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A Flawed but Innovative Businessman

A Flawed but Innovative Businessman

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (London: Little Brown, distributed by Hachette India), 2011; pp xix + 630, Rs 799.

A Flawed but Innovative Businessman worked for few years as a machinist for a large company in the mid-west and sub
sequently, s ettled in Palo Alto, California.
There he became a “repo” man working
Hemant Kanakia for a finance company performing the job

T
he biography of Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Inc, by Walter Isaacson is interesting at various levels. Steve Jobs was one of the two very successful computer industry visionaries to emerge in the last three decades – the other one being Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft took over the mantle of being the largest computer industry behemoth from IBM in the early 1990s. That was seen as a battle of David versus Goliath; so is the story of Apple versus Microsoft relatively. In fact, this one is more interesting given the engaging and opposite personalities of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Jobs started Apple with his high-school friend Steve Wozniak. Their first product, called Apple II, was a personal computer that was marketed to geeks and computer hobbyists. Apple II outsold all other personal computers available in the market in those days. That made Apple, for a short while, one of the most valued companies in that industry. But the glory was short-lived. The industry of personal computers (PCs) matured quickly and unbundled system emerged as a new paradigm. With this paradigm, three separate companies cooperated to produce a computing platform that grabbed more than 90% share of the market of desktop computing in offices and homes. These three companies were Intel that provided the microprocessor, IBM that provided standardised PC hardware and Microsoft that provided the operating system. They became the new darlings of the press and the stock market. The resultant downfall of Apple was swift, matched only by Steve Jobs’ loss of personal fortune and fame. Steve Jobs was stripped of his position as the chief executive officer of Apple by its board and sidelined within the company. Eventually, Jobs left Apple, selling all of his equity shares in the company. Those were dark days for Jobs. Although Apple continued

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 3, 2012

book review

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (London: Little Brown, distributed by Hachette India), 2011; pp xix + 630, Rs 799.

to build computers, it had lost its lustre. Its percentage share of the computer market declined to hover in the low single digits. In those days of wilderness, Jobs, as the book recounts, also suffered the indignity of not even being invited to a meeting held for the 500 most influential people in the Silicon Valley and the president of United States (US).

Raising himself from this “purgatory” to become an icon of our times is a story of personal triumph of vision, business brilliance and above all, perseverance. Even a straightforward recounting of this story would have guaranteed a mega publishing success. Isaacson could have spun it as a rags-to-riches story, f ocusing on the business genius of Steve Jobs. That would have been natural, e specially with the access that he had to Steve Jobs and through him with other principal actors in that story. His book does much more than that. The author, by weaving in many subtle shades of his personality, has produced a multifaceted narrative of the complex nature of the man and his journey through the business world. That is what makes this book a polished diamond with multiple luminous facets.

Unflattering Biography

Steve Jobs was born out of wedlock and given up for adoption. His biological father was of Syrian descent and his mother was Caucasian, both graduate students in a mid-western college in the US. His mother’s family, a conservative one atypical of the mid-western US, objected to this union and forced them to give up the child for adoption. Steve was adopted by a typical middle-class family. Paul Jobs, his adopted father, retired from the US Coast Guard,

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of picking up locks of cars being repossessed. His adopted parents worked hard to give Steve a stable family environment, saved money enough to send him to the best school and colleges. Yet, Steve had a difficult childhood because he was rebellious, intelligent and easily bored in school. Occasionally, he had a teacher who could keep him interested. The book describes a teacher who Steve thanks for his not becoming a vagrant or a jailbird. She apparently figured out a way to keep Steve engaged in studies and to do extra math problem sets as homework. She bribed him with a lollipop and five dollars as prize for every problem set he completed. Early chapters of the book describe many such interesting personal details about Steve’s life in his school and college days, his fascination of eastern philosophies, dropping out of college and so on.

