Walter Isaacson’s ‘Steve Jobs’

What is Apple at heart: a software company, or a hardware company?

This is a perennial question. The truth, of course, is that Apple is neither. Apple is an experience company. That they create both hardware and software is part of creating the entire product experience.

But, as a thought experiment, which is more important to you? What phone would you rather carry? An iPhone 4S modified to run Android or Windows Phone 7? Or a top-of-the-line HTC, Samsung, or Nokia handset running iOS 5?

What computer would you rather use? A MacBook running Windows 7, or, say, a Lenovo ThinkPad running Mac OS X 10.7?

For me, the answers are easy. It’s the software that matters most to me. I’d pick a Nokia Lumia running iOS 5 over an iPhone 4S running any other OS, and I’d pick the ThinkPad running Mac OS X over a Mac running Windows. No hesitation.

What do you think Steve Jobs would have chosen, facing the same choices?

Truth is he probably would have smashed any of such hypothetical devices against the nearest wall in a fit of rage, but, if forced to choose, I believe Jobs would have gone with the software.1 The hardware and the software are both important; Jobs clearly cared deeply about both. But I think Jobs ultimately thought software was more important. That was his whole explanation for the one-button design of the iPhone, on stage at Macworld Expo in January 2007, talking about the inherent problems with the existing smartphones then on the market. Jobs said:

They all have these keyboards that are there whether you need them or not to be there. And they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons, just for it. And what happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t run around and add a button to these things. They’re already shipped.

So what do you do? It doesn’t work because the buttons and the controls can’t change. They can’t change for each application, and they can’t change down the road if you think of another great idea you want to add to this product.

Well, how do you solve this?

Hmm. It turns out, we have solved it! We solved it in computers 20 years ago. We solved it with a bit-mapped screen that could display anything we want. Put any user interface up. And a pointing device. We solved it with the mouse. Right? We solved this problem. So how are we going take this to a mobile device?

What we’re going to do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen.

A few minutes later, Jobs said:

Now, you know, one of the pioneers of our industry, Alan Kay, has had a lot of great quotes throughout the years. And I ran across one of them recently that explains how we look at this. Explains why we go about doing things the way we do, because we love software.

And here’s the quote: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

You know, Alan said this 30 years ago, and this is how we feel about it.

This design — getting rid of all those buttons and just making a giant screen — is today not only the ubiquitous standard for smartphones industry-wide, but also exactly describes another device you may have heard of, called the iPad.

Design Is How It Works

There is much that is wrong with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, but its treatment of software is the most profound of the book’s flaws. Isaacson doesn’t merely neglect or underemphasize Jobs’s passion for software and design, but he flat-out paints the opposite picture.

Isaacson makes it seem as though Jobs was almost solely interested in hardware, and even there, only in what the hardware looked like. Superficial aesthetics.

In Chapter 26, “Design Principles: The Studio of Jobs and Ive”, Isaacson writes (p. 344 in the hardcover print edition):

“Before Steve came back, engineers would say ‘Here are the guts’ — processor, hard drive — and then it would go to the designers to put it in a box,” said Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller. “When you do it that way, you come up with awful products.” But when Jobs returned and forged his bond with Ive, the balance was again tilted toward the designers. “Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integral to what would make us great,” said Schiller. “Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice versa.”

On occasion this could backfire, such as when Jobs and Ive insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminum for the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers worried that it would compromise the antenna. But usually the distinctiveness of its designs — for the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad — would set Apple apart and lead to its triumphs in the years after Jobs returned.

Isaacson clearly believes that design is merely how a product looks and feels, and that “engineering” is how it actually works.

Jobs, in an interview with Rob Walker for his terrific 2003 New York Times Magazine profile on the creation of the iPod, said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

That quote is absent from Isaacson’s book, despite the book’s frequent use of existing source material. Instead, Isaacson includes an older quote:

That was the fundamental principle Jobs and Ive shared. Design was not just about what a product looked like on the surface. It had to reflect the product’s essence. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs told Fortune shortly after retaking the reins at Apple. “But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”

I think Jobs meant what he said to Fortune, and it’s an attempt to communicate the same core truth. But “Design is how it works” is a much better statement of Apple’s philosophy. Talk of a “product’s essence” (Isaacson’s words) or “the fundamental soul of a man-made creation” (Jobs’s) only serves to separate, conceptually, the art of design from the cold hard science of engineering. With just five words, “Design is how it works” expresses succinctly and accurately that engineering should and can be part of the art of design.

Design and engineering are, indeed, often in opposition — engineering constraints affect design; design goals affect engineering tradeoffs. But they are not separate endeavors. The philosophical question is which one is a subset of the other. What Schiller is telling Isaacson is that prior to Jobs’s return to Apple, design was what happened at the end of the engineering process. Post-Jobs, engineering became a component of the design process. This shift made all the difference in the world.

