Steve Jobs By Walter Isaacson: Passion, Perfection And Contradiction

| About: Apple Inc. (AAPL)
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Walter Isaacson's authorized yet candid biography of Steve Jobs is must reading if you are interested in Steve Jobs (that's obvious); if you care at all, pro or con, about Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) stock; if you care at all about how products are, could be or should be designed and sold; or if you just want to dive into a really great story.

Steve Jobs was, to put it mildly, a very challenging individual as many learned the hard way by trying to share dinner with him (his eating habits were extreme and bizarre), by standing or sitting downwind of him (for much of his youth, he believed his dietary practices dispensed with the need for daily showers or baths), by trying to work with or for him (his idea of a product critique: "It sucks!"), or by having a personal relationship with him (he had a cruel streak and always acknowledged that as an aspect of his personality).

The legend about the two kids (Steve Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak) founding a company a garage belonging to one of the families is a nice entrepreneur story and it happened pretty much the way most of us assume it happened. But neither the difficult personality nor the entrepreneurial spirit are what made Jobs unique. Instead, he stood out by virtue of his exceptional, perhaps savant-like, taste, talent for design, and drive to turn his visions into realities. Those were the over-arching themes of his career from the days in the garage with "Woz," to the latter stages with Johnny Ives (Apple's design guru) and the rest of the Apple team.

Jobs' design passion went way beyond surface appearances. He also obsessed over how insides of products looked, even those with sealed cases that that could not be opened by anyone outside Apple. His reasoning was that one could not love what is seen on the outside if one knows or suspects that the product looks ugly on the inside. Ditto for factories: Walls needed to be white - the precise shade of white Jobs deemed best - regardless of whether white was really suitable for an environment dedicated to making stuff. And this quest for perfection, rather than financial avarice, is what motivated Jobs' quest for complete integration, inside and outside, hardware and software. He believed that outside influences would make the product less perfect, and often cause it to "suck."

Had Jobs pursued the fine arts, it would have be easy to stop right here and unconditionally celebrate his achievements. But his having exercised his talents in the commercial arena, we don't have that luxury and are forced to confront some intriguing contradictions. For starters, reality forced Jobs to deal with outsiders far more often than what would seem consistent with his stated views. Indeed, Isaacson, quoting others who worked with Jobs, often refers to a "reality distortion field" as an ever-present aspect of Job's relationship with the world around him.

Although Jobs spoke passionately about complete control, the reality is that Apple might not have survived but for the company's much sought and highly cherished important collaborations with Microsoft. And had Toshiba engineers not spoken to a Jobs colleague a new 1.8-inch drive with five gigabyte storage capacity laying around their lab with no clear use in sight, Apple might never have solved the drive-problem that was vexing the iPod team and standing in their way of bringing the product into existence.

And, of course, there's the dirty, messy, chaotic, uncontrollable, hyper-democratic internet, without which iPhone and iPad, and even iTunes would not exist: there's a lot to the internet that Jobs and Apple can control, as they do with the App store. But that does not include what users load into the Safari browser or how content gets transmitted over networks. (Much to the chagrin of Apple I assume, I, a non-tekkie, find it easy to buy Kindle books on my iPad outside of iTunes simply by loading Amazon into the Safari browser and then downloading via my Kindle app.)

Jobs also drove home to Isaacson the depth of his care for products per se, with this often being what elevated Apple above the competition. iPod was a perfect example. Jobs explained that Microsoft's competitive gadget, Zune, flopped because the people on the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) team were not music lovers. They just wanted to make money. Jobs and his team, on the other hand, were fanatic music lovers (recall that Jobs had, for a while, dated Joan Baez). Indeed, Jobs' answers when asked by Isaacson what he (Jobs) had stored on his iPod make it clear that Jobs' love of music was very deep and very real. The Apple team didn't just create iPod as a business. They created the product they themselves wanted to own and use.

This sounds trite, but actually, is a major issue throughout the business world. Do not assume a Jobs-like love of product is present elsewhere. (It wasn't even present at Apple during the period of Jobs' exile.) I've personally experienced this battle more times than I care to count in the years before I joined Portfolio123. During the course of my prior employment, I spent many hours in conference rooms arguing over stock-screener design with colleagues whose attitude toward stock investing ranged from apathy to disdain, and was directly chastised for trying to create the sort of screener I actually wanted to use. So when Steve Jobs speaks about having a passion for one's products, I hear him loud and clear. I'm all in, at least in the context of my corner of the universe (and by the way, Portfolio123 and its individual-investor StockScreen123 are exactly the products I not only want to use, but do use). But many aren't.

Interestingly, though, it seems to me that this is another area where Jobs' reality distortion field may have been operational. We know jobs loved iPod, and also iPhone and iPad (actually, iPad was conceived first but Jobs felt pressed to adapt it as he rushed to put out a phone that could handle music before others did, his fears having been stoked by the way camera-phones sliced into demand for digital cameras). Indeed, Apple's recent financials and the stock price show the impact of its having released products Jobs and his team loved and wanted to use.

But was that so in the pre-iPod era? Did Steve Jobs love computers? It's tempting to think he did, but I wonder. I cannot recall one occasion where Isaacson mentions anything from which I can infer that Jobs liked being a full-fledged computer user, as opposed to being a tech-gizmo-designer.

