Brief review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

June 18, 2023 • 9:15 am

This weekend I finally polished off Walter Isaacson’s big book (570 pp. of text) Steve Jobs, a 2011 biography of the tech entrepreneur, design genius, and prickly human being. I’m not sure why I took it from the library—I have a feeling a reader suggested it—but I’m glad I did, as I found it an excellent description of the man and his short life (he died at 56 of pancreatic cancer in 2011, two weeks before Isaacson published the book).

It’s the first biography I’ve read that seems to be cast in an interview format:  that is, much of the text involves quotes from people who interacted with Jobs, which, woven together, bring the book to life (Isaacson had more than 40 interviews with Jobs alone, up to right before he died).  Two aspects of Jobs stick out:

a.) The man was a technical genius, devoted to producing products that people didn’t know they needed, integrating those products into a seamless whole (including proprietary software), and controlling the entire supply chain from idea to device, including the factories making the materials for his products as well as the casings of his computers and iPods, to the notion (and design) of the Apple stores themselves. No detail was too small: he worried for weeks, for instance, about the nature and color of the plastic encasing the first Macintosh.  His explicit aim was to meld art and technology, creating a beautiful product that was not only sui generis, but one that was easy to use and gave pleasure to the user.   Here is a list of the products that, according to Isaacson, “transformed whole industries” (pp. 565-566):

  1. The Apple II
  2. The Macintosh
  3. Toy Story and other Pixar blockbutsters
  4. Apple stores
  5. The iPod
  6. The iPhone
  7. The App Store
  8. The iPad
  9. iCloud
  10. Apple itself, “which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth.”

b.)  The man was largely a jerk, at least as portrayed in the book.  At once mercurial, charismatic, tyrannical, and hateful, he was fully capable of telling a waitress that the food she served was shit, firing somebody on the spot, and telling his employees that their work was “crap”.  He knew this, and said, according to Isaacson, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.” But Isaacson adds, “I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted.” Well, as a determinist I don’t buy it; not unless “he wanted” means changing his style based on environmental influences on him—like other people telling him to shape up. But one can also argue that his personality—the combination of charisma and Manichean authoritarianism—is what allowed him to accomplish what he did.  Under “reception” on the Wikpedia article, his colleagues and friends say this about the biography:

A number of Steve Jobs’s family and close colleagues expressed disapproval, including Laurene Powell JobsTim Cook and Jony Ive.  Cook remarked that the biography did Jobs “a tremendous disservice”, and that “it didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time.” Ive said of the book that “my contempt couldn’t be lower.” [JAC: he probably meant “higher.”]

Still, even if Isaacson overemphasized the odious side of Jobs—and Jobs told Isaacson to write what he wanted, never vetting anything as Jobs “had no skeletons in his closet that couldn’t come out”—the biography is well worth reading. I came away with the sense that I’d encountered a once-in-a-lifetime character, and would dearly have liked to have met him. He certainly has changed my life, as I’ve never used any computers or music devices that weren’t made by Apple. And you’ll never use your Apple computer or iPad again without thinking of the man behind it.

The book was #1 on Amazon in the year it was published, and sold 3 million copies in the U.S. in the first four years alone. I’d recommend it highly; the paperback is selling for only $11.60 (the hardback is $18.69) on Amazon.

Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a routine kidney scan in late 2003. It was one of those rare forms of the disease that isn’t invariably fatal, and had he undergone surgery at the time, he might have lived. But he didn’t want his body “opened up,” and for nine months he sought alternative therapies involving diet, acupuncture, and other forms of useless treatment.  He was finally operated on, but the cancer had spread. Nevertheless, he lived another eight years, dying at 56 on October 5, 2011. (Isaacson’s book came out on October 24th.) Who knows what he could have come up with had he undergone that first operation in time (which, of course, stillmight not have worked)?

Below I’ve put his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, which tells three stories about his life that helped make him what he was. It was the only commencement address he ever gave, and he wrote it himself. (The last story is about his cancer, which he’d already had for two years.)  This is what Isaacson said about the talk (p. 457):

The artful minimalism of the speech gave it simplicity, purity, and charm. Search where you will, from anthologies to YouTube, and you won’t find a better commencement address. Others may have been more important, such as George Marshall’s at Harvard in 1947 announcing a plan to rebuild Europe, but none has had more grace.

