12 Things I Learned From the Steve Jobs Biography

January 4, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Technology

One of the best books I read this year, and certainly the most fascinating, is the book everyone has been reading — Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (apparently the only authorised biography of the Apple co-founder).

I was entranced by this mammoth book (surprising considering I’m neither an Apple fanatic or hater) and ploughed through it faster than any book I read this year, even though I was still  halfway through a couple of other books at the time.  Amusingly, I read the e-book version on the iPad.

There are enough reviews out there, so all I will say is that I enjoyed it immensely — Isaacson’s style is fluid and easy to read, and considering the plethora of information at his disposal, Isaacson did a fantastic job of structuring it into roughly chronological, theme-based chapters.

Isaacson also managed to keep himself out of the narrative, for the most part, while allowing the minor characters to rise to the forefront.  Though the book is about Jobs, I felt I gained amazing insights into the personalities and quirks of all those who touched his life, either positively or negatively.

The biggest praise is reserved for Isaacson’s courage — he did not shy away from the negative aspects of Jobs’s life and difficult personality; in fact, it’s more accurate to say he embraced it.  At a time when the world was mourning Jobs’s death and remembering him as some kind of god-like figure, I’m sure it would have been a shock to many Apple product faithfuls to discover just what a colossal prick Jobs was sometimes (or most of the time).  Kudos to Jobs too, for giving Isaacson free reign on how to portray him in the book.

5 out of 5!

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to note down some things I learned from reading this book.  You might know some already, you might not.

1. Jobs was indeed a genius

Before reading this book, I always thought media folk threw out the word “genius” too liberally when it came to Steve Jobs.  I knew he was a great visionary and a leader, but genius?  I thought it was a vast overstatement.

However, I was wrong.  Jobs was a genius.  Not a technical genius like his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Jobs didn’t really know the ins and outs of the technology side that well — he knew enough, but he was not an engineering guy), but a genius at getting things done, a genius at developing products, a marketing genius, and a genius at figuring out what people wanted before they did.  Sure, Wozniak developed the first Apple computer, but without Jobs bringing the products out there, Apple would have never gotten anywhere.  There are lots of great inventors out there who have created magnificent products — but it’s a waste without someone who knows how to make people want the products.

2. Jobs deserved the credit he got

Another thing that irked me before reading this book was that Jobs got all the credit for Apple’s success.  It wasn’t something he purposely promoted, but it wasn’t something that he shied away from either.  I had always thought: Apple is a huge company, and Jobs must have only been a small part of the equation.  He only got all the credit because he was CEO.

While Jobs obviously did not deserve all the credit for Apple’s success (indeed, some key Apple players resented the fact that Jobs did), he certainly deserved a lot of it.  I simply cannot imagine how Apple could have become as successful as it is today without Jobs.

Jobs was literally involved in every aspect of the product development process and was not merely a figurehead for the company.  He made all the key decisions, whether it was product, marketing or strategy.  He hand picked the teams (only “A players”, as he liked to call them) and pushed them to achieve things they never thought they could.  He came up with a lot of the original ideas, or at least contributed to them.  He even came up with the idea and the design of the famous Apple stores around the world.  When he saw something he wanted he made sure it was integrated into his products.  When he didn’t like something, instead of putting out a crappy product, he made the tough decision to tear it down and start over.

Check out the famous 1984 Apple commercial, widely considered one of the best TV commercials ever.  Jobs had a significant hand in how it was developed and chose to run it despite staunch opposition.

3. Jobs was a prick

To describe Jobs, I feel it is necessary to invoke the wise words of Jay Chou (Kato) from The Green Hornet: “He was a complex man.”

Like many people who did not know much about Jobs’s personality, I was stunned when I read the book to discover that he was a colossal prick (and a prick with bad B.O as well — as he believed his vegan diet made him immune).

There’s just no way to sugar coat it (Isaacson certainly didn’t).  Jobs was narcissistic, arrogant, petulant, bratty, liked to take credit for other people’s work, enjoyed destroying people (mentally), was vindictive, disloyal and could be bitterly cruel to everyone around him, including his family.  He would shoot people down, he would be a dick just because he could, he would scream until he got his way, or cry (literally) when he didn’t.

To be fair, he did respect the people that stood up to him or proved their worth to him, but for the most part he was an extremely difficult person to be around.  No wonder he was ousted from Apple the first time round, and even now, people that respected him deeply still have no qualms acknowledging what a flawed personality he had.

