Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (abstract)

Steve Jobs
by Walter Isaacson
Copyright © 2011 by Walter Isaacson
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 656 pages

Take Aways

  • Steve Jobs always knew he was special – from the time he learned he was adopted to the time he ran the “world’s most valuable company.”
  • His drive for perfection and control and his love for design began early in his childhood.
  • While in high school, Jobs met Steve Wozniak, his eventual partner in Apple Computer.
  • Wozniak was the engineering geek, and Jobs was the marketing and design genius.
  • Jobs operated in a “reality distortion field,” where he could make the seemingly impossible happen.
  • Always the corporate rebel, his success with the Macintosh led to his disenchantment with the firm he had founded.
  • Jobs could be rude, manipulative, preoccupied, authoritarian and cold, but also caring, compelling, captivating and charming.
  • His 1985 ouster from Apple gave him freedom to pursue his vision with Pixar and NeXT.
  • His return to Apple brought the firm back to profitability with innovative products.
  • Steve Jobs “put a dent in the universe” in a way that was fun, clever and edgy.


What You Will Learn

In this Abstract, you will learn:
1) How Steve Jobs’s views and personality affected his relationships and management of Apple Computer
2) How his ouster from Apple led him to explore other vistas, and
3) How his return unleashed the company’s creative energy.


Apple Computer’s founder Steve Jobs astounded the world with his creative vision and confounded people with his mercurial, often cruel personality. Best-selling biographer and media insider Walter Isaacson synthesizes the conflicting aspects, rooted deep within Jobs’s psyche, of a man whose harsh and relentless demand for perfection at times threatened to overshadow his genius. Written at Jobs’s request soon after his cancer diagnosis – but without his control or final say – Isaacson’s book thoroughly dissects the Apple founder’s life through extensive interviews and research. getAbstract recommends this definitive biography of a complicated, creative and ultimately world- changing persona.


Born Special

Someone who knew Steve Jobs as a child might not have thought that he’d ascend to the top of the business world by founding and running the “world’s most valuable company.” His origins were modest, but even as a kid he displayed the curiosity, audacity and force of will that characterized his career. Adopted as an infant, he felt “chosen,” but he battled lifelong residual feelings of abandonment. As a child, he was wildly precocious, brash and smart. In fourth grade, he tested at the level of a tenth grader. At 13, he phoned Hewlett- Packard chairman Bill Hewlett at home to cadge free parts for a school electronics project. Under his father’s tutelage, Jobs developed a passion for design and craftsmanship; he learned to take pride in his work, to pay attention to details – even those no one would ever know or care about – and to demand perfection of himself and those around him.

As a teenager, Jobs turned his interest in electronics to the emerging field of computers. He embraced the late-1960s counterculture in the future Silicon Valley. He indulged in LSD and other psychedelics, later crediting the drugs for his creative vision. Jobs also embarked on a lifelong obsession with unusual diets; he would shift from being a “fruitarian” to eating just one or two foods for weeks at a time, leading to bouts of bulimia. He usually went barefoot and rarely bathed, which led to his working the night shift alone at Atari, the games company. Jobs pursued his growing interest in Buddhism and Eastern spiritual philosophies by spending seven months in India, where he learned the value of intuition and insight. These experiences led him to embrace computers’ latent possibilities, more for their potential to enhance human consciousness than for their business or commercial applications. But the Zen influences of his interests did nothing to temper Jobs’s increasingly critical, rude and “bratty” behavior.

An Apple for Every Day

While still a high school student, Jobs met Steve Wozniak, a shy, retiring electronics geek, who shared Jobs’s love of Bob Dylan and practical jokes. They teamed up to build and sell “Blue Boxes,” devices that mimicked telephone tones indicating a paid line and thus enabling owners to place free long-distance calls. Wozniak was a more gifted technician, but Jobs had the moxie and spirit to commercialize their early products. Jobs monetized what Woz invented. Drawing from his work in a commune’s orchard, Jobs felt “Apple” was a soft, unthreatening name. From their base in the Jobs family’s garage, Woz created and Jobs marketed the Apple and the Apple II.

