Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

For most people, the arc of Steve Jobs’s career is defined by the Apple II, the Macintosh, Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters, the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and App Store, the iPad and iCloud. None of these would have happened except for Steve Jobs’s extraordinarily intense personality.

Biographer Walter Isaacson talks of ‘Good Steve’ and ‘Bad Steve’ but the latter was more frequently in evidence. Take the engineer who’d been working 80 hour weeks (how do you even do that?) for ten months and had the misfortune to meet up with Jobs one Friday afternoon for review. Jobs fell into a typical fury and began abusing the engineer, calling his work ‘shit’: shortly afterwards the engineer quit. This sounds terrible, and it is, but without ‘Bad Steve’ there would have been – nothing.

When engineers design a product it is typically efficient but clunky; over-functional and under-integrated. When accountants are in charge you get what the engineers wanted, but on the cheap. In most product companies, designers are humble artisans, serving up a ‘user-friendly’ wrapping over what someone else decided to produce.

By contrast, wherever Steve Jobs went the designer was in charge: Jobs was the super-user, the ambassador of the user experience. But when design is king, everyone else is required to move mountains to meet the central design concept. Naturally they consider this to be utterly unnecessary if not outright wilful.

Jobs’s reality distortion field denoted the triumph of ‘unrealistic’ design excellence over ‘good-enough’ engineering practice. Yet design is inherently subjective, there are no algorithms or equations that can tell you what Steve Jobs knew. The triumph of the apparently-arbitrary requires the power of a tyrant, yet that power was not (in general) wielded for personal reasons, but in the service of the design.

The design is not to be messed with. The Apple walled garden of total integration and control is the antithesis of the modular mix-n-match we associate with PC and Internet culture. But when the user (or the manufacturer) simply integrates a solution from market-available components there can be no over-arching design concept: flexibility, of necessity, breeds clunkiness. So which is best?

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you want a seamless, elegant and intuitive digital experience, then Apple will give it to you at a price, provided you stay within the Apple universe. Outside it you will have wider, cheaper and perhaps more innovative options, but the systems are uglier, harder to use and prone to odd failures. That’s what you get when there’s no adult supervision of the user experience.

Apple’s talented chief designer, Jony Ive, was dismayed by talk that Apple was (in the longer term) doomed to become just another company after Jobs’s death. ‘Many of the ideas were mine and I’m still here’ seemed to be his position; and with Tim Cook as the supportive CEO what was to stop the show going on? Just the missing ingredient of ‘Bad Steve’, the tyranny which breaks the resistance of all those reasonable voices from engineering and finance who can find a million excellent reasons for not entering the reality distortion field.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs , despite its door-stopping 600 pages, has been a runaway bestseller. Based on meticulous research (more than one hundred interviews) you get page-turning fly-on-the-wall access to the key episodes in Steve Jobs’s personal and business career. This is also an insider’s history of Silicon Valley high-tech from the dawn of the PC-age.

For several days while I was reading it I was boring my family by reading aloud amusing and frequently horrifying anecdotes of Steve Jobs’s behaviour, not all of which reflected badly on him. It’s highly recommended.