4. Jobs saved Pixar

Before reading this book, I thought Jobs was merely responsible for the iPod, iPhone and iPad.  I heard that he bought and then sold the animation studio Pixar, making a healthy profit in the process, but I had no idea that he essentially saved Pixar from going under by pouring his own money into it and actually spent a lot of time there helping them develop the films.  Without Jobs, we probably would have never been blessed with movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up, WALL-E, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, and so forth.  Wow.

5. Not everything Jobs touched turned to gold

It’s easy to remember only one’s successes, but Isaacson’s book touched on many of Jobs’s failures.  He was at the helm of several failed Apple products and the company he formed after being kicked out of Apple in the 1980s, NeXT, was also ultimately a failure.

We often only remember the mega successes and forget the failures, but it was these failures that helped Jobs learn from his mistakes so that he could grow and evolve.  Without these earlier failures he would never have had the successes he experienced later.

6. Jobs saved the music industry with iTunes

I don’t know if this is an overstatement, but the book certainly made it feel legitimate: Steve Jobs essentially saved the music industry by introducing iTunes.

Personally, I hate iTunes for the restrictive way it operates and how it forces you to sync everything.  But a time when music piracy was (and still is) spiralling out of control, and with both music labels and technology companies struggling to come up with a way to stop the bleeding, Jobs’s iTunes offered a simple solution for everyday users to obtain the music they want at a reasonable price.  Apple’s rivals readily acknowledged that Jobs had come up with something they should have, and that they had dropped the ball with their own clunky versions.  Key members of the music industry also openly acknowledged the effect iTunes had on their businesses.

The mammoth success of iTunes speaks for itself, but what was more amazing for me to learn was that Jobs had personally reached out to a lot of artists to agree to be included so that iTunes would have the widest possible range of music.  The fact he picked up the phone and did that himself, from U2 to Madonna to Eminem, blows my mind.

7. Jobs and Bill Gates loathed each other

One thing I was surprised to learn was that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in the same year (1955).  Because Gates’s fame and fortune came earlier, and Jobs’s not until the last few years (and let’s face it, Apple was not on most Aussie’s radar during Microsoft’s years of dominance), I had always thought Gates might have been older (despite looking younger…it’s a confusing world).

But as the book revealed, not only were the two contemporaries, they also once worked together before becoming mortal enemies.   Well, maybe those words are too strong to describe the relationship, but it’s safe to say that they hated each other.  Then again, Jobs hated everyone that posed a threat to him.

According to Isaacson, Jobs hated Gates because Gates was a pragmatist.  Jobs saw himself as an artist who needed control of all the hardware and software to ensure his “art” would not be not spoiled by outsiders, whereas Gates was an unimaginative hack simply copied other people’s work and sold out by licensing Microsoft software to all compatible hardware, whether they were any good or not.  I think that’s a good description of how Jobs felt, and perhaps there was also a tinge of jealousy over Gates’s early success.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 1985 -- though they would eventually make peace, the two hated each other for a very long time

Gates, on the other hand, didn’t think Jobs knew the technology well enough (which was probably fair), but I think the real reason he became a dick to Jobs was because Jobs was a massive dick to him first, for no good reason either.  The book recounts the time when Gates visited Apple’s offices, and Jobs purposely kept him waiting for a very long time while being in plain sight, before belligerently tearing into Gates and his company.

Perhaps it is because Jobs has passed, which explains why Gates appears to only have respectful things to say about Jobs in the book (despite a few jabs at his difficult personality), but it is heartening to learn that the two men kind of made peace before Jobs passed.  One of the most moving parts of the book was when Gates visited Jobs at his home (where Jobs was almost on his death bed) and the two recounted old times.  Jobs finally gave due respect to what Gates did with the computer industry, though he remained defiant on his own methodologies.

8. Jobs had the ability to distort reality

One of the most talked-about things in the book was Jobs’s “reality distortion field”.  It sounds ridiculous but people who know Jobs swear it exists.

It refers to Jobs’s ability to distort reality by making the impossible possible.  He would be able to use his charm, wit and skills of manipulation to convince people to do things or see things in a certain way.  He would also use his power to pressure people into doing things they never thought possible.

The reality distortion field was in full effect numerous times throughout the book, usually when someone who worked with or under Jobs recounted how they never thought something was possible, either in terms of time constraints or technical capability, and yet Jobs would use his reality distortion field to make it possible.

I’m sure at the time these people would have hated Jobs for pushing them to do what they felt was totally unreasonable, but the way he got his staff to continuously achieve the impossible is why Apple ended up with these amazing products.

9. Jobs was a man of contradictions

Steve Jobs was a man of contradictions.  He was adopted and desperately wanted to feel wanted, but when the opportunity came to reunite with his biological father (whom he had unknowingly stumbled across several times because he enjoyed dining at a restaurant his father worked at), he steadfastly refused.  He was abandoned by his biological parents, but he also abandoned a biological child (a daughter) for several years before eventually reaching out to her.

