The Authorized Biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson — A Review [Updated]

I traveled to China last week and it was a 24 hour journey (return trip from Singapore). It gave me a lot of time to read the book I had been anticipating forever now, since I first got announced more than a year ago and which, — I didn't know — would only be finally released after the tragical disappearance of one of the most influential minds of two if not three generations, Steve Jobs.

The book, which is about 600 pages, was blessed by Steve Jobs who agreed to open his memories and his address book and ask everybody involved to contribute to it. So, I dare say that my expectations were extremely high given the opportunity to write about a secretive genius who had so many ups and downs in his life.

Just a reminder, Apple, was in 2001, on the verge of bankruptcy and was as uncool as possible among the younger generation. Just 10 years later, in 2011, Apple is the most valuable company on the planet, has sold hundreds of millions of Macs, iPhones, iPods, and dozen millions of iPads. Let's not forget the many billions of music tracks, movies and TV shows sold on the iTunes Store and the many billions of iOS Apps sold as well.

All this, in only 10 years.

Well, unfortunately, it seems to me that Isaacson is completely ignorant of anything technology, and commits many trivial errors showing this lack of understanding. Wouldn't you expect that he should first understand technology in order to be able to convey the message of someone who changed the way we interact with it? Maybe this is the main reason for the book to be missing the whole point by such a high margin.

Instead of focusing on how someone with such a creative mind and laser beam focus as Steve Jobs managed to change the world, and telling the story from this perspective, he seems to have decided to show that Steve Jobs was a half-mad-half-evil person who happened to be lucky enough to get back to Apple and create products which were supposed to be failures but worked nonetheless.

The biggest part of the book is focused on showing how mean he could be to his employees, family and friends and how big a failure he was: he was a failure at Apple, he was a failure at Pixar, he was a failure at NeXT, but he got lucky in every turn of event.

He completely fails to explain everything good he did, and what they were. Given that the author believes Steve Jobs was just a madman, he doesn't bother trying to find the answer to the following questions:
  • Why was the Macintosh such a revolution and such a game changer?
  • How did he manage to build the Macintosh in the first place?
  • What was he doing at Pixar? He was the CEO, but according to Isaacson, he was just making everybody waste their time. We do not know what he was doing during the many years he was running the company.
  • What was he doing at NeXT? Why was NeXT such a great platform that Apple decided to buy it? Oh and that also became the heart of Mac OS X and iOS. The author seems to believe that NeXT did not have any value, and that Steve was just a good salesman and managed to outsell Gassée and his Be OS.
  • Why were dozens of thousands of "Apple fans" cheering Steve Jobs on his keynote return? He was away from the spotlights for so long and became so relevant. The author fails to explain that, yet write about Steve as he had failed everything before coming back to Apple. Which obviously couldn't be more wrong.
Oh, and by the way, when Steve Jobs refused to let Flash go on the iOS stating it was sucking all the processing power and battery energy out of the mobile devices, it wasn't just because he was holding a 15 year grudge against Adobe. It turned out that Adobe decided to stop the development of mobile Flash after failing for 4 years to produce anything that would be even "good enough" for the mobile world.

Finally, while Isaacson spends half of the book explaining that Steve Jobs has psychological disorders and the other half explaining all the issues he had with his family life, he completely fails to even give the point of view of either his wife, or his children. He also fails to give Steve's point of view, while he had access to all of these people.

Considering the extremely high esteem I have for Steve Jobs, and how influential he has been in my life, I had very high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, stealing of Steve's quotes Isaacson repeats the most in the book, I find this book to be just "a piece of shit".

I'm sorry Isaacson. You know what a perfectionist Steve was, and the fact that you dared publishing such a poorly written, poorly structured and poorly organized book is an insult to the memory of Steve Jobs, who decided to put much of his legacy in your hands.

I am sure he wouldn't have allowed such a poor book to ever be published, even though he had promised not to interfere with your work, which words he actually kept.

And the same way as he wouldn't have settled for a mediocre product, I cannot convince myself to put a positive review of your half baked book.

[Update: it looks like Isaacson is considering updating the book, and the changes seem to show that he realizes he missed the point. See quote below]
The author discussed potential plans for expanding the already 630-page book in the future. One possibility is doing an extensively annotated version. Another is writing an addendum that addresses the period surrounding Jobs' death. Fleshing out the details seems like a logical next step, since Isaacson believes the Apple (AAPL) CEO's story will be told for decades or a century to come. "This is the first or second draft," he said, referring to his book's role in documenting Jobs' life. "It's not the final draft."
I agree: it's just a draft, and unfortunately, should never have been published as such.


Anonymous said...

Great review :)
But choosing Walter Isaacson is not just bad luck. In many ocasions Steve Jobs has shown that he kept the mainstream press and the journalists in too high regard. Many times he demo-ed Safari by going to the page of "New York Times". He used to say last year that he intends to "save the press" and that he doesn't want America to become a nation of bloggers. It's Steve who thought that a guy like Isaacson would do the best job writing about him.
That must be one of his biggest mistakes - Isaacson is a "sculley" of a biographer.

pej said...

Thank you Anonymous. These are very fair points and I think you nailed down very well some of the points I failed to highlight here.