Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is written for idiots.
In many places it has the empty calories of a bad blog post. At its best — which is rare — it sheds light on contributions by Phil Schiller (iPod scrollwheel) and Jon Ive (multitouch demonstration), which are more about Apple than Steve Jobs.
I’ve read many biographies and usually came away with an understanding of the subject. Each life has a defining moment that is the seed for everything that follows.
Ayn Rand loved a particular mythic story and that propelled her to write in that vein.
Walt Disney had innate drawing ability and was once beaten by his father for painting on the side of a farm building.
Frank Capra bullshitted his way into his first film job by having a good grasp of story and character.
With Steve Jobs, it was critically important to uncover these things, for his defining moment:
1) When did he first encounter the idea of a computer? Was it in popular culture? Did he read about it in comic books? See one on TV — in popular programs or news coverage of the emerging space program? Did any engineer neighbors regale him with tales of one?
2) What made a computer attractive to him? What could he envision it doing? What could he envision doing with it himself?
3) The motivation for creating the original Apple computer was so that both he and Woz could have one. What did he plan to do with that computer? And how did he plan to do it?
These are basic questions that anyone should have asked.
Given what’s in the book, Isaacson did not. (And hey, Walter, if you did, why isn’t all that in the damn book?)
What do we get? This:
His father continued to refurbish and resell used cars, and he festooned the garage with pictures of his favorites. He would point out the detailing of the design to his son: the lines, the vents, the chrome, the trim of the seats. After work each day, he would change into his dungarees and retreat to the garage, often with Steve tagging along. “I figured I could get him nailed down with a little mechanical ability, but he really wasn’t interested in getting his hands dirty,” Paul later recalled. “He never really cared too much about mechanical things.”
Did his father mean that as part of Jobs’ behavior — that he disliked the grease, grime, and dirt that accompanied dealing with car mechanics? We might never know.
We also get this:
Through cars, his father gave Steve his first exposure to electronics. “My dad did not have a deep understanding of electronics, but he’d encountered it a lot in automobiles and other things he would fix. He showed me the rudiments of electronics, and I got very interested in that.”
But… why? What was it he found interesting about it? What contrasted it to mechanical objects? Did the small size, odd shapes, and pretty colors of transistors appeal to him aesthetically? Did he ever have Lego as a kid and saw this as a grown-up extension of that? We might never know.
Most frustrating of all, this:
“The first computer terminal I ever saw was when my dad brought me to the Ames Center [NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale],” he said. “I fell totally in love with it.”
What about that encounter impressed him? It couldn’t have been the terminal itself, which was probably like a teletype machine, all industrial-gray metal, noisy, slow, and using a roll of paper or even punched cards. It couldn’t have appealed to him as an object. So what took place with that terminal that created his life-long romance with computing? We might never know.
And even worse, there’s this:
One night he cornered one of HP’s laser engineers after a talk and got a tour of the holography lab. But the most lasting impression came from seeing the small computers the company was developing. “I saw my first desktop computer there. It was called the 9100A, and it was a glorified calculator but also really the first desktop computer. It was huge, maybe forty pounds, but it was a beauty of a thing. I fell in love with it.”
But… why? What had he learned between the Ames encounter and this one? We might never know.
What should have been his defining moment is just missing.
The closest we get to any early childhood epiphany is this:
Jobs recalled the incident vividly because it was his first realization that his father did not know everything. Then a more disconcerting discovery began to dawn on him: He was smarter than his parents. He had always admired his father’s competence and savvy. “He was not an educated man, but I had always thought he was pretty damn smart. He didn’t read much, but he could do a lot. Almost everything mechanical, he could figure it out.” Yet the carbon microphone incident, Jobs said, began a jarring process of realizing that he was in fact more clever and quick than his parents. “It was a very big moment that’s burned into my mind. When I realized that I was smarter than my parents, I felt tremendous shame for having thought that. I will never forget that moment.” This discovery, he later told friends, along with the fact that he was adopted, made him feel apart — detached and separate — from both his family and the world.
But that — like his learning that he was adopted — was a personal epiphany. Where’s the one for computing? And before that, the one for electronics?
And even though Isaacson mentions What the Dormouse Said, there’s no mention of this, from that book, in the bio from Jobs himself:
Two other occasional visitors were high school students Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, who hung out at SAIL [Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory].with an older friend, Allen Baum, who was working at the laboratory during the fall of 1970. Jobs later said that the “vibrations” he felt at SAIL would stay with him his entire life. The bewitched Wozniak rode his bike up to the laboratory from his home in Los Altos, and he later said that his experiences there contributed to his hunger for his own computer.