One of the most fascinating things about the book was the fact that Jobs made these Apple products because always saw himself as a rebel and a representative of the counterculture, and yet he made people more materialistic with them.

He hated companies that dominated the market like Microsoft, comparing them to tyrants and “Big Brother”, but Apple eventually became a dominant player itself that bullied anyone who wouldn’t bow to its closed ecosystem.

In many ways, Jobs was the ultimate dictator — he was a tyrant of a boss who wanted to control everything — from the tiniest little screw to the design of the Apple store to the way the product boxes were opened.  And if you ever crossed him he would remember it and make sure you regretted it.

Jobs, of course, never saw himself as that tyrant, which brings up some interesting Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader analogies.  Jobs preferred to see himself as the underdog — he wanted to be David, not Goliath — even when reality reflected otherwise.

10. Success comes from hard work

A valuable lesson to be learned from the Steve Jobs biography is that true success really does come from hard work.  People who put in the hard yards might not always succeed, but people who succeed always put in the hard yards.

Jobs was the poster child of hard work.  He practically worked around the clock and often forced his subordinates to do the same.  He was once the CEO (official or otherwise) of two massive companies, Apple and Pixar.  He was the type of person who would call people up at 3am to discuss an idea he came up with.  Even when he was facing death he still wanted to make sure that Apple didn’t stuff things up.  Often luck plays a significant role, but if you really want to succeed at something you have to be willing to put in the time and effort.

Interestingly, Jobs always said, prophetically, that he did not think he would live a long life, which is why he was always pushing himself to achieve more and more greatness.  We all have a finite time on this earth, so it’s a mentality we can certainly learn from.

And here’s that legendary Stanford address video, which Isaacson says is probably the best university opening address of all time.

11. Don’t do something for the primary reason of making money

Another valuable lesson is that if you do or make something, don’t do it just because you want to get rich and famous — do it because you want to do or make something the best it can be.

It’s easy to say but hard to put into practice.  Whenever I think of an idea, it is inevitably always linked to how I can monetise it.  But for Jobs, it was never about the money — it was always about making the best products possible, products he would want to have.  The money and success become a by-product of creating the best products.

He became a multi-millionaire in his 20s (and this was 70s money) — most people would have been happy to put their feet up and enjoy the rest of their lives in luxury, but Jobs cared so much about what he was making that he wanted to keep doing it.

A fascinating snippet from the book was when Jobs had been ousted from Apple and was thinking of a way back in.  His wealthy friend, Larry Ellison, suggested that he buy Apple and nominate Jobs as the new CEO.  When Jobs came up with a less expensive way (he would get Apple to buy his company NeXT, which would get him on the board, and he would fight for control from there), Ellison was confused.

“But Steve, there’s one thing I don’t understand,” he said.  “If we don’t buy the company, how can we make any money?”.  It was a reminder of how different their desires were.  Jobs put his hand on Ellison’s left shoulder, pulled him so close that their noses almost touched, and said, “Larry, this is why it’s really important that I’m your friend.  You don’t need any more money.”

12. Why Apple is so popular

At last, we get down to the big question: why the heck is apple so popular?  It was something I pondered a year or two ago in this post, and I didn’t have the answer back then.  But after reading the book and gaining an insight into Apple, Jobs and the whole phenomenon, I think I am beginning to understand.

It’s actually quite simple: Apple either made existing products (usually still in their infancy) better, or it managed to get the first foot in the door for new products.  Apple made the products simpler, more intuitive and user-friendly.  Jobs and his team created products they would want, not products they thought would make the most money (which is a fine, but important distinction) — often practical concerns would force CEOs to make compromises, but Jobs made sure quality was never compromised.  It was all or nothing.  Even the inside of the products needed to be beautiful.

And of course, there is the brand Jobs built.  He understood the importance of branding and not just marketing.  The slick design of the products, the Apple stores, the grand product unveilings.  These are the things ordinary people might think important but not crucial in the grand scheme of things, but Jobs poured countless hours into perfecting every little aspect of every decision until it was just right.  He made Apple cool.  Apple still has a lot of haters, but those with Apple products believe they are cool, which is all that matters.  Unfortunately, a lot of them have also become Apple-apologist douchebags who tear your head off for even looking like you might want to criticise Apple or praise a competitor, but it’s just something the world has to live with.

Through a combination of luck, learning from experiences and failures, genius and extremely hard work, Jobs turned Apple into the richest company in the world.  He put effort into the little things, things other people would consider irrelevant or negligible; while a lot of these things probably were, the sum of them all ultimately made Apple better and stronger, whether it was in terms of its products or image, than its competitors.