Jobs’s genius in his approach to Apple’s products was to envision a self-contained unit with a keyboard, power source and software that would allow the average consumer to own and operate a computer. Jobs took computing out of the realm of geeks and hobbyists and into people’s homes with the first personal computer. While Wozniak developed the circuit boards, Jobs bundled the computing power into “a friendly package” that encompassed his unrelenting drive for perfection. For instance, he rejected more than 2,000 shades of beige for the Apple II’s case and insisted on offering a one-year warranty when 90 days was the industry standard. When his colleagues fought back, Jobs would scream, rant and sometimes burst into tears, but he usually got what he wanted. His closest collaborators learned how to manage him, but he was the master manipulator, judging others to see how he could get his own way.

The impetus to achieve even more led Jobs to assemble a renegade team of “pirates” to compete internally with the Apple corporate team that was building the Lisa computer (named in honor of the illegitimate daughter Jobs at first reluctantly acknowledged and later embraced). Though wildly successful, the pirates’ Macintosh – named after Jobs’s favorite kind of apple – led to his growing disenchantment with the increasingly corporate nature of his company.

When the Rules Don’t Apply: Jobs’s “Reality Distortion Field

Jobs had an uncanny ability to cajole others to follow his visions and ideas. He would demand what others deemed unattainable; by the sole act of envisioning the impossible, he made it happen. He changed reality. Dichotomies ruled his world: He focused so intensely on what interested him that he sometimes ignored all else, including his wife, Laureen, their children – Reed, Erin and Eve, as well as Lisa – and his family and friends. He could be cruel and scathing in his criticisms of others and their work, yet he cultivated faithful, almost fanatical, acolytes. He eschewed material possessions, living in mostly unfurnished homes, but his passion for products made Apple a commercial juggernaut. Jobs believed the rules didn’t apply to him. The man who refused to put license plates on his cars and parked in handicapped-reserved spaces invented products consumers didn’t even know they wanted but soon passionately loved.

Jobs ascribed much of his impatient, often nasty, behavior to a feeling – even predating his 2003 cancer diagnosis – that he wouldn’t live long. He felt an obligation to spread his esthetic view and rejected the belief that the customer knew best. After his ouster from Apple in 1985, he pursued his quixotic ventures more freely. He started a new computer firm, NeXT, and bought Pixar, the creator of Toy Story and other animated blockbusters, which he personally funded. When Apple purchased NeXT from him in 1996, Jobs was conflicted about returning to the firm he had built. Apple had floundered in his absence. A mountain of problems faced the company, many due to issuing too many undistinguished products. Jobs understood that Apple had strayed from his vision of what makes a firm great: a single-minded emphasis on product excellence, not profit.

Deliberate Design

Steve Jobs learned the importance of quality in design from his father, who taught him that making the hidden sides of a cabinet beautiful mattered as much as creating an elegant front. From his forays into Eastern philosophies, Jobs understood that a product’s design was wrapped up in its essence, not just in its outward appearance. Jobs took these concepts to great lengths in his belief that the presentation of Apple’s products could convey as much meaning as the products themselves. Even packaging could be “theater.” Jobs became involved in the minutiae of design and packaging, so much so that his name appears on several patents on Apple products.

Jobs grabbed the public’s attention when Apple introduced the iMac in 1998. The rounded, “playful looking” computer came with a semitransparent casing, and was available in five colors. The window to its inner workings promoted Jobs’s esthetic of making the inside as attractive as the outside. The computer’s apparently simple design gave a false impression of the difficulty of crafting its translucent shell. When Apple extended the iMac’s range of colors, Bill Gates of Microsoft painted his PC red and scoffed that the iMac “would be a passing fad.”

A Second Slice of Apple

Given another chance to run the company he had founded, Jobs buckled down to save Apple. “His management mantra was ‘Focus’.” He rejected scores of developing product lines, laid off extraneous employees and cut bloated inventories. Jobs had morphed from an anything-goes, free-spirited corporate rebel to a singularly dedicated, collaborative, though still volatile, executive. He believed in “deep collaboration” among departments and in hiring and cultivating “A players.” Thus, a potential marketing hire had to pass muster with the designers and engineers.

