Finally got around to reading the Steve Jobs bio by Walter Isaacson. It’s must read for anyone involved in the tech business. Some slightly less charitable takes: John Gruber is all I Am Disappoint there aren’t more insights into the products and strategy. Self-described underemployed writer Maureen Tkacik notes that Jobs was a Machiavellian liar, exploiter, and control freak.

There’s truth to both of those, but the book is a rollicking good read and creditable first draft of history, with some good details about the creation of the iPad, iPhone, iPod. So if that’s the sort of thing you’re into, you’ll be into this.

Jobs could have picked a lot of other people, but he picked Isaacson, a non-tech, non-business writer. Maybe he wanted someone to just tell the story, not the strategy or product vision.

Isaacson not only doesn’t know the technology or the tech business, but I didn’t even get a sense he likes them, or liked Steve Jobs. He was so afraid of getting snookered that if Steve Jobs had said the sky was blue, Isaacson wouldn’t have quoted it without the confirmations and qualifications of colleagues and competitors. It’s the mark of a true professional to write a good book when he’s not really interested in the topic.

Maybe Jobs picked the wrong guy. Maybe Jobs ended up running out of time to give a real memoir and insights into all dimensions of his legacy.

Or maybe Jobs was a control freak and just didn’t want to give them. He wanted to get everyone to read a somewhat shallow but presumptively authoritative treatment, sucking all the air out of the market for books about him.

Parallels to Bill Gates I thought were interesting:

  • Both extremely driven and strong willed from an early age, drove parents to distraction. (Paul Graham puts determination as the most important determinant of entrepreneurial success)
  • Both had parents who made major concessions to give them opportunities. In Jobs’s case, he was in a tough school, came home and said he wouldn’t go back, and his parents moved to a better school district.
  • Both were not particularly interested in college.
  • Both had forgiven-but-not-forgotten moments of perceived betrayal with cofounders Woz and Paul Allen, which Jobs and Gates conveniently don’t remember quite the same way.

Both were pretty successful at getting brilliant people to work with them, for all their perceived shortcomings.

When someone totally identifies with a company, is determined to succeed, and is a control freak and perfectionist, it’s not always very distinguishable from being a manipulative exploiting lying narcissist.

Postscript: There’s a lot of hysteria about Apple’s labor practices. Now, if there is anything going on in the factories that make Apple products that endangers the health or safety of the workers, that is unacceptable. If there is child labor, that is unacceptable. If there is any kind of coercion or abuse, that is unacceptable.

That being said, I haven’t seen any evidence Apple isn’t doing everything it can to make sure those aren’t happening. The fact that people are lining up around the block for those jobs speaks volumes, that they are superior to the alternatives in pay, prestige, learning opportunities, and working conditions.

Let him who doesn’t use anything made in worse conditions than an iPod factory, be the one to cast the first stone. I have news for you: every single thing you use was made by someone with a crappy job. If you think those factories are bad, you should have seen what it was like 10 years ago, or what it’s like now in India, Bangladesh, Burma, or down on the farm in China, where half the population still labors. Watch Blind Shaft, set in the mining industry in China.

Think about what the middle class gadget economy looks like without global trade and low-cost manufacturing. You make your phone in the USA, and it costs twice as much to manufacture. The price goes up, the volumes shrink because it’s more of a luxury item, and you’re keeping it longer. The fixed costs and capital investment and R&D have to be spread over half the units, so the price doubles again. Pretty soon you’re back where we were in the late 80s, when a new 386 PC came out at $10,000 and eventually came down to $3,000. Magical gadgets for the Western middle class don’t exist as we know them without the scale of Chinese manufacturing, and its supply of cheap, literate, productive labor.

Or, for that matter, think about what manufacturing was like in the US at a similar stage of development. If someone had said, you can only build factories with 21st century pay and work rules, we’d have laughed. And if we had passed laws to that effect, most of us would still be farmers.