Isaacson does not understand this, and his telling of the Antennagate saga illustrates this perfectly. Again, the aforequoted bit from Chapter 26:

On occasion this could backfire, such as when Jobs and Ive insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminum for the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers worried that it would compromise the antenna.

The edge of the iPhone 4 (and now 4S) is the antenna.2 And it’s not made of brushed aluminum — it’s bead-blasted stainless steel.3 The engineering concern was therefore not that the steel edge would compromise the antennas, but rather that external antennas would compromise reception. The trade-off was that moving the antennas to the outside left more room on the inside — room for a bigger battery and other components, and allowed for the device to be thinner. Isaacson paints Jobs and Ive as being concerned only with how it looked and felt, with engineers left to worry about how it worked. The truth is that the design was how it worked.

Isaacson returns to this story in Chapter 39, in a section titled “Antennagate: Design vs. Engineering” (which section title again positions engineering as being separate from design, rather than part of design):

In many consumer product companies, there’s tension between the designers, who want to make a product look beautiful, and the engineers, who need to make sure it fulfills its functional requirements. At Apple, where Jobs pushed both design and engineering to the edge, that tension was even greater.

No passage in the book better illustrates Isaacson’s disregard for Steve Jobs’s philosophy of what “design” means.

Serious About Software

Isaacson, it seems clear, mistrusted Jobs. That’s good. But rather than using that mistrust to push back, to ask insightful questions, he instead simply turned to others. Regarding the early days of Apple and the original Mac, Isaacson turned to Andy Hertzfeld. The book does not suffer for this, because Hertzfeld is both honest and blessed with a seemingly extraordinary memory. But this history has been ably documented before — particularly well, no surprise, by Hertzfeld himself, with his Folklore website and the outstanding book compiled from that website, Revolution in the Valley.

Far less documented are the subsequent stages of Jobs’s career: the NeXT years and his return to Apple. As a counterpart to Jobs for those years, Isaacson repeatedly turned to Bill Gates.

Isaacson refers many times throughout the book to Jobs’s famed “reality distortion field”. A search for the term in the iBooks edition returns 30 results, including the title of Chapter 11. In that chapter, Isaacson writes:

To some people, calling it a reality distortion field was just a clever way to say that Jobs tended to lie. But it was in fact a more complex form of dissembling. He would assert something — be it a fact about world history or a recounting of who suggested an idea at a meeting — without even considering the truth.

I.e., Jobs had the ability to make people believe whatever he said, whether it was true or not. But not everyone:

But Gates was one person who was resistant to Jobs’s reality distortion field, and as a result he decided not to create software tailored for the NeXT platform.

I think Isaacson viewed Jobs’s RDF as something very much akin to the Jedi mind trick — something that worked against most people, but not those with strong minds. That might even be true. But I think Isaacson was so concerned with himself being “resistant” that he chose to treat much of what Jobs told him as false.

Again, skepticism is good. But rather than do the research to verify Jobs’s version of events, to learn the facts so as to be able to dispute Jobs himself, he simply turned to sources he did trust, like Hertzfeld and Gates. But Gates is an odd choice to trust, because he clearly has a conflict of interest. His company competed against Jobs’s, and at a personal level, he is Jobs’s only rival in terms of historical stature in the industry.

What happens then, repeatedly, is that Jobs tells Isaacson something that is true, but Isaacson doesn’t believe it, and he then quotes someone else, like Bill Gates, saying something that is false to refute it, and Isaacson lets that remark stand as fact.

One example stands above all others. Chapter 23, “The Second Coming”, tells the tale of Apple’s 1996 acquisition of NeXT and Jobs’s return. For context, then-CEO Gil Amelio had decided that Apple needed to go outside the company for a successor to the classic Mac OS. The options: acquiring Be or NeXT, or licensing Sun’s Solaris or Microsoft’s Windows NT. (Licensing Windows NT was, according to Isaacson, what Amelio favored early on — which goes to show just how profoundly fucked Apple was at the time.) On page 302, Isaacson writes:

After informing Gassée that Apple was buying NeXT, Amelio had what turned out to be an even more uncomfortable task: telling Bill Gates. “He went into orbit,” Amelio recalled. Gates found it ridiculous, but perhaps not surprising, that Jobs had pulled off this coup. “Do you really think Steve Jobs has anything there?” Gates asked Amelio. “I know this technology, it’s nothing but warmed-over UNIX, and you’ll never be able to make it work on your machines.” Gates, like Jobs, had a way of working himself up, and he did so now: “Don’t you understand that Steve doesn’t know anything about technology? He’s just a super salesman. I can’t believe you’re making such a stupid decision. … He doesn’t know anything about engineering, and 99% of what he says and thinks is wrong. What the hell are you buying that garbage for?”

The only thing interesting about this quote is that Gates was so utterly, astoundingly, completely wrong. But Isaacson never points that out.

