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November 16, 2011

The Apple of Our Eye….Steve Jobs

by Anne Paddock
“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson was recently published and is a must read for anyone interested in Apple and the technology industry.  The publication of a biography just a few weeks after the death of the star is usually a red flag:  how could anyone put together a biography and have it published within days of the memorial service? It almost reeks of sensationalism but this book was not whipped up overnight.
Walter Isaacson explains he was initially contacted to write the biography in 2004, nearly a year after Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Jobs knew his time was limited and that people would write about him after his death so to preempt them and get his version out, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography and the result is a 600 page book that is hard to put down. Isaacson demanded complete control and Jobs surprisingly acquiesced (as Jobs is famous for keeping control) probably because be believed that Isaacson would write a fair assessment.  Although Jobs gave Isaacson full access to family, friends, employees, partners, and co-workers, Isaacson does not sugarcoat the incredibly gifted but difficult man Jobs was known to be.  The result is a balanced biography that Jobs would both like and dislike.

The story is interesting and after finishing, several parts kept me thinking:
  • There are two types of systems in the market: the Apple approach where the hardware and software are tightly integrated versus the Microsoft (and others) where the hardware and software are open;
  • Jobs was right more often than he was wrong;
  • Jobs wore his emotions on his sleeve;
  • Women did not play a big role in the Steve Jobs universe;
  • Jobs had strong opinions of the US education system;
  • Jobs truly suffered in the last three years of his life.
The Tightly Integrated Closed System Versus The Open Model

There are basically two types of systems in the tech world with each best exemplified by the leaders in the field:  Jobs with Apple and Gates with Microsoft.  The tightly integrated closed system is what Apple products are all about. Jobs believed in controlling the customer’s experience and making the product easy to use. In order to do this, the company had to control the hardware and software and not allow products from the outside to mess the system up or wear down the battery.

I bought my first Macbook in 2005 at the West Des Moines, Iowa Apple store. Walking through the mall, I noticed the Apple store, did a double take thinking “Apple – West Des Moines, Iowa,” walked in, spoke at length to an Apple “genius” and left 2 hours later with my first Macbook, software installed. I literally opened the box, turned the computer on, and started using my new tech toyIt was that easy.

Because I was living overseas at the time and the Geneva Apple store had not yet opened, I opted to buy a service where I could call Apple from anywhere in the world 24/7 and get questions or problems resolved. Although the Apple “genius” assured me I wouldn’t have problems and if I did, I would be able to figure them out, I honestly didn’t believe the guy – he was a salesman after all.  My first thought..”yea,right..I’ve been told that before.”

My recollection and historical use of computers did not give me a sense of confidence yet I never had an integrated closed system before where all the hardware and software were linked together in this tidy little package.  I didn’t call Apple – not once – that year because I didn’t need to.  The computer worked like a charm and every command was either instinctual or easy to figure out.  There it was:  the hardware, software, the store, and the lifeline if you need it. Apple had me hook, line, and sinker.

Critics negated Apple for it’s closed system saying the company’s approach bordered on “Big Brother,” Jobs responded “We do these things not because we are control freaks. We do them because we want to make great products, because we care about the user and because we like to take responsibility for the entire experience rather than turn out the crap that other people make.”

Bill Gates epitomizes the other side of the market with an open system that allows the user to use the company’s software on virtually any hardware.  There are fierce defenders of this market claiming an open system not only allows the user to make choices but also spawns innovation through trial and error. Point well taken. Users that want an open system should have it. Critics claim the more open the system, the higher probability of problems with viruses, battery draining downloads, and a multitude of integration problems. Also, true and for this group there is Apple.

Despite what each side says, a market exists for both types of systems and we can be gratefulthe stars aligned in 1955; otherwise we wouldn’t have Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to thank for giving us a choice.

Jobs Was Right More Often Than He Was Wrong

The whole world knows that Steve Jobs was both a genius and a jerk, at times.  In many ways, a reader can understand why he had to be forceful as there were always people who thought he was wrong (if he listened to them, we wouldn’t have the Apple products we have today).  His quest for perfection and simplicity were not shared by most people and consequently he bumped heads often.  What struck me was not how many mistakes he made when he was young but how he got everything so right in his 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

Jobs Wore His Emotions On His Sleeve

Steve Jobs was a crier, no doubt about it.  When he didn’t get his way or when he was deeply hurt or bothered, he cried and didn’t care.  For a man who cared so much about control, reading about his crying episodes was startling.  Jobs was also a yeller and screamer and defended his blunt actions by saying he was telling the truth as if the truth justifies cruelty.

Jobs truly didn’t care if he was liked; he was harsh and would hone in on a weakness and although the book doesn’t point it out, Gates could act the same way. Anyone that has read Paul Allen’s book “Idea Man” will realize that Jobs and Gates shared several personality traits: they didn’t suffer fools lightly and they demanded performance, recognition and compensation – lots of it.  Jobs was more the perfectionist and innovator while Gates was more the engineer but both were first and foremost, businessmen.

Women Did Not Play A Big Role In The Steve Jobs Universe

Throughout the book, there were few mentions of women as co-workers, employees, or personal advisors (i.e.lawyers, doctors, consultants, etc.) – probably because Jobs was considered a bully which would present a challenge. One of the few women that played prominent in this book was an elderly woman from Human Resources who Jobs respected because she would often reprimand Jobs after a temper tantrum. The other prominent women were a few former girlfriends, and his wife of 20 years, Laurene.  He had a tumultuous relationship with his oldest daughter, Lisa and he seemed to focus more time on his son, Reed than his two younger daughters, Erin and Eve.

Jobs Had Strong Opinions On The US Education System

Steve Jobs wasn’t afraid to tell the truth and he didn’t hold back when asked by Obama about the US education system.  Jobs felt the system was “hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules.” Unless the unions were broken and teachers treated as professionals where they could be hired and fired by principals based on merit, the system would never work. He also felt school days needed to be longer and in session eleven months our of the year.  And, finally not surprisingly he thought the idea of a teacher standing in front of a classroom using a chalkboard and textbook was “absurd.” In his opinion,classrooms needed to be digitized and interactive with students getting feedback in real-time.

Jobs Truly Suffered In The Last Three Years Of His Life

No part of the book struck me as much as the suffering Jobs endured in his fight to live and I don’t know if that’s a testament to Isaacson’s writing or the human spirit. Twice while reading about the pain, I was moved to tears. Jobs lived for eight years after his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and although he had the “best” type of pancreatic cancer that carried a longer life expectancy, he was clearly on the offense after his first surgery in 2004. First, by having the cancer tumor sequenced and then having his DNA sequenced whichallowed the doctors to target specific pathways.

There is a void in the book from the time Jobs was initially operated on in October 2004 until the beginning of 2008, when the author states the doctors knew the cancer was spreading. Jobs nearly died in March of 2009 but after a liver transplant, he rebounded and lived for another two and a half years but not without a lot of pain and suffering. At times, I questioned the quality of life Jobs had as the book indicates he was using morphine based analgesics by 2008 to control the pain, but no one knows what they would do until they walk in the same shoes. Jobs felt there was still so much that he wanted to accomplish and he was running out of time.

Isaacson’s book doesn’t sugarcoat Jobs. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all laid out. But, I closed the book thinking the world is not a better place without Steve Jobs.  Jobs is probably up there telling God everything he did wrong and how he can improve the world…no, make that the universe.

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