Sunday, 13 January 2013

Book Review - Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Mere mortals dream of changing the world; Steve Jobs, however, hoped to "make a dent in the universe."  Partly because of an ambition that knew no earthly bounds, Jobs became one of the towering giants of the twentieth century and beyond - the focus of business case studies, tech newsletters, industry forums, and innumerable other venues.  It's telling that Walter Isaacson, the author of well-regarded biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, considered Jobs a worthwhile subject.

By borrowing - or stealing - the concept of the graphical user interface from Xerox, then greatly improving on it, Jobs helped bring useful and intuitive computers to the masses.  Later the iPod changed how music is stored and consumed.  Apple sold an astounding 90 million iPhones - also known as "the Jesus phone" - over the first three and a half years of existence, collecting about half of all the profits for the global mobile phone industry.  The company later sold a mind-boggling 15 million iPads in the nine months after its release, among the most successful product launches in history.  Thanks to all these interwoven successes, Apple has recently become the most valuable company by market capitalization in history, and has had a social and cultural influence to match its financial glory.  

Not only did he play a central role in revolutionizing the computer industry, Jobs also upended a range of other businesses.  After he took command of Pixar, then fast approaching bankruptcy, it quickly became the gold standard in animation, creating hit after amazing hit, both critically and commercially.  Pixar was so spectacularly successful that even the vaunted Disney, long the standard bearer in animated movies, could no longer match the upstart studio, and bought it for the princely sum of $7.4 billion.  Moreover, Isaacson notes, the transaction had the feel of a reverse takeover, with the creative team at Pixar taking control of Disney's legendary animation studio.

More recently, he helped bring change to several sectors of the publishing industry.  The sheer reach of the iPhone and iPad together made the "app" business model viable.  Somewhat walled off from the worldwide web, applications have changed many business models in an online world, allowing magazine publishers, for example, to charge money for an exclusive readerly experience, and giving book publishers a further outlet for their literary wares.  In addition, Jobs  entered the old and difficult retail industry and achieved wild success.  By employing his famous eye for detail - only stone from a specific quarry near Florence, Italy is good enough for Apple stores, Jobs decreed - he created Apple stores, which broke a record for fastest march to $1 billion in sales, including Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue store, which grosses more than any other location in the world.

The Apple co-founder's unparalleled accomplishments came despite his many glaring defects.  Jobs, nearly everyone agrees, was petty, needlessly cruel, unreasonable, disloyal, unpredictable, and often flat-out weird.  Indeed, he often cried, and for long stretches of time, rarely bathed.  Name a character flaw, and Jobs probably suffered from it - and the people around him suffered because of it.  Yet even in the course of a foreshortened life, he achieved just what he set out to do.

How was he able to do it?  This riddle is of interest not only to entrepreneurs, business and civic leaders, but to investors, too.  Some of his success, as always, had to do with luck.  For example, it’s not an accident that many tech firms were founded in Silicon Valley in the postwar decades, and Isaacson does an able job evoking the milieu in which Jobs came of age.  And he had enviable personal qualities to go along with the less desirable ones, including charm, a dramatic showman's streak that helped with the public aspect of his job, and a "reality distortion field" that helped him realize the seemingly impossible, even as it led to many mistakes and miscalculations.  However, as Isaacson illustrates in generous detail, the answer lies largely in that Jobs embraced the same kind of multi-disciplinary mode of thinking that super investor Charlie Munger advocates.  

Much of Jobs' success derived from his natural curiosity and wide-ranging self-education.  Indeed, when he grew tired of a standard, "by-the-book" degree at Reed College, he dropped out, but remained on campus and audited classes that interested him.  These included calligraphy, which he later credited for the "multiple typefaces" and "proportionally spaced fonts" featured on the Mac.  The "Less is More" Bauhaus movement informed the design of Apple products Isaacson and a number of Jobs' friends believe that Jobs became the embodiment of the convergence of hippie counter-culture and high technology.  His many other influences included a lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality, including Zen Buddhism and meditation; organic gardening; listening to, studying and playing music; reading literature and contemplating and writing poetry.
Isaacson argues convincingly that Jobs was a "magician genius," whose world-changing flashes of insight came more from intuition than from a rational mode of thinking.  As a young man, Jobs embarked on a pilgrimage to India, where he learned to value intuition as much as abstract and rational thought.  Unlike most analytical executives, Jobs paid no attention to market research, preferring instead to intuit what customers want, often even before they knew they wanted it. 

Thanks to his broad influences, Jobs was able to wear many hats at Apple.  He knew enough about engineering and electronics to understand the hardware, and had a sufficient grasp of programming to stay abreast of the software.  Jobs had a rare and special talent for marketing and branding.  Indeed, he personally oversaw all significant aspects of Apple's marketing efforts, getting involved in the nuts-and-bolts of billboards, magazine spreads, televisions commercials, and all other communications, almost unheard of for a CEO.  And he was particularly good at aesthetics and design, devoting much of his time and energy to ensuring a beautiful and elegant physical structure for all of Apple's products.  

It's possible that Jobs reached too liberally for ideas.  He went on strange diets, and insisted, all olfactory evidence to the contrary, that eating only fruits and vegetables meant it wasn't necessary to wear deodorant or bathe.  He christened one version of Apple computers the "Lisa," after his daughter.  And it’s debatable whether the use of recreational drugs and Freudian analysis are helpful in business or otherwise.  Perhaps fatally, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Jobs embraced a variety of unorthodox ideas, including unproven remedies found on the internet and consulting a psychic, and refused to undergo standard treatments for nine long months.  However, his famed "reality distortion field" bears much responsibility, too.  And, in fairness, it's impossible to be sure that a more orthodox medical approach would have vanquished his cancer.

Still, the magic he made came at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.  If Apple and Pixar stay true to this ethos, they may well endure for many years to come.  When it was time for Pixar to move into a new building, Jobs designed it personally, ensuring that the central atrium would encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration from members of different departments.  He died before he was able to implement it, but Jobs spent many hours in the last years of his life attempting to do the same for Apple future headquarters.  He once explained the Xerox episode by proudly quoting Picasso: "Good artists copy, great artists steal" (98).  By applying a range of ideas from different disciplines, whether borrowed, copied or stolen, Jobs did more than create a masterpiece, he made a dent in the universe.

Source: Isaacson, Walter.  Steve Jobs.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

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