Think Different: A Review of the Steve Jobs Biography

At one point in my life, I thought if I ever got a tattoo, it would be of the rainbow-hued Apple logo.

Those days are in the distant past.

At the time, Apple was the underdog of the tech world, at a time when Bill Gates and Microsoft were ubiquitous, undisputed kings. Apple stock was just over $13 per share. Few companies bothered to write their software for Macintosh because it required licensing that didn’t pencil out financially.

And then Steve Jobs returned to the company.

Things have changed! In 2011 Apple’s revenue was $108 BILLION dollars. Apple’s stock (AAPL) closed yesterday at $663.87 per share. Crowds regularly line up at Apple’s retail stores to nab the latest iPhone release. Apple is huge—regularly referred to alongside Google and Facebook as the current giants of Silicon Valley. An Apple product announcement has even been parodied on television!

As an Apple devotee since the early 90s, I naturally wanted to read Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson. At 630 pages, the book is almost as giant as its subject—but I plowed through it in just over a week. A pretty easy read given such a fascinating subject tackled by a great writer!

Once Jobs knew he was not long for this world, he called upon famed biographer Walter Isaacson to get to work. Jobs offered generous access to himself without being nosy about Isaacson’s portrayal. Jobs died on October 5, 2011, and the release date on the book got pushed up to October 24—two and a half weeks after his death.

Isaacson clearly has a sense of humor about his subject. He editorializes in small ways throughout the text, such as imploring younger readers to ask their parents about the Atari game Pong, and when he writes about Jobs’ habit of not showering as a young adult:

Jobs clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor, even if he didn’t use deodorant or shower regularly. It was a flawed theory. (p. 43)

Stories of Jobs’ boorish behavior are everywhere, and Isaacson makes no attempt to cover this up. It is a huge part of Jobs’ character, and Isaacson cites it as one of the main themes of the book. Ex-colleagues tell stories of Jobs parking in the handicapped spaces at Apple, yelling “it’s shit!” in response to carefully prepared designs, and his abhorrence for PowerPoint slides. Even worse, Jobs essentially refused to acknowledge his first child for many years, because it didn’t fit in with his “reality distortion field.”

The character study also includes his sensitive artist side. Jobs attended Reed College (my neighborhood university!), where he was known for his collection of Bob Dylan(!!!) bootleg recordings. His experiences in Oregon gave him an artistic foundation that later came to fruition in his product philosophies and elsewhere. Whether the crying jags at Apple came from Oregon, I don’t know—but the name Apple was partially inspired by a farm he lived on near Eugene. (Yup, that’s a Reedie for you.)

At least for me, the latter half of the book dragged a little as the narrative basically became a series of pissing matches between Steve Jobs and executives at other companies. Unlike the early years, the years since the release of the iMac has more or less played out in the public eye. More interesting was studying Jobs’ character during this period—how the man who was clearly a pill to work with handled having a wife and children. How Jobs cultivated his best working relationships, including those with Tim Cook and Jony Ive. How not even a reality distortion field or money can make pancreatic cancer go away.

In this later period, Isaacson makes an attempt to counter-balance all the Apple cheerleading with some significant criticism. A favorite example was about the iPad:

His main reservation, a substantive one, was “that while it’s a lovely device for consuming content, it doesn’t do much to facilitate its creation…The iPad shifts the emphasis from creating content to merely absorbing and manipulating it. It mutes you, turns you back into a passive consumer of other people’s masterpieces.” (p. 496)

And Isaacson adeptly describes the Apple cult:

With the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984, Jobs had created a new kind of theater: the product debut as an epochal event, climaxed by a let-there-be-light moment in which the skies part, a light shines down, the angels sing, and a chorus of the chosen faithful sings “Hallelujah.” (p. 354)

Before I finished the book still unsure of how I felt about Steve Jobs, one short paragraph won me over to his side. Jobs spent his school years in Cupertino, California, when the area was still primarily comprised of farmland. As he designed the new Apple headquarters,

One of his lingering memories was of the orchards that had once dominated the area, so he hired a senior arborist from Stanford and decreed that 80% of the property would be landscaped in a natural manner, with six thousand trees. “I asked him to make sure to include a new set of apricot orchards,” Jobs recalled. “You used to see them everywhere, even on the corners, and they’re part of the legacy of this valley.” (p. 536)

Having lived in Clackamas County, and having regularly visited Washington and Clark Counties over the past 30 years, I’ve seen plenty of bucolic farmland and greenspace get bulldozed for strip malls, large apartment complexes, and McMansions (I’m lookin’ at you, Mount Scott!) A development project that could also honor the area’s history and make such an area less of an eyesore, while potentially providing opportunities to feed the hungry, would be a great idea indeed. Let’s hope people up here follow his lead.

Isaacson’s biography certainly had me thinking different about Steve Jobs. While I may not have been such ardent Apple fan had I know him while he was alive, the book painted a picture I could live with after his death. Sure, he was a jerk, but there was more to him than that. As a tortured genius, he was pursuing a greater good—and as hokey as it is to say this in summary, he changed the world.

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