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Book review: The Second Coming of Steve Jobs
(IDG) -- Even the dot-com hype has failed to produce a CEO with the rock-star status of Steve Jobs. Maybe that's not surprising. There really is something elusively compelling about Jobs. He's figured prominently in at least five nonfiction books. A major literary novel is widely assumed to be based on his life. And he was the subject, along with Bill Gates, of a TV miniseries. It's enough to make one wonder at the amount of attention paid to the head of Apple Computer which is, when you get down to it, not a particularly important tech company.
Now along comes Alan Deutschman, a Silicon Valley journalist and Vanity Fair contributing editor, with The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, a book that even prior to publication has succeeded on at least one front: It apparently annoyed its subject a great deal. Jobs reportedly complained to the head of Random House (Broadway Books is one of its imprints) that Deutschman had written a "hatchet job." Vanity Fair canceled plans -- apparently rather late in the production cycle -- to excerpt the book in its October issue, citing space concerns. Deutschman told the New York Times that, although he has no evidence of it, he believes Jobs pressured the magazine to cancel the story. Naturally the net effect of all this will be to focus more attention on Deutschman's book.
The Second Coming gets under way with Deutschman's observation that the arc to the Jobs story is now something right out of a three-act Hollywood screenplay. We have the rise of the precocious co-founder of Apple, his brutal comeuppance running the ill-fated NeXT, and his unlikely redemption as head of Pixar and a miraculously resuscitated Apple. Jobs is a helpful protagonist, by turns charming and cruel, possessed of a towering ego and, maybe most important, a gift for transcendent rhetoric.
Recently he was in the news touting Apple's newest machine and its iMovie software. Is iMovie good? Is iMovie insanely great? No. IMovie, Jobs declares, "is profound." The software, he says, will "help iMac customers have an emotional experience."
What is Jobs up to when he says things like that? Does he really mean it? Or is it all done for effect? Jobs himself was apparently not willing to take up this or any other question with Deutschman, who instead has based his book on "scores" of interviews with people around Jobs. It's difficult to evaluate these sources, as Deutschman tells us that many insisted on anonymity, and a high number of the attributed quotes in the book come from other journalists or from PR people.
Even so, the raw material of Jobs' life is undeniably interesting, and if you don't know the basic plot points very well, Deutschman's book is a good primer. Jobs rises from the working-class milieu of the family that adopted him, drops out of college and at a fantastically young age co-founds Apple. From the beginning, apparently, he is possessed of irresistible charisma and self-confidence.
There's a pleasant dishiness to this particular retelling. Deutschman dutifully notes that Jobs was "the first businessman as rock star," adding that Jobs would have been Time's Man of the Year if not for his messy personal life, including a daughter born out of wedlock whom he was reluctant to support. (Time's honor went to "the computer" instead.) The author also gives us a peek at Jobs' romantic dalliances with, among others, singer Joan Baez and artist Maya Lin. And he recounts Jobs' reunion with his biological sister, writer Mona Simpson, as well as the subsequent apparent rupture when her novel A Regular Guy seemed to be patterned on Jobs' life.
All this is fun, and probably the source of Jobs' distress over the book, but there isn't much depth to it. Various scenes that turn on Jobs humiliating this or that bit player -- playing a mean prank on a small-time computer consultant, telling an unnamed minion that "you've baked a really lovely cake, but then you've used dog shit for frosting" -- end up going nowhere. Jobs is referred to as "Steve" throughout the book, and we also meet "Bill" (Gates), "Ross" (Perot), "Scott" (McNealy) and "Ann" (Winblad). This seems meant to imply a familiarity with the subject, but it sounds superficial.
Perhaps it's telling that the book's preface doesn't lay out any particular set of ideas about Jobs that will carry through the ensuing three-act drama. Instead it's a patch-together of scenes and sentences that appear later in the book -- which only makes Deutschman's habit of repetition worse. On page 2 we learn that "NeXT was bleeding money, hemorrhaging money"; on page 48 we find that "NeXT was burning through money, bleeding money, hemorrhaging money"; on page 55 it turns out that "the company was bleeding money" and as for Pixar, well, you'll not be surprised to learn on page 121 that it, too, "was bleeding money."
More annoying than repetition is inconsistent repetition: In the preface, "a newspaper reporter" asks Jobs whether layoffs at NeXT mean the company is a failure. "'I don't want to do this interview,' he said softly. He got up and walked away." When the same anecdote crops up again in the book's third chapter, the reporter now works for "a weekly trade magazine"; Jobs delivers the same line, and stands up to go, but this time he doesn't. ("He returned and sat for an interview.")
Nit-picking aside, what does this collection of entertaining anecdotes add up to? In the end, it's hard to tell what Deutschman thinks of his subject. At NeXT, Jobs seems like little more than a spoiled, bullying tyrant who is in way over his head. At Pixar, he is a mere figurehead, most notable for being easily ignored. Yet the book seems willing to give Jobs almost complete credit for the resurgence of Apple, explaining that he cracked down on an undisciplined workforce and conjured up marketing magic.
The book offers an unhelpful good Steve-bad Steve dichotomy and concludes with a string of 10 "opinions and theories" about Jobs and why people might still want to read a book about him ("he's a great enigma") culled from Silicon Valley onlookers. In a final act of desperation, Deutschman quotes his boss: "Steve had what Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter liked to call the 'X factor,' a charisma and buzz and fascination that was an invaluable asset for a mogul." Ah, yes -- the "X factor."
Almost perfectly empty observations like that are what make The Second Coming of Steve Jobs feel like the sort of quickie bios that get written about rock stars, based largely on the recollections of hangers-on. It's less an explanation of our obsession with Steve Jobs than it is evidence that the obsession persists.
In his 1993 book Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing, Randall Stross concludes that the legendary Apple founder was something of a construct: "The human eye has trouble focusing on the group; it prefers the heroic individual." So if we have to think about Jobs as a rock star, maybe the place to start is with Bob Dylan circa Don't Look Back -- a young man who was celebrated not just as a star, but as something of a prophet. Certainly Dylan was very talented, but he was also, like Jobs, of the right place and time to stand as a symbol of something larger. For Jobs, the problem during the period Stross focuses on was that he had come to believe this construct himself. The result was some $250 million hurled down a black hole.
The idea that the public Jobs was at least as much a reflection of his times as a shaper of them is a compelling one -- although it does not satisfactorily explain his rise from the ashes of NeXT and his return to the cover of business magazines. Perhaps what Jobs learned in the interim is that success is never inevitable, even for American heroes, and that a CEO is ultimately better off believing in his products' profundity rather than his own.
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