Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” is set to become the definitive biography of the recently departed Apple CEO, if only because he was granted unprecedented access to not only Jobs, but also a wide variety of friends and rivals and colleagues. For that reason alone, in terms of delving into the psychology and motivations of its subject, the book is certainly more comprehensive than any other Jobs biography.
For all that comprehensiveness, however, Jobs-by-Isaacson remains an enigmatic character, bristling with unexplained contradictions and powered by vague motivations. He offers opinions on everyone and everything from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to Microsoft and Google, but so much about his own thought process remains a vexing question.
That being said, Jobs’ personality remains largely consistent throughout the book. In his early twenties, as he helps transform Apple from a small computer-building project in his parents’ garage to an increasingly massive concern, Jobs is described as “temperamental and bratty,” more than willing to launch verbal broadsides at subordinates whose work didn’t live up to his exacting standards. His vision involved offering an end-to-end product: “My vision was to create the first fully packaged computer,” he told Isaacson. “There were a thousand people who would want the machine to be ready to run.” He had unconventional ideas about diet. And most of all, he wanted to create his own company.
Steve Jobs 30 years later comes off as much the same. He shreds those who displease him. “I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face,” he says near the end of the book. “I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create.” His vision still involves end-to-end products, not only in terms of hardware and software but also the cloud. His dietary quirks persist, to the point where his pickiness interferes with his ability to handle the ravages of cancer. And most of all, he wants his company to continue creating great products, even as his own end appears more and more inevitable.
But those who want insight into what makes Jobs tick-the Apple core of his genius, as it were-could walk away from the book disappointed. You learn about Jobs’ music collection (big on Dylan, one of his inspirations, and the Beatles) and his decision making process in the meetings that resulted in the iPod and iPad, but little about his actual thinking process. You learn early on that “he grew up not only with a sense of having once been abandoned, but also with a sense that he was special,” but less about the source of his famous temper. “I was hard on people sometimes, probably harder than I need to be,” he says. “But somebody’s got to do it.”
Isaacson quotes a number of figures throughout the book who discuss their relationship with Jobs-Jonathan Ive and his slightly spurned take on Jobs’ fame is particularly fascinating-but few offer startling insight beyond what you’d find (usually credited to “unnamed sources”) in a magazine or newspaper article.
By the very end of the book, Isaacson cedes the biographical format to long paragraphs of Jobs talking about his positions, which offers some insights but also deprives the reader of balance. “What drove me?” he asks. “I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us.” Isaacson, despite having talked to Jobs’ peers and family, and delved into his history, doesn’t offer any sort of counterpoint or descriptive framework, and this section of the book floats in space-giving the impression that the work as a whole, as with so many things related to Jobs, remained unfinished upon his death.