Book review: Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

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By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, May 24th, 2015.

When it comes to Apple there are two kinds of people – those who ‘get’ the company and those who think the other kind have been indoctrinated into a cult.

If you think that Apple fans are irrational in their love for what is, after all, a commercial entity then you probably think that Steve Jobs was every bit as messed up as his personal myth suggests. An unpleasant control freak who fathered a child and — even after a DNA test confirmed his parentage — refused for years to have anything to do with them.

Someone who could be an arrogant bully and ruthless when it came to using those around him and discarding them as soon as his interest waned.

But those who ‘get’ Apple largely appreciate that while Steve Jobs was a flawed human being, he nevertheless had a colossal effect on the way millions of people around the world live their lives, debatably more so than anyone else in his industry.

Becoming Steve Jobs is the second but by far the most interesting major biography of Jobs to appear since he died in 2011. The first, Walter Isaacson’s ‘Steve Jobs,’ was authorised by Jobs himself but was largely disappointing. While Isaacson got hours of personal interviews with his subject and was reportedly told that his un-vetted book should be a warts and all dissection of Jobs’ life, it failed to get under the skin of why Jobs and his company have endured.

In contrast, Becoming Steve Jobs delivers in spades what Isaacson’s significantly thicker work didn’t. In particular people interested in the intersection between Job’s personality — his strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures – and the success of his company will find this a fascinating read.

Whereas Apple design guru Jony Ive didn’t take part in Isaacson’s book and was subsequently quoted as saying his regard “couldn’t be lower” for the book, he was extensively interviewed for Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s book, as was Tim Cook, Bill Gates and Job’s widow Laurene Powell Jobs.

The resulting book has as good a claim as any to be a semi-official official Apple-endorsed account of its founder’s life and influence on the company. Schlender and Tetzeli trace Jobs’ life, starting with his pivotal early relationship with initial Apple partner Steve Wozniak and their first meeting in 1971 to the creation of the first Apple computer in 1976 in the Jobs’ family Palo Alto garage.

From there, the book covers the major episodes in Jobs career and life, from Apple’s earliest days to Job’s early mistakes and steep learning curve as a business leader, culminating in his notorious sacking from the company he helped found in 1985.

This book goes into much more detail on the founding of NeXT and Job’s acquisition of Pixar in 1986 than Isaacson’s book does, and in the process rounds out the story of how Jobs coped with this period of his life when he seems to have largely felt as if he had been cast into the abyss. His subsequent return to Apple in 1996 is extensively documented, as is the manner in which he brought the company from near bankruptcy to profitability in just two years.

In his second stint at the head of Apple, Jobs oversaw the introduction of the iMac, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad as well as introducing Apple’s high street network of stores and creating the iTunes store and App store.

At the heart of Schlender and Tatzeli’s book is the central thesis that Jobs was never really about the technology he sold. In particular, once he returned to Apple he cultivated a level of detachment from the company’s products that allowed him to constantly focus on the next thing.

At a time when the IT world was largely obsessed with processor speeds and storage capacity, from the early 1990s onwards, he understood that what really mattered and continues to matter is the user experience. The average person on the street doesn’t care how their car works, or their phone or laptop for that matter — they only care about how easy it is to use, how reliable it is and what it lets them do.

And this is the point that continues to confound those who don’t understand why the general public queues up on launch day to hand over more money than they need to in order to get the latest Apple gadget. Jobs moved the conversation on past the point of technical specifications and humanised the way people interact with the technology around them.

Schlender first met Jobs in 1986 while working as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal covering Silicon Valley. His relationship with him seems to have been at times close but also complex in nature. The two men maintained contact for over twenty years and at times Jobs took a close interest in his family and personal health.

The closing chapters of the book, dealing with Jobs illness and decline make for an emotional read. It’s clear that Schlender regrets some of his interactions with his subject. Becoming Steve Jobs is an important book for the additional light it sheds on Jobs, his company and his life and it seems likely that part of its success is due to the investment its authors have in getting their story right.

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