Judge for yourself; it’s only 15 minutes long;

Below is the first half of Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (this is part 1; part 2 is here). He always introduced these products on a darkened stage with one screen, directly demonstrating his devices to the cheers of a worshipful crowd. And he always wore jeans, New Balance sneakers, and a black Issy Miyake turtleneck.  There is no script to read from, though of course he’d practiced the presentation.

His cancer recurred the next year, invading his liver and mandating a liver transplant in Tennessee.

And here is a good 60 Minutes interview of Isaacson by Steve Kroft, discussing the book and Isaacson’s view of Jobs. The final anecdote (at 27:20) is also the ending of the book, and is enough to bring you to tears.

If you want a decent one-hour video biography of Jobs, go here.

17 thoughts on “Brief review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

  1. I read the book when it came out. What a shame he wandered into woo territory rather than treat the cancer with what would probably have worked. One can have a flight of the imagination:
    -what would Apple be doing now if Steve was still in charge?
    -what would Hitch be doing about cancel culture and trans issues?
    and so on and so forth. Much is missing from our lives that might have still been here in a better part of the multiverse.

  2. Steve Jobs is one of the few public figures whose death made me cry: however bad tempered, someone so outstanding can be excused if they do not suffer fools. It’s a pity how very bad and stupid people are still with us and he had to go so soon

  3. I eagerly devour every Walter Isaacson biography as soon as it comes out. His books are sensational.

  4. I read the Isaacson biography. A few things stood out. Jobs hated and envied Bill Gates and only spoke badly about him. Gates only spoke in positive terms about Jobs. Jobs denied he was the father of Lisa Jobs. Tests showed that he was. To some degree Jobs reconciled with his daughter. There is a truly bizarre story about Job’s father (an immigrant from Syria).

  5. I read the book and also thoroughly enjoyed it. A person I know was friends with a Sun Microsystems founder, and that fellow said that Jobs was the smartest person he ever met bar none. I take that at face value. I use the Apple Watch, iPhone, and iPad and like that ecosystem. Jobs admits that he had no idea that apps would be such a big deal. As far as creating material wealth his impact can’t be overstated, but there is a long line of those personalities in US history.

    From the book he certainly comes off as a “jerk.” He didn’t just “not suffer fools” but was deliberately cruel and extremely self-centered. The way he treated his daughter Lisa and her mother was particularly hurtful to read about. It reminded me of John Lennon and his son Julian. Is this typical of abandoned children? A causal chain in a deterministic universe?

    OK, so he has affected how we live day-to-day, helping provide closer connectivity in a user-friendly manner. But in the end it is what we do with that ability that matters. In that sense, haven’t Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general had more impact? It is not a question raised in the original post but it is one central to my thinking.

    To go on a (related, I think) tangent, I see the central question we face, where a truly great person is needed (one we focus attention on) is to provide the paradigm shift needed to live on Earth in a sustainable fashion (not just give us a cool gadget.) Since this goes against human nature is it even possible? Is human nature changeable outside of biological evolution? Can cultural evolution have the necessary impact or is the universe “just” a deterministic Kabuki? In that case there is no real cause for admiration of anyone (Jobs included), but certainly a case for envy.

    I want to thank the original post for having no direct allusion to admiration (although some comments did.) I admire him for that.

  6. I feel fortunate to have family and friends who worked with Jobs at various times. I can’t recall who suggested to me that the lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” most apply applied to Jobs. He could be many things.

  7. I’m surprised there was no mention of the Next, an absolutely genial computer running a Unix operating system. It was in the form of a black cube, so was also called the Cube. The user interface was excellent and ideas from it have gone into others. That he was a genius goes without saying. I have also read that altho Bill Gates and his wife set up the Gates Foundation, Jobs never gave anything to anybody. What I read may have been wrong though. And it’s also apparently true that the Gates Foundation distributes a small fraction of what Bill has made from providing the most used OS in the world.

    1. There’s a lot about NEXT in the book, but Jobs (and apparently Isaacson) seemed to consider NEXT pretty much of a wash. But it is covered extensively in the book if you want to read about it.

    2. Jobs left his money to his wife. She is giving it away so most of what he made went to charity. He also lived well below his means so she has over $10 billion.

  8. The ebook of the Steve Jobs autobiography reviewed above is on sale today for $3.99 on Amazon Kindle and Google Play stores.

  9. I read the Isaacson biography and found it interesting but it did skew to the negative in later sections. I thought the book “Becoming Steve Jobs” gave a bit more balanced portrait of the man. For those interested, there is also a free ebook, “Make Something Wonderful” from the Steve Jobs Archive. It’s a collection of emails, interviews and speeches.