SAIL was one of the core places of the computing revolution, from which The Mother of All Demos by Doug Engelbart was spawned. That demo happened in 1968, when Jobs was twelve or thirteen, and influenced everything that came afterwards in computing:
There were two things that particularly dazzled the audience on that rainy Monday morning in December 1968: First, computing had made the leap from number crunching to become a communications and information-retrieval tool. Second, the machine was being used interactively with all its resources appearing to be devoted to a single individual! It was the first time that truly personal computing had been seen.
SAIL was PARC before Steve Jobs ever visited the actual PARC and saw the UI on the Alto.
What’s bitterly ironic is that the defining moment of computing in this bio is recounted not for Steve Jobs, but for Steve Wozniak:
There was a demonstration of the new Altair [at the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975], but more important to Wozniak was seeing the specification sheet for a microprocessor.
As he thought about the microprocessor — a chip that had an entire central processing unit on it — he had an insight. He had been designing a terminal, with a keyboard and monitor, that would connect to a distant minicomputer. Using a microprocessor, he could put some of the capacity of the minicomputer inside the terminal itself, so it could become a small stand-alone computer on a desktop. It was an enduring idea: keyboard, screen, and computer all in one integrated personal package. “This whole vision of a personal computer just popped into my head,” he said. “That night, I started to sketch out on paper what would later become known as the Apple I.”
Even Jobs’ assertion about LSD lacks depth. From other books, I thought he used LSD only once. Here, I learned it was multiple times. Only one trip is mentioned — a wheat field playing Bach — and it comes off like a scene from any movie, not something life-changing. And Jobs claimed that was his best trip!
Ninety-percent of this book I already knew from reading other books of computing history. And all those books were better in portraying the drama and tension of early computing. The excitement of those days is absolutely missing here. All of it is recounted as if it was a checklist of things the book had to have.
The remaining ten percent simply filled in some minor gaps. And half of that ten percent are details about Jobs’ illness that were never revealed — and even then, they’re not done very well, lacking emotion. (Reporting that Steve cried is just that: reporting, in emotionless language.)
The overall feel of this book is that it was written in a rush by someone against a deadline. It reads like a very long magazine article, not like other biographical books I’ve read. It took me a long time to read it because its lack of depth irritated me and all of the writing bored me. It’s an emotionless collection of words.
This biography is 1.0 and reads like it.
Someone — John Markoff, Steven Levy, or Paul Freiberger — needs to do a 2.0 biography, fleshing out the countless empty-calorie paragraphs this book contains.
Steve Jobs deserves better. Computing history deserves better. And so do we.
Oh, and one more thing:
“When Jeffrey was still running Disney animation, we pitched him on A Bug’s Life,” Jobs said. “In sixty years of animation history, nobody had thought of doing an animated movie about insects, until Lasseter. It was one of his brilliant creative sparks. And Jeffrey left and went to DreamWorks and all of a sudden had this idea for an animated movie about — Oh! — insects. And he pretended he’d never heard the pitch. He lied. He lied through his teeth.”
Wait. What? How could such an assertion go by unchallenged? Did anyone think to see if that was true? How could everyone involved in this book — from editors, to copyeditors, to researchers, to fact-checkers, to everyone else who read it pre-publication — have not known of the classic Fleischer animated movie (repeated on TV just about yearly in the 60s and early 70s), Hoppity Goes to Town (aka Mr. Bug Goes to Town)? It was about an insect!
I’m disappointed to hear that the official biography of Steve Jobs doesn’t offer much insight into the origin of the passion behind his drive. Those are great questions, and it’s a shame that Walter Isaacson doesn’t seem to have had the presence of mind to ask them. Or if he did, that he didn’t get answers.
I’ll probably read this anyway, but at least I know I’m not missing anything fundamental if I can’t get to it right away.
This is definitely not a hurry-up-and-read book. So many other books are just better-written, like the Dormouse one.
It occurred to me after I posted my comment to add that I hope someone who knew Steve Jobs and might know the answers to those questions will see your post. Unlikely, I know.
Why should have that animation-bug-assertion been challenged?
The book is just accounting something Steve had said, not claiming it to be true.
You are probably right.