Book review: Inside Steve's Brain: Business lessons from Steve Jobs, the man who saved Apple, by Leander Kahney

Creator of the Macintosh and the iPod, Apple is a pivotal US company. Its leader is a tantalisingly elusive figure, well captured by Leander Kahney, says Steve Moore.

by Leander Kahney
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Inside Steve's Brain: Business lessons from Steve Jobs, the man who saved Apple

By Leander Kahney

Atlantic Books, £8.99

The Mac is 25 years old this year. Steve Jobs did well in the '80s and '90s (at Pixar and Apple) and in recent years he has completely changed the media landscape, turning his also-ran computer company into the largest music retailer in the US. Is he the first great business leader of the 21st century?

Inside Steve's Brain is neither biography nor management manual. It tells how Jobs co-founded Apple, left it in high dudgeon, and then returned prodigal son-style to transform it into today's most successful consumer electronics firm.

At the same time, he built two wildly profitable new businesses (the iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecosystem and their retail operation). And, oh yeah, he also runs Pixar, which transformed animation with Toy Story. Pixar was recently bought by Disney, making Jobs Disney's largest shareholder. Not bad for a hippie dropout.

Author Leander Kahney is managing editor of Wired News. A long-time Mac fanatic, he knows Jobs better than most, and stitches together interviews and anecdotes, drawing little homilies on the way. Despite some repetition and the lack of any interview with Jobs, Kahney does a good job of fleshing out the management face of someone described as 'the great intimidator'. There's little about Pixar and nothing at all about the private life: Jobs is legendarily secretive, as evidenced recently by the trickle of information regarding his health. In fact, Jobs's latest statements were probably necessitated by disclosure regulations: even he needs to play nice with the SEC.

This mercurial figure has been described as a 'control-freak extraordinaire' - and worse. But Apple engenders affection among users, many of whom seem to worship Jobs. My friends consider me a member of that congregation, though I do sit near the back.

Kahney investigates Apple's successes and failures, decoding its processes through interviews and contemporary accounts. The TWBA\Chiat\Day agency 'Think different' commercials for Apple featured the likes of Dylan, Einstein, Rosa Parks and Picasso, all Jobs heroes. He says, 'great artists ship' - cute concepts aren't enough, you've got to sell in volume.

And it's two industrialists that Jobs cites most. One is Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid - a maverick scientist who had a great idea, commercialised it, and then (like Jobs) got kicked out of the company he built. The second is Henry Ford, who famously said: 'If I'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse.'

When Steves Jobs and Wozniak invented the Apple Macintosh in 1984, they were considered idealistic whippersnappers. It was the same when Apple released the iPod. Commentators didn't get it. Today, of the top dozen MP3 players in the US, 11 are iPods (Microsoft's Zune sneaks in at number 12). Apple has 80% of most MP3 markets globally. Jobs' masterstroke was negotiating with the labels to get their music on iTunes. Apple is now the largest music retailer in the US. Why? Because it's easy.

Kahney describes how Apple developed the interface. Today, software is everything. Jobs quotes Picasso: 'Good artists copy, great ones steal' - Apple bought the original iTunes system and hired Gap's retail guru to develop its stores.

Jobs says: 'Other companies don't get it.' If you create a great customer experience, they'll love you for it and, crucially, pay more.

Maybe it's good there's no interview with Jobs, given his legendary 'reality distortion field'. Instead, we hear from lieutenants, such as John Lasseter, Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive.

John Sculley (whom Jobs recruited when he needed an older CEO to appease Wall Street) offers a lot of insight. He presided over Jobs' exit, yet is clearly in awe.

Jobs divides people into two camps: geniuses and bozos. 'You can trust the geniuses,' he says. The bozos get fired. Survivors of Jobs's grillings are said to have the Stockholm syndrome, which has left him, according to Guy Kawasaki, with a company that is 'Steve Jobs with one thousand lives'. He can 'put the A-team on everything'.

Kahney's approach works reasonably well, and outlines some simple ideas. Apple 'risks failure' to succeed. Sometimes it doesn't work: Jobs' award-winning Power Mac G4 Cube sold poorly. Now, with 'flat the new up', Apple profits are rising and an A-team is working to conquer your living-room with the Apple TV unit.

We might not have the chutzpah of Jobs but we'll all learn something from this book, even if it's just to stop tolerating crap. I unboxed a Windows laptop today. I counted 40 logos and eight stickers on the thing. Consider that when you open your new MacBook.

Steve Moore runs three technology companies: SMC, airremote and digitalplumbers.com.

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