  10. I have never bought or used an Apple product.
    I think Jobs is overrated.
    Jerry calls him “a design genius” and “a technical genius.”
    When I hear the word genius I’m thinking of scientists like Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, etc., not of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
    I don’t know enough about design to have an opinion about whether Jobs was “a design genius.” I don’t think Jobs was “a technical genius.”

    Two interesting pieces in this context:
    Vaclav Smil: Why Jobs Is No Edison. September 30, 2011

    Apple’s products are actually third-order innovations that use a variety of fundamental second-order innovations in the now vast realm of electronic components to assemble and to program devices whose greatest appeal has been due to their (choose your own adjective, or embrace all of them) sleek, unorthodox, elegant, streamlined, clean, functional interface design.
    Not that those are unimportant attributes when trying to sell on a mass scale—Edsel, perhaps the paragon of American product failure, had the same type of engine (Ford-Edsel V8) as did a highly successful Mustang!—but looks and product appeal are far too little in order to qualify for an Edisonian mantle.
    And there is also no doubt that Apple’s devices have benefited from group infatuation, a phenomenon that has often favored a product or a class of designs based on an allegiance that the devotees themselves have difficulty defining in coherent terms (in contrast, during its peak power Microsoft suffered from the reverse attitude—excessive criticism). In its quotidian extremes this loyalty has been manifested by people willing to pay high premiums for German engineering even after decades of Consumer Reports evaluations have failed to demonstrate any stunning superiority of German cars over Hondas and Toyotas.
    And as for the “awesome technologies” that sprang from Jobs’s Apple laboratories, would not an impartial observer describe the iPad as just a small laptop computer without a keyboard and a cover (a boon for the makers of covers that people buy to protect the device) rather than an epoch-making innovation on par with electricity, vaccination, hybrid crops, or synthetic nitrogen fertilizers?

    Vaclav Smil: The myth of the innovator hero. The Atlantic, Nov 15, 2011
    Every successful modern e-gadget is a combination of components made by many makers. The story of how the transistor became the building block of modern machines explains why.

    1. Please don’t insert long quotes from other sources; just give a link. Oh, and I disagree with you. Before you say Jobs wasn’t a technical genius, why don’t you read the book and see the technical innovations his vision made possible?

  11. I’m an applied mathematician and I’ve been programming computers since 1969. The primary issue is the accuracy of the numbers stored in the computer. I have to invert matrices in my work and the number of places of accuracy in the numbers directly relates to the quality of an inverse. Initially I was working with IBM mainframes and some IBM engineer decided it would be better to have more bits for the exponent than the abscissae which was tragic for inverting matrices. Steve Jobs Apple computers had the same problem, and I never bought one. It was clear he was more interested in display than with computation. About then the IBM desktop computer came with a math coprocessor that performed calculations at a far greater accuracy than the IBM mainframes. Some engineer finally understood the issue. I could estimate parameters of models with greater accuracy on the IBM desktop than the IBM mainframes, and certainly with more accuracy than the Apple computers. I never considered Apple computers to be useful for numerical computation.

  12. Jobs hired the Xerox PARC team for the technology and licensed it from Xerox. Jony Ive joined the design team in 1992. Jobs was a great salesman and product manager.
    Within a week of Jobs dying, Dennis Ritchie died. Ritchie created the C programming language and helped develop Unix. Both Mac OS and Linux are descended from UNIX. He had a much bigger role in creating computer technology than Jobs. That is not to say Jobs was not important .

  13. I enjoyed the Isaacson book, but also thought that “Becoming Steve Jobs” was outstanding. It focusses more on the period after Jobs was thrown out of Apple, and founded Next and acquired Pixar, and seems to have re-evaluated things and become more human. The paperback edition has an excellent introduction by Marc Andreesen, formerly of Netscape. In a section headed “Nice” CEOs, he has this to say: “Talk to the very large number of people who not only worked at Apple, but worked at Apple for a very long time, and they all say the same things: ‘I did the best work of my life at Apple. My work had the biggest impact. I built products there that are so much better than anything else I’ve ever done… And it wasn’t just me, I was surrounded by the best people'”. And he describes Job’s ability to create that environment as “an extremely rare and special thing”.

    For the true Apple fans I also highly recommend the site which is kind of an oral history of the original Macintosh project collated by Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original developers. I particularly liked the account of the time Jobs met Donald Knuth, the legendary computer scientist:

    “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Professor Knuth,” Steve said. “I’ve read all of your books.”

    “You’re full of shit,” Knuth responded.

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