In Gates’s defense, the above anti-NeXT invective is attributed to him second-hand. Isaacson drew it from Gil Amelio’s On the Firing Line. But what Gates did say to Isaacson, in the present day, paints an even less accurate picture. The next paragraph in the book reads:

Years later, when I raised it with him, Gates did not recall being that upset. The purchase of NeXT, he argued, did not really give Apple a new operating system. “Amelio paid a lot for NeXT, and let’s be frank, the NeXT OS was never really used.” Instead the purchase ended up bringing in Avie Tevanian, who could help the existing Apple operating system evolve so that it eventually incorporated the kernel of the NeXT technology. Gates knew that the deal was destined to bring Jobs back to power. “But that was a twist of fate,” he said. “What they ended up buying was a guy who most people would not have predicted would be a great CEO, because he didn’t have much experience at it, but he was a brilliant guy with great design taste and great engineering taste. He suppressed his craziness enough to get himself appointed interim CEO.”

So ends this section of the chapter, with no additional commentary from Isaacson or any other sources. The above is simply left to stand as a description. A reader with no knowledge, who trusts Isaacson, would be left to believe that the above is an accurate description of Apple’s NeXT acquisition.

It is, in fact, completely and utterly wrong. NeXTStep was not “just warmed over UNIX”. Apple did get NeXT’s OS to run on Mac hardware. Mac OS X 10.0 was a hybrid of Mac and NeXT technology, but it was clearly the NeXT system with Mac technologies integrated, not the other way around. iOS — the system that powers both the iPhone and iPad — is a direct descendent of NeXTStep. Even the original iPod, which wasn’t based on NeXT technology, used the column-view concept for hierarchical navigation that NeXT pioneered.

Gates makes it sound as though Apple’s NeXT acquisition was effectively only a talent acquisition. It was in fact both a talent and technology acquisition, and what was then NeXT technology now serves as the basis for both Mac OS X and iOS.

It’s almost impossible to overstate just how wrong Bill Gates is here, but Isaacson presents Gates’s side as the truth. This is no small thing for Steve Jobs’s biographer to get wrong. Jobs’s career was long, rich, and varied, but if you wanted to reduce his entire life’s work to a nutshell, it would be exactly what Isaacson, channeling Gates, so completely misunderstood: the software system created by NeXT, which was then continuously expanded upon and refined by Apple.

NeXT’s software was what brought Jobs back to Apple. It saved the Mac platform, then grew the Mac platform. It serves today as the foundation of the iPhone and iPad. NeXT did struggle in the market, but their software was a long bet that ultimately paid off. Arguably it took 20 years for it to thrive, but Steve Jobs seemingly never lost faith or confidence in it.

It’s not just that Isaacson was wrong about something; it’s that he was wrong about the most important thing in Jobs’s career. There’s a decades-long story arc about the software system started at NeXT that Isaacson completely misses.

After reading about Jobs, it’s tempting to succumb to a Jobsian-style binary view of the world. Total shit, or the greatest thing ever; five stars, or zero stars. You can get fired up that way, and see my criticism here as condemning Isaacson’s book as total shit, zero stars. That would be a mistake. Steve Jobs is not literature, but it is a good book, but alas with several holes and egregious errors.

Isaacson includes that Alan Kay quote about serious software people making their own hardware, but doesn’t seem to heed it, or to recognize that it perfectly describes Steve Jobs’s career and explains the phenomenal success of Apple’s products.

Note that my complaints here are not about Isaacson being insufficiently deferential. That the book is not a hagiography is to its credit. The personal stuff — documentation of Jobs’s cruelty (and his talent for cruelty), his tantrums, his tendency to claim for himself the ideas of others — that’s not problematic. Isaacson handles that well, and what he reports in that regard jibes with everything we know about the man. My complaints are about outright technical inaccuracies, and getting the man’s work wrong. The design process, the resulting products, the centrality of software — Isaacson simply misses the boat.

You could learn more about Steve Jobs’s work by reading Rob Walker’s 2003 New York Times Magazine piece than by reading Isaacson’s book, but even then we’re left wanting for the stories behind any of Apple’s products after the iPod. Isaacson’s book may well be the defining resource for Jobs’s personal life — his childhood, youth, eccentricities, cruelty, temper, and emotional outbursts. But as regards Jobs’s work, Isaacson leaves the reader profoundly and tragically misinformed.

Isaacson gives us the story of an asshole. But the world is full of assholes. What we need is the story of the one man who spearheaded so many remarkable products and who built an amazing and unique company.

  1. Famously, upon returning to Apple in 1997, Jobs used a ThinkPad running OpenStep until, presumably, Apple shipped a PowerBook that met his standards. ↩︎

  2. To be pedantic, the edges are the antennas, plural. ↩︎

  3. In Chapter 39, Isaacson writes, “In order to serve as an antenna, the steel rim had to have a tiny gap.” There, he gets the material and purpose of the edge correct. But that just shows how poorly edited and fact-checked the technical details of the book are. ↩︎