There’s not a lot of dramatic tension in Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive, authorized biography of the brilliant Apple visionary, but that’s not Isaacson’s fault. Jobs, who died from complications of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 5, lived a very public life as the face of two hugely successful and profoundly influential companies: Apple and Pixar. Not surprisingly, Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, $35) is every bit a biography of those businesses as the story of a child, abandoned at birth, who left an indelible mark on technology and popular culture thanks to a genius for recognizing talent in others, and an uncanny knack for developing “insanely great” consumer products.
Jobs handpicked Isaacson, a former Time magazine editor and ex-CNN CEO as his biographer, and started courting him in 2004, between Isaacson’s well-received books on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Isaacson initially refused Jobs, suggesting he “try again in a decade or two,” but by 2009—when news of Jobs’ health issues became public—Isaacson began his research in earnest. The end result, all 600-plus pages, is based on 40 interviews with Jobs himself, along with insight, recollections and horror stories from more than 100 family members, friends, colleagues and rivals. I lost track of how many times Isaacson used “prickly” to describe Jobs, but suffice to say it was enough to make me think Jobs might have named his first company after the wrong fruit.
Whether you’re a Mac or PC, Job’s rich legacy is undeniable. While other companies created successful components (Microsoft with Windows software, Compaq and Dell with hardware, Adobe with superior applications, Sony with digital devices), Jobs knew the value of complete vertical integration: total control over hardware, software and content. So is it any wonder the late Jobs comes across as a control freak? Jobs’ love of solid craftsmanship goes back to his childhood, and is a large part of everything he designed, including the boxes his products came in.
The Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs is brilliant and brutal, demanding and dismissive, incredibly wise and embarrassingly childlike. When Jobs encountered employees who couldn’t match his intensity, he thought nothing of publicly humiliating them. When an employee came up with a brilliant idea, Jobs had no problem presenting it as his own. I learned that the ’70s-era Jobs believed his vegetarian diet made deodorant unnecessary (it didn’t) and that he referred to his LSD use as “one of the two or three most important things he’d done in his life.” I read many stories about Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” and that Jobs’ reluctance to treat his pancreatic cancer surgically for nine long months almost surely shortened his life.
Steve Jobs may not be “insanely great,” but I don’t know how it could have been any better either. While I enjoyed reading it, I suspect Isaacson is probably already working on updates for the paperback 2.0 edition.