This week I finished the official biography of Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. A popular biographer of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson was given unprecedented access to Jobs and conducted over 40 interviews over the past several years. He apparently had permission to interview and quote current Apple executives, as well as any personal or professional contacts from Jobs’s past. Steve asked for no creative control aside from the design of the cover, and never read or commented on the finished product before his passing in October.
So why does this book fail?
As John Siracusa argues in his latest weekly podcast, Isaacson seemingly does not grasp the history and significance of the past 35+ years of technology, and even worse is that he doesn’t attempt to learn more about it. The list of technical and historical inaccuracies is long. The book claims that when Jobs first returned to Apple in 1997 he was immediately referred to as “iCEO,” despite the fact that both the iMac and all subsequent “i” branding were still a year away. Isaacson also states very matter-of-factly that Apple didn’t really use the NeXT OS as a radical break from the classic operating system, but instead used parts of it to “evolve” Mac OS 9 into what we use today. Nothing could be further from the truth. The transition from 9 to X was more like a brain transplant, with a Classic compatibility layer on top to run some of the older software. These examples may seem like small nitpicks, but there are plenty of others just like it throughout and they point to a big-picture issue in the telling of this story.
At times, Isaacson’s style reads more like an outline with details filled in as opposed to a well-conceived story. Perhaps the accelerated release schedule was partly to blame (the book was originally slated for a 2012 release but was moved up once Jobs’s health issues became dire). Occasionally sentences felt copied and pasted from earlier in the book to reinforce a point, and topics that were deserving of depth received very superficial treatment. The section of the book that seems the most researched is also the period of history that’s been written about many times before: the early days of Apple. Isaacson had plenty of excellent resources to draw information from, but the end result feels more like a rehash than anything truly new and insightful. Conversely, once we arrive in less traveled waters (the highly secretive Apple after Jobs’s return in 1997) Isaacson bounces quickly from one topic to the next, some lasting no more than a page or two. To me this reinforces the point that even though the author was given a wealth of new information, he lacked the context to weave it all together.
As an aside, I feel that Isaacson did the book a disservice during his promotional interviews: namely, he gave away some of the best and most poignant moments he shared with Jobs. If you’ve seen the 60 Minutes piece on Isaacson and Jobs, then you can go ahead and skip the last two pages of the book. He practically recites it word for word on the air.
Despite its size the book is a relatively quick read that serves as a broad strokes approach to the subject, but that’s overshadowed by the fact that Isaacson wasn’t up to the challenge at hand. He had the access to Jobs and Apple that other writers could only dream about, and now that Jobs is now gone there’s no chance for a do-over.