Originally planned for release next year, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was brought forward after the Apple founder and former CEO died in October. Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than 40 times in the last years of his life and spoke to Jobs's friends, former colleagues and to key figures at Apple. This kind of access to the man and his company is unprecendented, given that both are known for their secrecy. [amtap book:isbn=1408703742]
The result is a book that those with a casual interest in the technology world will find informative. However, technology experts, particularly those who follow Apple closely, will be disappointed. There are scattered technical errors and assertions by Isaacson that betray his lack of expertise but mostly the problem is that he hasn't really uncovered enough that is new.
Shortly after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple, in August this year, Fortune magazine released a compilation of its articles about Jobs and Apple. I was halfway through it when Jobs's death was announced in early October.
The Fortune anthology, All About Steve, is a treasure trove. It covers Jobs's time with Apple in the 70s and 80s, his 'wilderness years' nurturing Pixar and NeXT, and his triumphant return to Apple. What's particularly fascinating is that, because these articles are presented as they were published at the time, it's possible to test their predictions against what actually happened. It's a vivid demonstration of just how often Jobs's visions of the future turned out to be correct.
If you read the Fortune anthology and Wired's more recent ebook, Steve Jobs: Revolutionary, you'll learn just as much about how Apple's products were developed as you would from reading Isaacson's book. Indeed, having read both shortly before reading Isaacson, I was struck by how much the biographer had drawn from them.
The Fortune articles offer lots of detail on the early years of Apple. The company, just making a name for itself, was less secretive then and as time has passed more people have told their story of working on the Apple Lisa, the Apple Mac and the company's other groundbreaking products.
Isaacson repeats a lot of the stories from those Fortune articles and others that Apple followers will already know from other books, blogs and websites. He offers lots of detail on areas that have already been widely covered elsewhere but as the book moves towards the present day, there are fewer details of life inside Apple.
Less has been published about Apple's more recent products - though Wired's iPhone article is excellent - and as a result Isaacson has less to offer. It really appears that, on the product side of things, Isaacson did not uncover much new information. It's not clear whether that's because he wasn't interested or wasn't able to get the answers.
What you do get from Isaacson is more detail on Jobs's private life and his personality. Asked why he consented to the book, Jobs told Isaacson: "I wanted my kids to know me." To this end, there is a lot about Jobs's childhood, particularly his relationship with his adoptive parents. We get lots of details of his faddish eating habits, his interest in meditation and occasional sections on his romantic life.
The man that emerges is fascinating but also hard to like. Jobs was controlling, manipulative and could be savagely cruel. Most bizarrely, he was prone to breaking down in tears when things didn't go his way. This continued well into his adult life; he even cried when he was told that the original iMac would have to have a CD tray, rather than his preferred option - a less intrusive CD slot.
Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief and one of Jobs's closest colleagues, tells Isaacson:
"But there are times, I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does that."
And yet, time and time again Isaacson talks to former colleagues who say that working with Jobs was the best time in their career. His former girlfriends acknowledge that he could frequently be difficult and unreasonable and yet they speak fondly of him. Jobs's enormous charisma appears to have been enough to balance the unpleasant side of his personality.
Isaacson gives comprehensive coverage of the cancer that ultimately killed Jobs. At times it made for harrowing reading but Jobs's determination to continue his work despite the disease was admirable. The story Isaacson tells of Jobs in hospital, rejecting the oxygen mask he was being given and demanding to see alternatives, demonstrates just how obsessed the man was with perfection in design.
Given the time that Isaacson spends on Jobs's cancer it's noticeable that the book moves almost straight from his resignation as Apple CEO to his death. It seems clear that there wasn't time for Isaacson to write much about Jobs's last days before the book's release.
That sense of the book being rushed is apparent every now and again in the text. Names are mis-spelt, for example, and quotes are repeated in different chapters. Delaying the book might have given time to fix those mistakes and also would have allowed Isaacson to cover the tributes to Jobs, from family, friends and colleagues.
Overall, this isn't a bad book. Those starting with little knowledge of Apple will find most of what they need here. However, readers who know Apple - and I imagine they would be a significant audience for this book - will be letdown. Isaacson could, and should, have done better with this book.