STEVE Jobs was unrivalled in his ability to channel the zeitgeist of a generation. Through his myopic attention to perfection and grand visions, directed under his iron grip, Jobs took Apple – after being previously pushed out – from the verge of bankruptcy to become the biggest company in the world.
If you crave to know more about the man behind the myth, there is no better reference than Walter Isaacson’s latest work. Having penned biographies on Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson sees Jobs as a fitting successor: “Each of them had an intuitive genius, a creative imagination, an ability to think differently, and the type of magical mind that it takes to be an innovator.” The book is based on intense interviews with Jobs, his family, friends and colleagues, getting under the fingernails of what it was to be and know Jobs.
According to Isaacson: “This book is about the rollercoaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionised six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.” In fact, he thinks of adding “a seventh: retail stores, which Jobs did not quite revolutionise, but he did reimagine. Plus, he opened the way for a new market for digital content based on apps rather than just websites.”
COMMAND AND CONTROL
Isaacson’s book isn’t for uncritical fans – those looking for inspiration on how to live will come away disappointed. Through extensive interviews, Jobs was heavily involved in contributing to the book, but he wanted it to be independent. Before Jobs went to meet his maker – no doubt he is currently lambasting him or her on the flawed intelligence of his own design – he asked Isaacson if there was stuff in it that he wouldn’t like. Isaacson said “yes” and Jobs was content. He knew the components of a good story.
There is an error underpinning the way many people think about Jobs. Too many see him as the anti-business businessman. He certainly had a San Franciscan outlook, but he was first and foremost a supreme chief executive. His most cultish followers can’t accept that he was driven by the same instincts as other business people. They don’t know that business, like rock-and-roll, is all about giving the people what they want. Jobs’s genius, which he shares with his teenage obsession Bob Dylan, was in knowing what people wanted before they did. As Dylan forced electric guitar on his audience in 1965, Jobs pushed the people to accept the marriage of his technological vision, built upon his intense passion for aesthetics.
Isaacson concludes: “The unified field theory that ties together Jobs’s personality and products begins with his most salient trait: his intensity. His silences could be as searing as his rants; he had taught himself to stare without blinking.” This intensity, according to Isaacson, “encouraged a binary view of the world.” For Jobs, things were deeply flawed until they were perfect. And here lies the irony. This man who was built up by many as the anti-Bill Gates was an unpleasant man to work for. In many companies Jobs would have faced rebellion or been sacked. Thankfully for Apple’s consumers and shareholders, his genius was protected.
TOP BUSINESS MODEL
Through his obsessive attention to detail, Jobs implemented his genius every single day. Yet he also made the right bold strategic decisions. Isaacson notes that while Microsoft allowed Windows to be “promiscuously licensed” the Macintosh operating system wasn’t. This led to Microsoft dominating the market and as any management book of the time would tell you – Bill Gates and Microsoft were declared the winners.
But Apple’s bottom line remained strong. It may have had only 7 per cent of the industry’s revenue in 2010, but it was taking 35 per cent of its operating profits. “More significantly,” explains Isaacson, “in the early 2000s Jobs’s insistence on end-to-end integration gave Apple an advantage in developing a digital hub strategy.”
By force of character, Jobs managed to ward off the computer industry’s relentless creative destruction. When he left for the last time, Apple was in its prime and Isaacson’s book is a detailed snapshot of the life of the genius who made it happen.
Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson is published by Little, Brown: £25 hardback and £12.99 eBook.