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Review: Apple, By the Book

The new biography of Steve Jobs offers insights about Apple’s future direction.

What will Apple be like without Steve Jobs? Answering that question isn’t the primary goal of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Jobs, released this week. But the 630-page book, which benefited from intimate access to Jobs, his family, and his colleagues, gives a few clues to the directions Apple is likely to follow in the absence of the difficult-yet-inspiring perfectionist who twice built the company.

Cover story: The front of Isaacson’s new book.

The book (Steve Jobs, $35, Simon & Schuster) makes clear that Jobs thought a lot about how to ensure that the company wouldn’t fall apart without him. As a teenager, Jobs had idolized the original Silicon Valley garage startup, Hewlett-Packard, and had been mentored by its cofounder William Hewlett; the dysfunction of today’s HP served as a cautionary tale for him. “Hewlett and Packard built a great company, and they thought they had left it in good hands,” Jobs told Isaacson. “But now it’s being dismembered and destroyed. It’s tragic. I hope I’ve left a stronger legacy so that will never happen at Apple.”

For one thing, Jobs, like a previous subject of an Isaacson biography, Benjamin Franklin, left behind enough aphorisms to fill a management guidebook (e.g. “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want”; “Think Different”; “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”). He also was methodical about safeguarding his legacy. He asked a Yale management dean to compile case studies of the decisions Apple made during his tenure, so that executives could train new employees in Jobs-ness. Now, when Apple CEO Tim Cook and Jobs’s other successors wonder “What Would Steve Do?” they can cite the historical record.

They also likely have projects in the works that Jobs himself started. For example, it’s clear from the book that Jobs saw Apple’s new iCloud service as a crucial way to deepen the relationship between Apple and the consumer. A year ago, Jobs worried that Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all were angling to store nearly anything a consumer wanted—including libraries of music, TV shows, movies, and books—on remote computers “in the cloud” so that it was backed up and could be delivered to virtually any device. At the time, Apple had a version of this, called MobileMe, but it was expensive and had gotten poor reviews. Jobs forced Apple to try again, which led to this year’s launch of iCloud, which gives people a way to move entertainment content and personal information between devices.

REVIEW:
  • Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.

But it doesn’t yet embody all of what Jobs envisioned. He told Isaacson that he wanted Apple to be “the company that manages your relationship with the cloud” and said that should encompass not only music, videos, and pictures but also “maybe even your medical data.” If Apple made it all very easy, “we can lock in the customer.” 

Read that carefully: Jobs didn’t want Apple to be a company that provides this. He wanted to be the provider. He fretted about being left behind. But being that one provider will be harder in a world where Android, not the iPhone, is the top-selling smart-phone platform.

The book also indicates that Jobs yearned to shake up education. Isaacson writes that when Bill Gates visited the ailing Jobs at his house this year, the two discussed why computers had failed to significantly improve education—and how digital, interactive learning materials could be tailored to individual students. That could lead to more fruitful teacher-student interactions, Gates observed, because educators could offer more detailed assessments and feedback. Jobs seems to have seen educational publishers the way he once saw Hollywood and the music industry—as dinosaurs needing him to save them from extinction. Even before Gates came by his house, Jobs and Rupert Murdoch had shared ideas about how to transform the textbook industry. Jobs wanted to make expensive textbooks obsolete and liberate students from having to carry heavy backpacks. Alas, textbook publishing remains unreformed—for now.

TV gives Apple another knot to untangle. Like Google and other Silicon Valley companies, Apple has tried and so far failed to do much to improve television, an industry that remains governed by arcane and closed business models. Jobs told Isaacson this year that he finally had an answer: an “integrated television set that is completely easy to use.” It would be synchronized with iCloud, so people could view nearly any content on their big living room screens, and they would no longer have to struggle with bizarre remote controls. “I finally cracked it,” he told the author. But Apple has yet to announce anything.

Even as we try to discern what Jobs wanted Apple to pursue without him, it’s hard to read Steve Jobs without seeing ways that the company, and in turn the consumer electronics industry, might benefit from a less obsessive CEO. Isaacson recounts the story of how Jobs refused to let Adobe’s Flash software run on the iPhone and the iPad because he thought Flash performed poorly. Yet Jobs went even further than that: he also banned software developers from using an Adobe “cross-platform compiler”—a tool that would let developers write applications once and have them work on multiple devices, whether they ran Flash or not.

Isaacson sees a virtue in that edict, because it forced developers to work harder to create programs that were truly tailored to Apple devices and took full advantage of what those devices made possible. “On that he was right,” Isaacson writes. “Losing the ability to differentiate Apple’s platforms—allowing them to become commoditized like HP and Dell machines—would have meant death for the company.”

On that Isaacson is wrong. It’s a big overstatement. Isaacson himself notes that Apple eventually rescinded restrictions on cross-platform compilers. And for good reason: the ban wasn’t really necessary. Apple’s control of its hardware design gives it many ways to outshine competing devices. The company doesn’t necessarily suffer if Web pages, for instance, show up as beautifully on rival tablets as they do on the iPad, as long as the overall experience of using the iPad is superior.

Jobs himself advocated an open and universal Web standard, HTML5, as a replacement for Flash. Apple’s beef with Adobe was a bit personal—Jobs felt the company had lost its way after founder John Warnock left, and he didn’t think Warnock’s successors showed Apple enough deference. Without Jobs and his personal tastes and grudges, which tended to cast the world in black and white, expect Apple to be a bit more nuanced in how it plays with other companies.

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