Several years after Steve Jobs’ untimely death, journalists — particularly ones who previously interviewed or covered Jobs — are still combing their archives for underreported facts or quotes that might justify new books on Apple’s enigmatic CEO. Naturally, the overlap with earlier works is significant, as new authors repeatedly acknowledge leaning on Michael Moritz’s (Return to) The Little Kingdom and Owen Linzmayer’s Apple Confidential 2.0, among many others. But there’s still an opportunity to bring new details to light, which is why Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s Becoming Steve Jobs ($12+/Amazon, $13/iBookstore) exists. Over 400 pages in length, it aims primarily to set the record straight about one key facet of Jobs’ life — he was a better man at age 56 than he was at 21 — but includes enough interesting anecdotes about Apple and Jobs’ other pursuits to be worth reading.
Although Becoming Steve Jobs follows a mostly familiar storytelling arc, Schlender and Tetzeli’s strengths come from two sources: direct access to Jobs from the mid-1980’s until 2011, and interviews with major players conducted after Jobs’ death. While their quotes tend to be short and in service of the larger narrative, the list of participating heavy hitters is non-trivial: Laurene Powell Jobs represents the Jobs family, alongside current Apple executives Tim Cook, Jony Ive and Eddy Cue, ex-Apple executives Jon Rubinstein, Tony Fadell, Katie Cotton, Fred Anderson and Avie Tevanian, Jobs’ top ad men Regis McKenna and Lee Clow, Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Disney CEO Bob Iger. Given that access, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the book paints a largely sympathetic portrait, but the authors also gave participants room to speak candidly about how Jobs’ “sharp elbows” affected them personally and professionally…
Broadly, four topics are covered extensively in Becoming Steve Jobs:
Steve’s evolution as a person. Discussed in more detail here, this is the central theme of the book and the key to its title: “everything, and every individual, is ceaselessly in the process of” evolving — “becoming” — rather than static, a fact that later media accounts of Jobs didn’t fully capture. While the book never attempts to portray Jobs as a saint, it provides ample evidence to suggest that the brash, perpetually impatient young millionaire learned how to control his worst tendencies, eventually becoming a loving father and respected mentor. Early in the narrative, Jobs repeatedly micromanages and overloads projects to the point where they’re all but impossible to sell, but over time, he’s described by ex-retail executive Ron Johnson as the “best delegator I ever met,” trusting key employees to execute on his visions. He remained obsessed with perfection and beauty until his death, but learned to chase those goals iteratively with Jony Ive:
Each product somehow fell short, which meant that the next version not only could be better but had to be better. Looking at their work this way, Steve turned the incremental development of products into an ongoing and impossible quest for perfection. What got left out of each product merely served as the basis for the next, improved edition.
Still, Jobs isn’t spared criticism — albeit in a mostly concentrated manner within Chapter 16, “Blind Spots, Grudges, and Sharp Elbows” — for abandoning former friends to focus on growing Apple. As just one example, Fred Anderson, a self-described “Boy Scout” who Jobs once acknowledged as “the World’s Greatest CFO,” was left to twist in the wind when the SEC investigated backdated stock options Jobs received from the company. “Anderson deserved better treatment than he got from Steve and from Apple,” the authors say, part of an alternating pattern of warmness and coldness that continued to cast clouds over other former Apple employees, as well.
Jobs’ personal life, including family, friends, and enemies. One of the most emotional themes in the book is its discussion of Jobs’ personal life, which the authors observed first hand during many years of bachelorhood and marriage. There are numerous tidbits about his friends and enemies, including his close friendship with Disney CEO Bob Iger and dislike of Iger’s predecessor Michael Eisner, as well as his occasional interactions with frenemy Bill Gates, but the emotional core of Becoming Steve Jobs is his quest for a family.
After acknowledging the profound mistake Jobs made by denying the paternity of his daughter Lisa, the book suggests that Jobs felt the weight of that error — and having missed Lisa’s birth — for years thereafter, making genuine efforts to repair his relationship with Lisa while becoming a loyal husband and father. Even Jobs watchers who recall his occasional late-night emails to customers probably didn’t know that he made it a priority to be home for family dinners, continuing to work through the evening from his home computers, and took twice-annual vacations to spend time with his wife and children. In that context, it’s heartbreaking to read Laurene Jobs’ final tribute to her husband at his funeral:
“He proposed with a fistful of freshly picked wildflowers on a rainy New Year’s Day. I said yes. Of course I said yes. We built our lives together. …Like my children, I lost my father when I was young. It was not what I wanted for myself; it is not what I wanted for them. But the sun will set and the sun will rise, and it will shine upon us tomorrow in our grief and our gratitude, and we will continue to live with purpose, memory, passion, and love.”
His early professional life at Apple and his wilderness period with NeXT and Pixar. As spotlighted here, Becoming Steve Jobs has quite a few nuggets regarding Jobs’ failures and successes with early Apple, NeXT, and Pixar, each of which fueled his evolution into one of the world’s most admired CEOs. Few people will be surprised that the Apple II’s approachable, appliance-like design was an influence on all later Apple products. But readers who didn’t follow Jobs’ career mightn’t know that Louvre pyramid-designer I.M. Pei’s floating staircase for NeXT’s headquarters inspired similar work at Apple’s retail stores, or that Pixar’s initial flailing as a product company led to its reimagining as a producer of animated films — and Jobs becoming a billionaire. Schlender and Tetzeli appeared to have had their greatest period of direct access to Jobs during this time, crediting Pixar with reversing Jobs’ fortunes and teaching him the value of collaborative, hands-off management.
Jobs’ return to Apple, including its slower-than-remembered rebuilding and subsequent ascent. While Becoming Steve Jobs isn’t objectively weak in its second half, and is buoyed in the middle by two very nice collections of photographs, there’s no question that its coverage of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad isn’t as deep as it could have been. One of the book’s several major revelations, namely that Jobs and the Apple executive team hurriedly copied Bill Gates’ January 2000 concept of connected consumer electronics for Apple’s 2001-vintage Digital Hub strategy, follows a reminder that Apple remained on shaky ground despite Jobs’ tentative return to and rebuilding of the company. Yet the company’s recent successes are presented mostly in the context of some of their participants, and mixed with considerable discussion of Jobs’ ongoing health concerns.
Apart from spotlighting Apple’s once highly secretive acquisition of SoundJam as the basis for iTunes, little new is shared about the development of iTunes and the iPod, except to spotlight Eddy Cue’s interesting role in crafting a brilliant microtransaction-processing system that enabled the iTunes Store’s numerous 99-cent purchases. The iPhone, Apple’s most significant current product, is most compellingly discussed in early prototype forms including a never-produced music player and an overambitious video and photo player that relied on an immature cellular data network, killing its viability. And very little is said about the iPad, beyond to note that Jobs was involved in its creation and early marketing, with the iPad 2’s introductory ad as the last one he crafted before his death. If there’s any major criticism of Becoming Steve Jobs, it’s that this recent and critically important stretch of Apple’s history is only modestly illuminated by the numerous primary sources who were interviewed for the book.
That issue, however, ignores the fact that Becoming Steve Jobs is more about the evolution of a man than the equally fascinating evolutions of his companies. To the extent that Schlender and Tetzeli have succeeded at covering all of these topics with unique material, the book will appeal to pretty much anyone with an interest in Jobs, Apple, NeXT, or Pixar. Like other good books that have been written about Jobs, it doesn’t provide the definitive story of his life, but instead adds some new and interesting details that are worth considering alongside what was previously known. After reading Becoming Steve Jobs, it’s clear that there are still compelling Apple and Jobs stories yet to come.