Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs

Some key points are:

  1. Steve Jobs is a real asshole (e.g. he would unnecessarily insult and put down his employees)… it doesn’t seem to have hurt his success too much.
  2. Jobs is obsessed with great design and making amazing products that are the intersection of great design and technology.
  3. He worked hard to attract A players and to weed out the “bozos”.
  4. Jobs would push people to do the unimaginable.  Sometimes they would do things that they wouldn’t think were possible.  Of course, this doesn’t work all the time.
  5. He is obsessed with perfection… even for details that consumers wouldn’t see.  The robots making Apple/Next computers had to be beautiful… along with the interior of the case and how the circuit boards are laid out.

Walter Isaacson as a writer

As is expected from a writer, he doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.  On more than one occasion, Isaacson attributes fluctuations in Apple’s share price to Job’s health.  His health was likely only a minor factor in Apple’s stock price.  Apple stock is currently trading higher than it was a year ago when Jobs died.

Closed versus open ecosystems

One of the debates in the book is whether Apple’s closed ecosystem approach is superior to open ecosystems such as Windows or Android (both of which run on multiple vendors’ hardware).  The argument for closed ecosystems is that the creator can tightly integrate the hardware and the software to make great products.  In my opinion, open ecosystems have a slight competitive advantage.  The reason why Jobs has been so successful despite closed ecosystems is that Apple has been really good at its horizontal markets.  Apple has had amazing design in its products.  It has put out some really great software such as iTunes, the Mac OS, and iOS.

But, I think that open ecosystems will win most of the time.  In terms of manufacturing hardware, Apple has never tried to put lower-cost products due to Job’s insistence on great products.  The reality is that there are large markets for lower-cost/non-premium products.  Not everybody appreciates great design (or wants to pay for it).  And not everybody thinks that Apple’s designs are the greatest (they may find Macs pretentious).  In the history of computing, it has generally been the case that open ecosystems have won most of the time.  Mainframe computing has moved away from vertical integration.  Wang Laboratories used to be the leader in vertically-integrated word processors.  My guess is that Apple will cede market share to Android smartphones and tablets in the future.

Forcing the “better” way upon users

One of the themes with Steve Jobs is that he is insistent upon forcing the “better” way of doing things upon users.  He wanted to get rid of the function and cursor keys on a keyboard to force people to use the mouse and the graphical user interface.  (Currently shipping Apple keyboards have these keys.)

Useless.

Useless.

And then there is the single-button mouse.  They freakin’ drive me crazy.  Many programs on the Mac are designed for two-button mice (and sometimes the scroll wheel is handy)… including Apple’s old lineup of professional video applications (Final Cut, Shake, etc.).  Apple’s single-button mouse was pretty but functionally crippled.  (Granted, the problem was easy to solve as you could plug in any 2-button mouse.)

Sometimes, I disagree with Jobs’ philosophy.

Lack of innovation and excellence in competitors

One very interesting critique that Jobs makes of competitors is that their products suck.  On the design front, clearly Apple has contributed many innovations to the market.  For whatever reason, the PC market has always lagged behind Apple in terms of design.  With the plethora of PC manufacturers out there, you would expect that a manufacturer would build PCs with design comparable to a Mac.  For whatever reason, this has not happened.  In my opinion, Alienware comes the closest to Apple in terms of making products with good design (if you don’t find over-the-top gamer PC cases to be garish) and building a strong brand.  Unfortunately, Dell bought out the company and diluted the brand (alienware.com redirects to Dell’s ugly website).  There is very little in the PC world that stands out against Apple (unless you are into garish over-the-top gamer PC cases).  I can only speculate as to why that is.  Perhaps there is only a small niche for premium, beautifully-designed computers in a competitive market.  Maybe PC buyers are not willing to pay for great design and that good enough suffices most of the time.

Why Apple has been successful

Apple has created beautiful hardware but I’m not sure if it has helped Apple’s success.

I think that the main reason why Apple has been successful is that Steve Jobs is very good at putting out great software.  He is good at culling out the “bozos” who aren’t A players in his organization.  This could be his key talent as most human beings are not good at charming others into working for them and aren’t ruthless in firing underperformers.  The need to get rid of underachievers is discussed in Jack Welch’s book Winning and covered lightly in Louis Gerstner’s book (Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?).  Culling underachievers might be one of the most important leadership skills.

As well, Jobs’ obsession with making his products great helps to ensure that they are.  Usually the best CEOs have an unusual passion for their company (e.g. Warren Buffet, Howard Schultz, Sam Walton).  They work past retirement age and thoroughly enjoy their jobs.

*Disclosure:  I used to own Apple but no longer do so.  Long 1 share of Google.

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2 thoughts on “Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs

  1. Glenn :I´m amazed with the quality of your blog.I have many questions…..the one that can´t wait is Contesllation Sotware.As canadian can you tell a little about CNSWF?
    Thank you so much……..I discover this by searching about Malone and Liberty (I´m a fan of Malone style also).
    Armando .Spain.

    • Constellation Software has excellent shareholder letters.

      In aggregate, the company is a low-growth collection of software businesses. They buy other software companies at attractive valuations; this is where a lot of their earnings growth has come from. The latest shareholder letter suggests that the company is a little pricey given that the current valuation is difficult to justify unless you assume that management will continue to be able to buy other low-growth software companies at low prices. Management is excellent and the stock should probably do well in the long run. I haven’t researched the company that much.

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