radically.  As some reporters noted, many people learned about his death on a device they bought from Apple.  I am no exception – my friend Lilia emailed me the night he died and I got the email on my ipad.  And this book tells the story of how it got to be that way.

It’s a great, great book – excellent.  I read somewhere that they were going to publish it in the spring, but realized that Steve Jobs’ impending death warranted speeding  up the release.  And I’m grateful that they did publish it a couple weeks ago.

Walter Issacson wrote biographies of Einstein and Ben Franklin.  In the early 2000s Jobs approached him about writing his biography.  Issacson said (which wondering if Jobs put himself in those categories) no – you have a lot of years left, let’s do it in 30 years or so (I’m guessing Issacson is not 60 or 70 years old…).  He didn’t know that Jobs had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Over the years after, every once in awhile, Jobs would bug him about the book until finally Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell, said to Issacson (in 2009!) “Look, it is now or never.”  Remember, Jobs was being coy about his illnesses. Although it became known that he had a liver transplant, he never admitted that he was as sick as he was.  Really, until the end when he stepped down from Apple’s CEO position in August.

So, Issacson had incredible access to everyone since Steve had signed off on the project (I’m guessing it quite different for him to write a biography of someone living with lots of living family, friends, and colleagues, compared to Ben Franklin or Einstein).  He interviewed 100s of people.  And they were pretty honest.

There has been some back and forth about “Are we making Steve Jobs a saint?” in the media.  I’m not sure what media they’ve been reading, but I think saint is pretty much the last word anyone would use to describe Jobs.  He was often mean, cruel, and crushing.  A real SOB when he wanted to be.  And, as people say in the book, it wasn’t as if he was socially insensitive – he was acutely socially sensitive – he could figure out immediately how to push someone’s buttons for whatever purpose – crush them, inspire them, humiliate them.  More than one person who knew, respected, or even loved him says in the book that they would have liked to ask him why he had to be so mean.  I think he was extremely driven, self-involved, and self-entitled.  His family taught him he was special and his specialness (in sphere after sphere) let him get away with awful behavior, like choosing not to use antiperspirant until he was 30 “because his fruitarian (or broccolitarian or cornitarian) or vegan (he had weird food fixations) diet kept him from sweating and smelling.”  As Issacson says, the only person who believed that was Jobs.  So, I wouldn’t have wanted to work for or with him or go to dinner with him or even really, talk with him.

But he was brilliant and a genius who had a lot of luck to live when he did and where he did and meet the Woz and on and on – a lot of luck, taste, drive, intelligence, savvy, and genius.  One of the things that has bothered me about news coverage is how it has implied that Steve Jobs invented the ipad or the ipod or the imac.  He didn’t.  He couldn’t.  He wasn’t an engineer.  Sometimes, he had aha moments, such as that by the 1980s and 1990s most households would have one or more computers (that was not obvious in the 1970s when he co-started Apple).  Eventually, he started looking at other technologies (cell phones, mp3 players, other people’s lousy tablet attempts) and saying – these products stink and we can make them really great.  And he led the teams that did that.  And they wouldn’t have been able to do it without him, nor would Apple be where it is today without him (twice).  But it is important to remember that he worked with a lot of talented people who put up with a lot to create these gadgets and computers and software and stores.

I loved that Issacson gives you a real sense of Jobs. I loved the many quotes from Bill Gates (I didn’t used to like Bill much, until he did all his philanthropy, but after reading the book Gates comes off as a saint [note, NOT a genius] compared to Jobs – you really do realize that he is, as Issacson puts it “humane” – sort of the exact opposite of Jobs).

But I think what I loved best about the book is that I learned so much of the background stuff about my tech and the tech with which I’ve intersected throughout my lifetime.  Steve Jobs and Wozniak were part of the group of Bay Area geeks who made their own computers in the 70s.  I remember a family friend who made his own computer – the first one I saw.  My brother, David, who went on to study electrical engineering, had maybe the second computer I ever saw – around 1979 or 80…  I remember my little computer class around 1984 or 85 when we were learning to write commands after c prompts on the most god awful pcs you ever saw, saving our files on huge floppy disks (and also a friend who took a college class in high school in 1979 where she had to go to the college to manipulate the punch cards).  Early on, I started on apples and macs.

And then, in the early 1990’s I had to switch to a pc because my graduate adviser used a pc and back then macs and pc weren’t compatible.  And I was shocked to see how windows was imitating the mac desktop environment (turns out apple imitated xerox’s desktop environment idea for computers).  Steve Jobs gives you the back story on all this.  Why macs had great fonts.  The process of getting mac/office compatibility.  The fascinating story of Pixar and Disney and Jobs.

It’s a huge book – I had to go to Amazon to see how long since I read it on my kindle – 656 pages, 2 inches thick (in hard cover), and 2.2 lbs.  The only thing Jobs chose about the book was the cover – he chose the picture (he asked for control over the cover and that’s a good thing as it is iconic), the font, the font size etc etc.  And it is gorgeous, like apple stores, my iphone, my ipad, my imac, on and on.

I think Jobs will continue for many decades to be an important figure.  I think this is the definitive Jobs biography – hard to imagine how anyone will ever top it.  Issacson does not kowtow to Jobs.  He does not whitewash him.  He tells the truth and much of it is messy.

Some of you might have read Mona Simpson’s (Jobs biological sister he met as an adult – he was adopted) eulogy to Jobs in the New York Times.  Given how private he was, I hope that she had Laurene Powell’s permission to publish it there.  I’m grateful for it – it is powerful (although I think she does some whitewashing – but what else are eulogies for, especially when Jobs has four children of various ages – but it describes his last days and moments [he went through 67! nurses in his final months]) so I’ll link to it here: A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs  (since she is a novelist I wonder a bit about her motivations).  And here’s the Apple memorial page, which incredibly, people are still adding to every second (you see their scrolling memorials being added) Remembering Steve  and Apple posted their company’s powerful memorial service to him here: A celebration of Steve’s life  I haven’t watched the whole thing, but I did enjoy what I saw.

I guess I should finish by saying thank you to Steve Jobs – he made my life and work better, easier, more fun, more powerful.  I am grateful for this and for living in a time when I got to feel as close as this to game-changing genius.  You don’t have to be a nice guy to have an enormous positive impact on the world.

Happy Reading, Ruby


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