“Concurrent engineering” meant that products in development underwent simultaneous review by manufacturing, design, marketing and distribution, rather than passing through each area sequentially. This ensured that everyone had a hand in developing and creating new products. Jobs hired Tim Cook to manage operations, and the two men clicked. Cook eventually would help Jobs run Apple. They both insisted on a single profit-and-loss accountability, rather than giving separate functions and divisions autonomous financial responsibility. This allowed all parts of Apple to work cohesively and innovate readily. The strategy worked: Once “less than 90 days from being insolvent,” Apple turned a $1 billion loss in 1997 to a $309 million profit a year later.

Today’s Apple stores resulted from Jobs’s almost obsessive need for control. His computers were different, but general retailers couldn’t focus on explaining the differences to shoppers. Jobs wanted to manage the consumer’s experience, in the same way as he had influenced all other aspects of the computers’ design and production. Therefore, he plunged into designing retail outlets with the same gusto he brought to everything else. He insisted on costly, high traffic locations. He fixated on details such as the stores’ flooring (“gray-blue Pietra Serena sandstone” from Italy) and the shade of gray of the restroom signage. He patented the design of the stores’ titanium and glass staircases. He wanted more than a store; he wanted a customer experience that “would impute the ethos of Apple products: playful, easy, creative, and on the bright side of the line between hip and intimidating.”

Beyond Computers

Jobs took “Top 100” staffers (the ones he would choose to take “on a lifeboat to [his] next company”) on an annual retreat to brainstorm about Apple Computer’s future. In 2000, the firm’s transformation began. The personal computer evolved into a “digital hub” that could manage a consumer’s “digital lifestyle,” from written communications to cameras to music players to video recording. Apple dropped “Computers” from its corporate name to exploit the potential of the Internet to network and integrate these different aspects. For instance, iTunes evolved from Jobs’s realization that downloading music from the web would alter the music industry: “The iTunes Store sold a million songs in its first six days.” The iPod resulted from the need for a better music player, and its innovations included the scroll wheel. The iPod’s success built upon iMac sales, cementing the brand. By January 2007, the iPod earned “half of Apple’s revenues.”

Still, Jobs kept looking for the next big thing. Spotting mobile phones as the key to the next wave, he “put a dent in the universe” and unveiled the iPhone, combining the iPod, telephony and Internet access. Dubbed “the Jesus Phone,” it accounted for more than 50% of total global cellphone profits by year-end 2010. The idea for a tablet idea preceded the iPhone, but in 2010 experimentation with the iPhone paved the way for the next world- changing item: the iPad.

A Contrarian with Cancer

Jobs believed his cancer, diagnosed in 2003, resulted from his stressful days running Apple and Pixar in the late 1990s. Kidney stone treatment led to the testing that discovered his pancreatic cancer. Yet the prognosis was good; the tumor was slow-growing and treatable. But Jobs again turned on his reality distortion field and rejected the medical establishment’s recommendations for surgery. He consulted dietitians, acupuncturists and psychics; he followed rigid vegan diets, underwent colon cleansings and banished all negativity from his thoughts. In 2005, he alluded to his mortality in his commencement address at Stanford University. In an echo of his earlier belief that he would die a premature death, Jobs told the graduates, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life…There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

A Legacy of Innovation

Steve Jobs did more than just build a technology company. He transformed industries, invented new ways of communicating, placed the world at people’s fingertips, and did it in a way that was fun, clever and cool. His belief that the product was everything guided Apple’s philosophy and its focus on how the consumer would perceive and use its products. Jobs felt, as did his idol Edwin Land of Polaroid, that he stood at “the intersection of the humanities and science.” Like Walt Disney, William Hewlett and Dave Packard, Jobs wanted to leave behind a company that made a contribution to society and represented more than just profits. Feeling grateful for the groundbreaking work of these pioneers, Jobs recognized in the end that his driving force was to open doors for others to conquer remarkable achievements. He acknowledged that his personality was difficult, and that his behavior was at times cruel, but he believed that being “super honest” was the only way to be the best and to elicit the best from those around him.

When people asked Steve Jobs if he believed in an afterlife, he confessed that he was torn. But then he reverted to what he practiced at Apple. Maybe, he mused, life had an on-off switch: “That’s why I never like to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

Walter Isaacsonwho was formerly the chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine, has also written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger.

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