Sunday 3 January 2016

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

One of Steve Jobs's (many) idiosyncrasies was his fondness for talking to someone while taking a long walk with them. This makes him an ideal subject for a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, who ever since the days of The West Wing has been famed for having his characters talk while they walk.

The Steve Jobs film with an Aaron Sorkin script and directed by Danny Boyle is one of the finest movies of the year. I enjoyed it so much, and was so fascinated by the picture of Jobs it evoked, that I sought out the biography, written by Walter Isaacson, which it was based on.

The book proved to be an addictive and compelling read, and full of surprises. I didn't know Apple created the first successful home computer and indeed, if they'd played their cards right they could have continued to dominate the market and never let IBM/Microsoft get a foothold. 

I did know that the wonderful user-friendly Macintosh interface, which changed the world, was directly derived from work already done at Xerox PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center). But Apple, driven relentlessly by Jobs, improved it enormously. The original Xerox mouse was a clumsy, complicated and expensive artefact. Jobs streamlined it brilliantly.

But Jobs was disingenuous — to say the least — to accuse Bill Gates of ripping him off when Microsoft introduced Windows (a coarse and clumsy copy of Macintosh). Gates himself was surprisingly witty on the subject: 'Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it. I think it's more like we had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into the house to steal the TV set and found that you had already stolen it."

However, this is just about the last point Gates can be said to score. It’s hilarious to read how he completely gets it wrong every time he predicts disaster after an Apple product launch and instead sees his company relentlessly ground into the dirt by each magnificent innovation from his rival: the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad — every one  a brainchild of the fascinating, exasperating, exceptional human being who was Steve Jobs.  
In fact, 'exasperating' doesn't begin to describe it: "He refused such trappings as having a 'Reserved for CEO' spot, but he assumed for himself the right to park in the handicapped spaces."

Nevertheless, the man was a genius, not only driving the creation of some of the most stunningly designed — and effective — technological products of our time, but he also seemed to be able to anticipate the future. He correctly predicted that the iPod would be wiped out if they weren't careful: "The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone,” he said.

So he set about conquering the cell phone market.

Jobs remained cantankerous right up to the end, when he was knocking on death’s door. Lying on a hospital bed “the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.”

Now I want to see that movie again.
(Image credits: The standard cover shot with the black and white photo by Albert Watson is from Wikipedia. The variant, more smiley cover, also by Watson, is from Simon & Schuster. The Time magazine cover is from Fortune. The Norman Seef black and white head shot, used on a Rolling Stone cover, is from iPhone Savior. The front and back cover shot is from iMore.)

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