Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In short, this is one of the best biographies I have read in years. I didn’t expect it to be so because I was somewhat disappointed by Isaacson’s more recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. My main objection with that one was that it didn’t read like a biography, which is usually the more or less sequential story of a person’s life. Instead, it focused on descriptions of Leonardo’s notebooks. This Steve Jobs biography is a more traditional chronological account of the man’s life.

I’ve actually had this book around for years but never read it. I had read a section on Jobs in one of Isaacson’s other books, The Innovators, and it was clear from that account that Jobs was not a very nice man. However, I decided to read this book after watching the movie based on it written by Aaron Sorkin. The brilliant, incisive script hit high points but left enough out to make me curious about the rest of Jobs’s life.

Well, it’s true, in fact, that Jobs was not a nice man. He was emotional, volatile, egocentric, domineering, demanding, caustic, sharp-tongued, sometimes cruel, sometimes brutal, and sometimes ruthless. However, he was also a genius when it came to creating and marketing quality high-tech products for consumers. He cared deeply about the products he created and considered that they could only be truly great if they were a blend of technology and artistry.

One thing that makes this book so impressive is that it reads like a three-act play or film. If you count Jobs’s early life, travels, and quest for enlightenment through drugs and eastern philosophies as prologue, the first act concerns the founding of Apple with Steve Wozniak and Jobs’s early years there, and the development of the Apple II and the Mac computer.

Jobs was eventually ousted from Apple, whereupon he formed a new company to make NeXT computers. This is the second act. The most significant thing that happened, though, during his exile from Apple was when he bought Pixar from George Lucas. He invested about 50 million dollars of his own money into the company, and then when it went public a few weeks after the premier of Toy Story, he made about 1.3 billion dollars overnight.

In the meantime, most of the innovators who had originally made Apple a dynamic tech company had exited. Apple was sinking fast and seemed almost beyond redemption. That’s when Steve Jobs was invited back to attempt to resuscitate the company. This is the third act. At first he only accepted the role of an advisor, but eventually he took over as full CEO and was running the show. That’s when the world started to see the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and so on. One unique product after another came out of Apple and became cultural icons.

While he was at the pinnacle of tech innovation at Apple, Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, which progressively worsened over a period of a few years. He stayed on as Apple CEO as long as he could and remained feisty and abrasive until the end. He finally had to step down and let others take over.

All in all, this is a fascinating biography that offers a look at the dynamic history of Silicon Valley and the development of digital products that changed the world. What made Steve Jobs unique in all this was his vision that blended the viewpoint of an artist with cutting-edge technology.

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