Monday, February 6, 2012
If there’s a common thread to the biographies of high achieving individuals like Steve Jobs, it’s that they’re ambitious, driven people who exhibited their gifts and independence at an early age. Whether it’s the biography of an artist, entertainer or business executive, it’s clear many of these people would have found success in some way.
And like a lot of bigger-than-life figures, Jobs was a mass of contradictions. He considered himself a humanist/Buddhist, but could be incredibly insensitive, cruel and manipulative. And like many people operating on such a different plane, he had his share of quirks, bordering on obsessive-compulsive. Throughout his life, for example, he followed extreme diets that included extensive fasting and eating only specific kinds of foods—like apples—for weeks on end. For a Buddhist, he held a surprisingly black and white view of the world, often passing judgment on products as “crap” or the best ever, with no middle ground—opinions that he sometimes reversed shortly after.
Nevertheless, it can’t be denied Jobs was a man of vision. The biography of Jobs, of course, parallels the rise of the personal computer industry, which makes Isaacson’s book particularly fascinating. Jobs was among the first to see the personal computer as a consumer product for the masses. However, unlike his peers, he also saw the computer as a means of personal expression both for himself and the end user. He sought to fulfill this through a personal devotion (some would say obsession) to design, simplicity and elegance. This began with the introduction of the WYSIWYG/mouse interface, which was adapted from technology developed by Xerox, an innovation that few people—including the executives at Xerox—saw no value in until Jobs showed them through the first Mac.
Jobs focus on completely controlling the user experience, however, led to Apple losing the first round of the computer wars—his refusal to license out Apple’s operating system opened the door to the rise and predominance of PCs, Windows and open source. Jobs stubbornness, along with his lack of maturity and diplomacy, eventually led to his ouster at Apple. In the wilderness, he developed NeXT computer (which would later be partly absorbed by Apple) and Pixar, purchasing the latter from George Lucas.
Along with NeXT, his experience at Pixar formed the second act of his career. Pixar was initially a company that sold animation hardware and software. Its creative staff, led by John Lassiter (now the chief imagineer at the Walt Disney Company), was initially charged with creating work that showcased Pixar’s capabilities. Soon, however, thanks to Lassiter’s genius, which Jobs quickly recognized, and Jobs’ foresight, animation production became its main focus. It’s a tribute to Jobs’ respect for Lassiter and Pixar staff that for the most part he did not interfere with the animators and creative staff and focused instead on protecting them (particularly from Disney) so that they could focus on animating, even as Jobs continued to hemorrhage immense amounts of money in the early years. After some difficult years with Disney—particularly with executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg—the success at Pixar eventually led to not only being purchased by the company, but to both Jobs and Lassiter becoming high-ranking members of the Disney Company.
Pixar’s spectacular success notwithstanding, Jobs’ third act, of course, would prove his greatest—his triumphant return to Apple at a time when it was at the verge of collapse, which eventually led to the development of the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. With each successive product, Jobs proved that a closed, proprietary system could succeed and that consumers were willing to pay a premium price for it.
Yes, the success of these products was a triumph of design but they were also a triumph of marketing. Jobs designed products that many people not simply saw as useful, functional devices, but an extension of themselves and a reflection of lifestyle.
So while Isaacson’s book is biography, it also provides insight into design, marketing and the cutthroat politics of business, especially in one as competitive as the computer industry. Isaacson’s book does not cover up Jobs’ personal shortcomings, nor does he excuse or justify them. But the book nevertheless is a celebration of Jobs’ significant contributions as a visionary inventor and innovator who found a way to merge science and technology with the arts and entertainment. Along the way, he re-invented and/or up-ended a diverse number of industries and fields, including personal computers, cellular phones, the music industry, and more.