© 2011 Walter Isaacson
The past twenty years have been an amazing ride for Apple Computers, in which the ailing and speeding towards bankruptcy company suddenly metamorphosed into the most valuable company in the world, responsible for creating some of the most iconic products of the modern age. Walter Isaacson’s Jobs chronicles the life of the man who co-created Apple, fell out with it, and then came back to orchestrate the biggest brand revival ever Throughout it, Isaacson illustrates how pivotal Jobs and Apple were to not just the computer age, but to the opening of the 21st century as a whole. Although I am not an Apple user, I enjoyed this biography like few others.
While many computer tinkerers of the day, Jobs’ partner Steve Wozniak included, were interested in computers as tools, Steve Jobs’ background in the youth movements o the 1960s prepared him to see computers as revolutionary. He saw them as a way to marry technology and the humanities, and to ignite human potential — but he took. His lack of zeal for the tech side for it’s own merits meant that he wasn’t particularly supportive of building machines that could be physically altered and expanded. He had a vision of how a thing should be, and didn’t anyone else tampering with it.
For Jobs, computers were not merely a technological tool; they were more like art in their ability to expand horizons. He wholly attached himself to his vision, and resisted the view of computers as open systems to be altered at will. Early in his career at Apple, he and Steve Wozniak argued over how many open slots the Apple II board should come with; Jobs only wanted two, for printers or modems, while the tinkerer Wozniak insisted on eight. While Wozniak won that battle, he would lose all the rest, as future creations presided over by Jobs were far more closed off to modding. Apple later used custom screws in their products, for instance, to stymie attempts at would-be home modders or consumers who wanted to repair their products at doing so. (Jobs’ vision for controlling products end to end has continue: just recently news broke that OSX systems would soon be capable of identifying hardware changes and then locking themselves down if someone other than an Apple-sanctioned repairman had replaced a part.)
Jobs’ insistence on controlling the vision he had for Apple products made him a domineering and mercurial boss, obsessive about seemingly small details and abusive in their implementation. Associates at Apple joked about the ‘reality distortion field’ around Jobs, the means by which he could convince himself that the impossible was practicable, and even convince others to join him in the pursuit. (Sometimes, with enough ninety-hour workweeks, they even achieved the impossible.) Such was his behavior that once Apple had grown from a two-man garage company into a full corporation, its board of directors effected his removal, hoping to dampen the disruptuons he caused. He would later return after Apples’ drifting performance nearly bankrupted it, but in the meantime he developed his own computer system (Next) and gained more management experience as Pixar. Next would be a failure, hardware wise, but the kernel of its OS would later be incorporated into Mac’s OS and even help Jobs get his old position of power back. At Pixar he was more able to pursue the intersection of art and tech, as computer-generated graphics proved themselves capable of stories that gripped the human soul in Toy Story.
It was after Jobs’ return to Apple that things got really interesting, however. Jobs’ essential personality never changed, but he learned to be less meddlesome and gave to Apple the ability to focus. He forced them to target on four products instead of a menagerie; these products were to be the best imaginable, “insanely great”. He often used novel designs that played with the imagination. Instead of familiar beige boxes, for instance, the iMacs of 1997 were colorful egg-shaped units that stood out and were advertised as being especially made for the internet, which by then was roaring. Jobs focused not just on function, but on feeling; he wanted product to resonate with people, to give them a certain joy in using them, and that was part of the reason he was so obsessive about small details. Everything mattered, even the arrangement of the interior which might not ever be seen. Jobs was the first to make aesthetics a key consideration in build quality. Jobs’ vision prove itself when he pushed Apple beyond computers, into consumer products, with the ipod — and later, the best-selling consumer device of all time, the iPhone.
Although Jobs was not an easy person to work with or know, there can no denying his pivotal role in the making of 21st century technological society. While Apple’s hostility towards the right to repair makes me shudder, I can appreciate the commitment to exquisite design that Jobs made part of Apples culture; every time I help someone at work with an iPhone or a MacBook I enjoy the experience. As much as I prefer the open moddability of Windows and Androids systems, Isaacs’ book made me far more curious about the ‘other side’ than I would have imagined.