Book review: Steve Jobs: The exclusive biography

Steve Jobs gets a biography that's worthy of him in this unsparing portrait of a genius who was instrumental in creating the digital age. Rory Cellan-Jones was enthralled.

by Rory Cellan-Jones
Last Updated: 13 Jan 2012
Within hours of Steve Jobs's death in October, impromptu shrines began to appear outside Apple Stores - flowers, half-eaten apples and iPhones and iPads with images of flickering candles. The man whose company had always attracted a cult following was fast becoming a saint. But, no more than a day later, the backlash began. Jobs was not a saint or even a genius, just, in the words of AN Wilson, 'a clever backroom boy who got lucky'.

What Walter Isaacson's masterful biography reveals is that both the true believers and the cynics got Jobs wrong. In a warts-and-all portrait that continually had this reader recoiling in disgust at the petulant pioneer's behaviour, he shows that Apple's co-founder was very far from being a saint.

As a teenager, he browbeats his kindly parents into sending him to a college they cannot afford - then drops out after a year. After teaming up with the brilliant but naive engineer Steve Wozniak he cheats him out of his share of a bonus they get for designing a game. 'Ethics matter to me,' the always tolerant Wozniak tells the author, 'but, you know, people are different.'

And as a tyrannical leader, he is either screaming at Apple staff about their appalling inadequacies or stealing their ideas and taking the credit for them before an adoring public.

Throughout, we see the cranky food habits, the misguided belief that a fruit diet means you only need to shower once a week and an almost wilful disregard for the feelings of others, including those of his family.

But, hey, Henry Ford was not the world's nicest man and Thomas Edison was apparently a ruthless egomaniac. Those who aspire to change the world are almost always difficult people, and Isaacson, while obeying the instructions of Jobs's wife not to whitewash his life, presents a compelling case for his genius.

Yes, he was a magpie, snatching the idea for the graphical user interface from Xerox Parc, the iPod concept from other MP3 players, the iPad from Microsoft's tablet computer. But, as he said: 'Picasso had a saying - "good artists copy, great artists steal" - and we've always been shameless about stealing great ideas.'

It was what he did with those ideas that proved his genius for spotting where technology might head next and shaping it to his will. The perfectionism meant driving his executives to distraction with constant demands for tiny adjustments - a different font, a paler shade of green - before anything could be shipped.

Jobs was not a quarter the engineer that Wozniak was or as gifted artistically as Jony Ive, the designer whose close but somewhat tortured relationship with his boss is an interesting subplot in the latter half of the book. But his creative imagination changed a series of industries - computers, mobile phones, music and, with Pixar, the movie business.

His greatest creation, though, was Apple itself, a company that always wanted to be about more than technology. 'It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough,' he said at the unveiling of the iPad 2. 'We believe that it's technology married with the humanities that makes our hearts sing.'

Cynics would say that it has been not the humanities or the arts but a ruthless attention to marketing and margins that has enabled Apple to put more than $70bn in the bank.

But the Jobs strategy of management remained pretty constant throughout his career, and it was always centred on product not profit. At its core was complete control over hardware and software and of every stage of the product's life cycle, from conception through to the retailer.

We see that strategy triumph as early Apple products define home computing, then fail as Microsoft's rival philosophy of licensing its software prevails. Then in 1996, with Apple on the ropes, its co-founder returns.

At a staff meeting, he asks people what has gone wrong - and without waiting for a reply tells them it's the products: 'The products suck! There's no sex in them any more!'

And, of course, so successful was he in putting the sex back in that Apple ends up racing past Microsoft to become the most valuable technology company in the world.

Apple's rise to that position has been characterised by a management style that is now right out of fashion - the egomaniac CEO, the obsessive secrecy, the total disregard for market research, the suspicion of collaborative ventures.

Walter Isaacson has written an enthralling history of the birth of our modern digital world and the company that may have done more than any other to shape it. And, in his obnoxious, smelly, ranting, impatient, intuitive, creative and inspirational Steve Jobs, he has presented us with the greatest business genius of the past 30 years.

Steve Jobs: The exclusive biography

Walter Isaacson

Little, Brown, £25.00


- Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC's technology correspondent

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