Steve fathered a child out of wedlock at about the same age his biological f ather had conceived him. He refused to recognise the child as his daughter until forced by a lawsuit to take a paternity test that proved this. This story plus his awkward relationship with his biological parents as well as stories of his relationships with childhood friends, exgirlfriends, early employees and various mentors paint a picture of a deeplyflawed human being. What is astonishing about such personal details, recounted brutally and honestly by Steve Jobs in the 40-odd interviews he had with the author, is that he allowed them to be published in his biography. The portrait that emerges is definitely not flattering. There is no doubt that he had an immense drive to succeed and to etch his name in history books. But he displayed a unique ability to simply ignore inconvenient facts. He seemed very self-absorbed and shows no great empathy for the people closest to him. Psychologists, had they been given access to him during his lifetime, would have had a great time trying to make sense of him. There is no mention of him

BOOK REVIEW

going to a psychiatrist, nor would it seem probable that he would have done so, given his deeply private nature and desire to stay in control of his public persona. He had that streak of keeping a tight control over everything he touched upon during his lifetime. So it is indeed surprising that in the end he chose to give unparalleled access to the author. Not only was Jobs brutally frank about his life story as told to the author, but he also did not request to preview or to control what was eventually published. The author has turned this opportunity to excellent results.

The life that this book describes is worthy of being made into a film. Ragsto-riches – a modern take on the Horatio Alger story, a deeply flawed human who accomplished so much in life, or a man who managed to transform three different industries such as movie animation, music and computer technology – any of these narratives can easily be transformed into a captivating film. Maybe someone is already doing it. The book has other subtle aspects that are particularly interesting to those who love technology and are familiar with the ecosystem of the Silicon Valley.

Steve Jobs’ Legacy

Was Steve Jobs an engineer or a marketeer? Who is more important for building a lasting value in a company? Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, friend and foe of Jobs, is reputed to have said once, somewhat derogatorily, that Steve did not know much about computers as he could not code. In the hallowed halls of Bell Laboratories where I spent some time in the company of researchers who conceived the operating system that is at the heart of all Apple machines, Steve was dismissed as a showman. Jobs was indeed not an engineer but he stood at the junction of technology and art. He did not create technology, but made it beautiful enough to be appreciated and used by common people. Jobs was also a showman. His product unveilings at annual gatherings of Apple fans in San Francisco are legendary for showmanship, mystery and pageantry.

This debate about the relative importance of engineering versus marketing plays out regularly in technology startups in the valley. Each group derides the other and yet they need each other. What was interesting in this case was that this debate was being played out b etween two companies, the “geeky” Microsoft, personified by Gates, and the glitzy and exciting Apple, personified by Jobs. I think this debate is still unresolved but the two main protagonists have left the centre stage.

True “geeks” do not think highly of e ither men, Jobs or Gates. It is not just jealousy about their amassed personal wealth, but it is also because of the philosophies each brought into vogue. Bill Gates’ Microsoft was the first to perfect the art of releasing products quickly but with many defects. These products would, subsequently, have to be updated frequently to fix defects (called bugs in the parlance of programmers). As a result, products eventually became so complex that the only good thing one claimed was that applications designed for earlier versions of software continue to work with each new version of software – “phenomenon inscrutability” termed as “upward compatibility”. On the other hand, Jobs believed so strongly in having a perfect product right at the outset that he wanted control over all aspects of it. Thus, hardware and software r emain integrated closely in all Apple products. Apple did not encourage building of compatible hardware that ran its software nor did it provide to others hardware and skeletal operating system to build software for. Apple’s user interface has always come with a particular look-and-feel and it cannot be changed easily by users. Geeks have problems with both of these approaches. Geeks like simplicity (in programs) and the flexibility to add features to it. They would prefer to add snippets of code to the program or to reconfigure the user interface to their satisfaction. Apple’s or Microsoft’s products do not meet these ideals and yet they are so successful in the marketplace. No wonder that true geeks are not fond of either of these founders.

Neither Jobs not Gates were innovators of technology. Both focused on synthesising products from technology borrowed from other places. The book described the drama surrounding Jobs’ visit to Xerox PARC laboratories in Palo Alto. There he witnessed technologies of bitmapped displays and a pointing device called mouse. Engineers at Apple used those technologies to fashion a graphical user interface that became known as windows. Years later, Apple introduced multitouch sensing display screens, a technology that too was invented elsewhere. The multitouch screen interface is what made Apple phones and tablets (small mobile computers) “cool”. Apple did not invent tablet computing and MP3 players, but making use of borrowed technology in a clever way, Apple

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march 3, 2012 vol xlviI no 9

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

revolutionised the field of computing and how we relate to these technologies.

