Steve Jobs | Walter Isaacson

For a large part of his life, maybe half, Steve Jobs was an insufferable asshole. And for the rest of it he was perhaps, at best, a sufferable one.

They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But then this is the single overwhelming truth about the man, and it dominates Walter Isaacson’s biography, a work that shines more for its painstaking research and fascinating minutiae than it does for its shining prose. It is also perhaps the least disputed Jobs fact: Controversies over the originality of Jobs’ innovations and ideas, about how he wrote Steve Wozniak out of the Apple saga, about how the unabashedly commercial and closed nature of his products is the antithesis of the open Buddhist philosophy he espoused, and much more will all rage on for years, if not longer. At least until Jobs, the man, and Apple, the company, have ceased to amaze us.

Steve Jobs: Little Brown / Hachette India, 630 pages, 799.

Unlike many popular biographies over the last few years, Isaacson’s book has no obvious agenda. It seeks to neither lionize Jobs nor diminish him. Instead it merely seeks to tell his story. Which is fine as far as neutrality is concerned, but it robs the book of a sense of urgency and intent. In a sense, it is like trying to appreciate the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan by reading the screenplay: Everything sounds exciting... but it just doesn’t feel exciting.

Still the substance more than makes up for the flagging style.

After being adopted as a child, Steve Jobs grew up being fascinated by technology, but not necessarily in the way that his Apple co-founder Wozniak was. Wozniak knew how to make things. Jobs knew how to sell them. But not immediately. In fact, in the early years of his career it is not entirely clear what Jobs was about. There are the years of seeking self and meditation, and freak dieting. And, of course, the body odour and refusal to bathe, quirks that persisted well into his entrepreneurial period.

But if Wozniak was the technological prodigy, what was Jobs? This is not a question Isaacson answers directly. But the reader is left with the enduring feeling that Jobs’ great strengths were manipulating people, identifying great ideas and then obsessing over people and ideas until they generated products. And because Jobs made himself a super-proxy for all consumers, he refused to ship anything till he was convinced about the product himself.

The first half of the book is also a whirlwind history of the early years of the personal computer industry. It is remarkable how small that early ecosystem was, and how many moments of serendipity led to the computers we use today. For instance, both Jobs and Bill Gates were spurred on to create their early innovations by the same January 1975 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that featured the first personal computer kit, the Altair, on the cover. Also remarkable is the fact that Hewlett-Packard once turned down an offer to use the technology of the first Apple computer.

Throughout this section it is a real challenge to figure out what was going on in Jobs’ head. Even though Isaacson allows Jobs to vindicate himself every few pages, his explanations don’t really shed much light. Things get better as the story progresses, but not substantially.

Which is why this book tells the story of Jobs much better than it explains Jobs himself. Why did Jobs do the things he did? Why was he so hard on so many people? Why, decades later, did he still hold such hostility for some people?

Isaacson quotes Jobs on Gates: “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas."

And this from a man who happily, even proudly, admits he copied several ideas himself.

Isaacson’s work is a meticulous portrait of one of the great personalities of our age. The author, the protagonists and the subject of his biography himself seem to struggle to explain how a man of such obvious weaknesses achieved such enduring greatness.

Did Jobs leave a “dent in the universe", as he always wanted to, despite being an asshole? Or precisely because he was one?

We will perhaps never know.

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In six words

An insufferable genius keeps his secrets