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Steve Jobs: smoke and mirrors or iCon?

The book he tried to ban

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Review Steve Jobs knows a thing or two about publicity. He gave a fantastic dollop to the latest unauthorised biography about him - "iCon: Steve Jobs - The Greatest Second Act in The History of Business", by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon - by pulling all copies of all books by the publisher, John Wiley, from Apple's retail stores.

As the link points out, in 2000 El Steve previously attempted much the same with an earlier bio, The Second Coming Of Steve Jobs, by Alan Deutschmann. Then, he managed to get Vanity Fair to kill a feature by one of its best writers; no mean accomplishment.

Let's start with what's great about this book: its title. Wonderfully subtle: are they calling him an icon, or saying that he's perpetrated a con - or both?

Certainly Jobs is an icon. He has overseen the fruition of not one but two very successful creative companies, Apple Computer and Pixar. The latter made him a billionaire, through his judicious funding from money from Apple, followed by judicious gathering of stock unto himself before the market flotation. Both have mindshare far beyond their actual revenues, which pale against the Wal-Marts and General Motors and Essos and IBMs of this world. But people know who they are.

Yet I don't think he's an icon to business people. Those who know anything much about his management style know he works by winnowing out the chaff - defined as those not both smart enough and psychologically strong enough to bear repeated demands that they produce something impossible (such as a music player where you can access any piece of music within three clicks) and then be told that their solution is "shit". And then hear it suggested back to them a few days later. That's not how most people like to work, or be treated. So in truth, Steve Jobs isn't an icon to any managers, apart from the sociopathic ones.

But what about the "con"? Is Jobs conning us? Are Apple and Pixar just smoke and mirrors, built on misguided beliefs that their products are better than they really are? I never got an idea from reading this book of whether that part of the title was intended.

Indeed, I spent long periods while reading this book wondering what it wanted to tell me. The problem with profiling Jobs is simple. He's intensely private. He also cuts people dead whom he thinks have been disloyal. Both might be something to do with the fact that he was adopted. Might be - and I had hoped the authors might get a psychologist to explain whether adopted children are more likely to be driven personalities; might get an academic who'd done a study of whether adoptees rise to the top more than those brought up by their natural parents. But they didn't. There's just lots and lots of detail about the early Apple years - which I think you could get, if you wanted it, from any of the other Apple-history books out there.

The real problem is that Young and Simon don't seem to have known what book they wanted to write. Is it a business book, offering a lesson for people who might want to do their own second act? No. Though there are references to how badly NeXT and Pixar did, and vague handwaving about the pit that Apple was in when Jobs rejoined in 1996 (indeed, Simon helped write In The Firing Line, the memoir of Gil Amelio, whom Jobs ousted), there isn't the focus on what really has gone right or wrong at Apple during Jobs's watch.

For example, the book mentions how Apple cut inventories from 1996. But not how it has completely revamped its supply chain, which is what really makes it profitable. This is now a tight, tight operation, which manages to use Taiwanese manufacturers like all the other PC manufacturers and yet keeps forthcoming products (almost) secret.

Similarly, from both the business and the personality viewpoint, the year 2000 was surely a key one in altering Jobs's mindset. In that year, Apple launched the Cube and ignored CD-burning for the then ageing iMac in favour of DVD-ROM drives. Both were decisions by Jobs. Consumers, who are Apple's mainstay, turned away from both. In the January 2001 quarterly results, a $247m loss for the first time since his return, Jobs was contrite.

I think that was a key moment. Later that year the Cube was retired (perhaps to get squashed flat and returned as the Mac mini) and Apple launched iTunes and the iPod. You may have heard of them. But the disaster of 2000 doesn't get a mention in iCon.

Well, then, is this book about Steve Jobs the person, and how he's grown? Not really, because it can't get close enough to the people who knew and know him. Whereas Deutschmann had many, many first-person interviews with those who had worked directly with Jobs (who gave interviews to neither book), iCon feels recycled. In fact at one point I thought "Wait, I've seen this anecdote before!" And indeed I had - in Deutschmann's book, in a description of how Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney told the NeXT-pitching Jobs that "I own animation, and nobody's going to get it." Highlighted by an alarming guns & genitals threat.

The problem is that iCon tries to cover too much ground, which means it has to compress events instead of letting the characters speak about what happened. Deutschmann started his book in the years after Jobs left Apple, and ended it just as he returned. That compression let him focus on events and people in detail, and gave them room to speak. He got to the people - like the assistant who helped Jobs on his return to Apple, who trailed round thinking "That's not grammatical!" about the 'Think Different' slogan, who observed the long rehearsals Jobs does for his big speeches. Young and Simon insist Jobs does them off the cuff, without rehearsal. I think Deutschmann's right.

And, to be brutal, Deutschmann is just a much better writer. Perhaps it's the effect of having two authors, but there were many things in iCon which made me wince. "It proved to be the Mac's one Achilles heel," they write. Well, that's the thing about Achilles' heel - there was only one. Or how Jobs sent few invites to his 1991 wedding: "Maybe .. because Steve was feeling the financial pinch so severely... Or maybe it was just the minimalist, laid-back Steve Jobs doing things his way." Well, which? You authors are meant to be telling me, the reader, this stuff.

So OK, here's the skinny on Steve Jobs, to save you reading this book. Started Apple by dint of knowing Steve Wozniak who was brilliant engineer, and having instinctive negotiating skills; screwed up; got pushed out, started hopeless computer company which his wild ideas almost ran into the ground. Meanwhile got intrigued by little film graphics company which would have gone down the pan too but for the brilliance of one person, John Lasseter, whose imagination and drive meant everything Pixar had produced had been touched by magic. Wozniak gave Jobs his first push skywards; as he plummeted back to earth, Lasseter gave him a gravitational slingshot up again. Rocketed heavenwards by Toy Story, floated Pixar, became billionaire, rejoined Apple, took credit for predecessor's work, basked in glow, screwed up a bit, realised error of ways, saw potential of music, bought iTunes, produced iPod, survived cancer (so far), basked some more in new glow. Now sitting pretty on intriguing nexus of computers, animated films and digital music. Has ambitions to do something that will be the terror of all mankind, though none shall know what.

But what's his magic? Most likely it is in that combination of ridiculous design demands (which come from an innate sense of what's right, rather than what's feasible), innate negotiating skills, and an ability to evaluate people in moments. The latter two are common to all the big moguls - Gates, Ballmer, Ellison have it - but the former is very rare.

The trouble is that you probably won't come to that realisation through reading this book. To be honest, I'd recommend Deutschmann over iCon. Read him, and 2001's much overlooked "High St@kes, No Prisoners" by Charles Ferguson, who is probably the closest in character to Jobs to have written a completely honest account of his time running an internet startup (and who explains in detail how Jobs got Pixar to enrich him). You'll understand Jobs.

And maybe if Steve actually gets around to reading iCon, he'll realise that like the Earth, it's mostly harmless, and put Wiley books back on the Apple Store shelves. I mean, biographies are ten-a-penny. But people need Mac OSX for Dummies. ®

iCon - Steve Jobs: the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Jeffrey S Young and William L Simon, Wiley, ISBN 0471 720 836 published 25 May.

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