Lionising Businessmen over Inventors

The popularity of synthesisers of technologies is, in a way, a commentary on the evolution of the western world. Modern media lionises innovators/businessmen and women more than originators of technology. This is a rather recent phenomenon. Innovators of the yesteryear like Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla, were actually originators of technologies. Their reputations were burnished in popular imagination because of the revolutionary technologies they created. To perceive this clearly, try naming inventors of mouse technology or bitmapped displays or the operating system used in Apple devices.

The trend of lionisation of technologylightweight business moguls continues unabated. The current darlings of the technology and business press are people like Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, or Jack Dorsery, founder of Twitter. They too have merely rearranged technology elements to offer user interfaces that built their business empires. As one would expect, this trend is exerting a corrosive influence on our youth. The young all too often eschew learning of technology. They would rather focus on being successful businessmen. One does wonder what would happen to a society that has lost its appetite for creating new technologies. Perhaps, the next generation of technology innovations will come from “eastern societies” where technology is viewed more reverently.

The Indian society too has been afflicted by this western trend towards technology-light business creations. Our newspapers are full of articles on how we want innovations, but fail to explain what has enabled the US to lead so far in creation of new technologies like the internet and robotics. Our government and educational institutions are structurally dysfunctional in this respect. These institutions are unable to evolve the robust environment needed to support original research and original technology creation. On the business side, we talk admiringly of how many Indian billionaires have emerged and of family-led

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
march 3, 2012

conglomerates such as the Ambani brothers, Mahindra, Tata and Birla groups. But we fail to note that none of these have built business success by creating new technologies. The contrast is very clear when one considers what early American business tycoons such as Henry Ford and Henry Bessemer did in the automobile and steel industries, respectively. We have to hope that this era becomes a passing phase in the development of our nation and will be replaced by the era of entrepreneurs who create businesses based on research and new technology, coming out of our educational institutes and research laboratories.

The book also highlights the culture of hi-tech start-ups that exists in Silicon Valley. It is indeed a rare thing, and not understood well by those who have not experienced it before. For instance, the book describes how Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari – the first computer game company to go public – gave a job to Steve Jobs and became a mentor to him. It describes how Steve Jobs in his later years served as a friend and a mentor to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google. The book also describes the struggles that a founder like Steve Jobs had with the board of the company – how the board perceived it as their duty to replace him with another CEO because of his unjustifiable excesses, and then brought him back to run the company again. This illustrates how boards of technology companies behave in the start-up world. The culture of technology worshippers on display here is so different from normal business cultures. Most who have not experienced it

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vol xlviI no 9

from within find it hard to understand let alone fit into it. This is not the culture of money-worshippers or power-seekers or philanthropists. In India, so far, we do not have a counterpart. We have Mumbai and Delhi that can rival New York and Washington cultures, respectively, in money worshipping or political powerseeking. But neither Bangalore nor Pune or Gurgaon are counterparts of Silicon Valley. A simple way to experience this is to ask probing questions on technology trends in places where our entrepreneurs or venture capitalists gather, say at an Indian Institute of Technology, or incubation centres or a café in Bangalore. The answers would be far different in quality than one would get in Silicon Valley.

Try asking questions such as what is the next evolution in search engine? What are the problems that Google or Facebook do not solve or solve poorly? What would be the next big things in these fields? The answers I got were vague generalities such as how these products do not address needs of poor people or are not directed to the bottom of the pyramid – the current buzz words in our society. The same difference is

observable when asking questions about water purification, environment protection and clean energy technologies. Only when this attitude changes will our nation become a home to creators of vibrant new technologies. One hopes that books such as this one become popular enough to help nudge us in the right direction.

Hemant Kanakia (hkanakia@gmail.com) is a technology entrepreneur with rich experience in developing technologies in the areas of digital networks, optical networks and the internet.

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