Jobs’s obtuse personality also played a role.  His philosophy of creating a closed ecosystem with fully integrated hardware and software — it didn’t make sense economically (Microsoft proved licensing was the way to go in the computing world) but it allowed Apple to create a better and more complete user experience, which eventually allowed them to overcome the shortcomings of the strategy.  In fact, with iTunes, Apple proved that the opposite of Microsoft’s approach was the way to go when it came to the music industry.

So there you have it.  The 12 things I learned from the Steve Jobs biography.  If you haven’t read the book already I urge you to do so.

Why the heck is Apple so popular?

May 28, 2010 in Best Of, Social/Political Commentary, Technology

The Apple iPad was launched in Australia today

[Update: After reading the Steve Jobs biography, I think I now know why the heck Apple is so popular.  Check out what I have to say about that here.]

Today marked the official launch of Apple’s new iPad in Australia.

As with just about anything released by Apple these days, people camped outside all night in the cold and rain just so they could be among the first in the country to purchase one of these babies.  The frenzy was slightly more subdued than when Apple released the iPhone, but it was still a very solid crowd.

Most admitted they didn’t know a whole lot about the product, which has been shrouded in Apple’s trademark mystery for many months.  Some others even said that they didn’t even know if they wanted one, but they just wanted to get it for the sake of it.

Seriously, what is going on here?  It’s not like Apple is giving away these things for free.  Apparently, an iPad ranges from AU$629 (for a 16GB Wi-Fi model) to AU$1049 (for a 64GB 3G + Wi-Fi model).  And there’s nothing astroundingly revolutionary about it either.  Both tablet computers and touch screens have been around for years.  Further, critics have pointed out the lack of an in-built camera and USB port.  The reviews have been varied, but the general consensus is that the iPad is essentially a bigger version of the iPhone.

Nevertheless, the iPad has once again become the latest “must have” product from the Apple.  It seems whenever Apple releases anything, no matter what it is and regardless of the merits of the product, it is always guaranteed to sell and sell big.  The iPad has been selling extraordinarily well around the world and in Australia, pre-sale orders have been mind-boggling.  There is even expected to be a shortage in stock for the first few weeks at least.

How has Apple managed to do this?  Are their products really that innovative and far ahead of the rest of the pack?  Or is it the clever marketing campaigns designed to make Apple products look ‘cool’?  Or is it a combination of these and many other factors?  Whatever it is, Apple has somehow made the iPod, iPhone and shortly almost certainly the iPad, the most ubiquitous personal devices in the developed world — possibly ever.

The iPhone

I still remember a time, many years ago, when the Apple brand almost had the opposite effect on people.  Everyone had PCs and Macs were considered ‘pretty’ computers for unsophisticated users.  Then, something happened.  I started seeing those ‘silhouette man’ iPod commercials on TV and on the side of buses.  Then there were those ads with Justin Long.  Before long, iPods were everywhere.  Everyone in the city had an iPhone.  Getting iMacs and MacBooks suddenly became the ‘in’ thing to do.  Now when I go to a cafe, most people I see have iMacs.  The lecturers in my writing course (and most students, might I add) all have MacBooks and one even said to us, “I’m a writer, of course I use a Mac!”

I don’t believe promotion alone can elevate a brand to where Apple is now.  There has to be merit in their products.  But what I don’t get is why Apple has become such a crazy phenomenon world-wide.  It’s not like competitors have not come out with similar products which either have stronger specs and/or have cheaper prices.  But none have been able to make any significant dent in Apple’s market share.  It’s almost as though consumers are hypnotised by the stylish exterior of Apple’s devices and have shut their minds to alternative products.  Can you think of another electronic device brand (or any brand, for that matter) that would have people lining up outside for 24 hours or more, just so they could be one of the first people to buy a new product?

I only have two Apple products — an 80GB Video iPod and an 8GB iPod Touch — both gifts from a former employer.  Everyone in the workplace got one, which just shows how popular — or at least how popular my employer thought — these products had become.

I don’t have anything against Apple or their products, other than the annoying fact that everything has to be synched to the extremely frustrating iTunes.  That alone was enough to make me look for cheaper and more user-friendly alternatives.

There have been numerous articles that touch on the Apple ‘phenomenon’ (I do have some reservations with this term because Apple is apparently bringing out a next gen compositing application by that name), but I haven’t found any serious pieces that have provided a comprehensive examination into just what it is that makes Apple products so popular.  I’m sure someone, somewhere, has written a thesis or dissertation on this topic — if you know where to find such a thing, please feel free to point me in the right direction.