We know Jobs loved music and that he was artistic and he was great at coming up with computers that indulged such passions as handling of music, pictures, videos, fancy fonts, etc. But what about the full range of what computers can do? We don't know. We aren't told. But I'm guessing the answer is "no."

Had the answer been "yes," I cannot imagine that Jobs would have banned cursor keys from the Macintosh. Yes, you can move around on a spreadsheet with just a mouse, but when you have ideas flying around in your head and you want to get them into the spreadsheet while you're they are most top of mind, slowing down to position a mouse is sheer hell. I'm guessing Jobs never used a computer in such a way as to allow him to experience this, or if he did, he didn't care deeply about the work he was doing.

I'm also guessing that Jobs did not use, or enjoy using, computers to create large documents where quickness in editing (implement changes almost as fast as you think of them) was more important than beautiful fonts. I'm guessing Jobs did not use, or enjoy using, computers to create or work with sophisticated databases. I'm guessing Jobs did not use, or enjoy using, computers to create new software applications for other individuals or businesses, or to explore new frontiers of communication; actually, Isaacson is eerily silent about Jobs' reaction to the emergence of the internet, a phenomenon that gradually unfolded over a large portion of his professional life and wound up dramatically changing the way he, Apple and the rest of us work and play.

That was a major problem for Apple back in the days when it lived on computers alone (in contrast to today, when the non-computer products boosted the Apple brand to the point where that alone could induce many to buy its computers).

This presents important food for thought for Apple investors, who have an ongoing stake in the company's future. Anybody who has looked at the company's recent financials or its stock price trends sees evidence that at present, Apple's product excellence is very much in synch with the desires of many users. But it's not in synch with all of them, as evidenced by the rapid rise of Android phones and to a lesser degree so far, tablets and tablet-like devices.

Many outside observers today are certain they know the answers. But for what it's worth, Jobs seemed a bit less certain in his final days. Isaacson writes about an impromptu visit by Bill Gates to Steve Jobs' home near the end of the latter's life. These long-time friendly enemies (frenemies?) talked for more than three hours in a conversation that seemed to harken back to the dynamic correspondence maintained between one-time political rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during their twilight years. And like Adams and Jefferson, Jobs and Gates were quick to acknowledge the virtues of one another while still taking their final digs.

Gates (to Jobs): "I used to believe that the open horizontal model would prevail. But you proved that the integrated model could also be great."

Jobs to Gates: "Your model worked too."

Gates (later, to Isaacson): "The integrated approach works well when Steve is at the helm. But it doesn't mean it will win many rounds in the future."

Jobs (later to Isaacson): "Of course, his fragmented model worked, but it didn't make really great products. It produced crappy products. That was the problem. The big problem. At least over time."

Pages 554-55.

These two-line exchanges summarize the key issue, the balance between product excellence and maximum usability. (It may seem from the quotes that Jobs is being quite definitive. But if you read the entire book and see what Jobs is like when he's really firm in his views, you'll recognize in those exchanges, what for him is a particularly high degree of contemplation.)

In computers, where more users want to work to the best of their own ability rather than limiting themselves to expressing the best of Steve Jobs' abilities, the answer, as backed by the overall sales data, is clear: usability trumps product excellence.

With phones, the jury is still out. On the one hand, users don't expect to do as many things with a phone as with a computer, so the chances that Apple's tastes can remain in synch with those of a large number of users is great. But it's not 100%. (One tiny example: I'm still wrestling with the decision over how to replace my BlackBerry. Given my ownership of an iPod and iPad, purchasing an iPhone might seem to be a no-brainer. But my eyes are not what they were twenty years ago and with reading and news Apps most important to me, I'm finding screen sizes ranging from 4.0" to 4.5" for various Droid models very tempting compared to iPhone's 3.5" screen even to the point where I might be better served by an otherwise "crappy" product. This is just one anecdote. But given Droid's market share there are, obviously, millions of others.)

With tablets and tablet-like devices, the case is still in the early stages of development and won't even get to a jury for a long time. (Speaking again for myself, I use a $79 Kindle for most of my reading but as for other tablet uses, I haven't yet seen a rival that offers enough in terms of usage to offset the iPad's still-extreme quality advantage. But these are still early days. I have no idea what the world will look like when my iPad will need to be replaced.)

It will be interesting to see where current CEO Tim Cook (the guy who provides the critical managerial balance Jobs sought but failed to get when he brought in John Sculley) and John Ives take Apple. But the Isaacson book makes one thing clear: Apple will be different. It will change whether it wants to or not. Jobs was a one-of-a kind person and cannot be replicated.

He had his contradictions. But that's OK. Contrary to the whining about flip-flopping that we'll undoubtedly hear in the media as the 2012 presidential race heats up, all humans, except for the terminally boring, have internal contradictions. So the contradictions do not enhance or detract from Steve Jobs. What makes him is the brilliance he brought to bear in the areas about which he was most passionate.

And by the way, Mr. Isaacson, if you see this, can I persuade you to approach Bill Gates to try to get him to cooperate in a similar project. If Shakespeare were alive today, I have little doubt he'd write a play called "Steve and Bill" (or "Bill and Steve," depending on whether he'd be into Mac or pc). The long-standing connection between the two is the stuff of great literature. But since Shakespeare isn't going to come back to address it, I hope, Mr. Isaacson, that you can at least complete what really is a two-sides-of-the-coin biographical treatment.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.