History, Reviews, Technology.

The Genius of Apple

Book Book Review, Title Steve Jobs, Author Walter Isaacson, Rating 3.0, The genius of Apple

Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson

Book Review

Steve Jobs recent demise brought out many encomiums having at least one thing in common: An agreement that he was a genius. Jobs' genius (a notoriously fickle word) would appear to be in the realm of practical design. His early Apple computer was easier to use and more accessible to its consumers than those of his early competitors, and that was true of most of the subsequent devices produced by Apple on his watch, including the Macintosh windowing and mouse-driven operating system, the seductively simple iPod, the iPhone marriage of mobile phones with a personal digital assistant and its deft employment of touch screen technology, and the iPad tablet offshoot.

Jobs wasn’t a serious technologist, even though he produced many devices rooted in information technology, but succeeded by making other’s inventions more usable and intuitively accessible than the inventor’s themselves: The mouse, the touch screen, the windowing operating system, the personal digital assistant, the mobile phone, the more intuitive touch controls, GPS navigation, blue-tooth tethering, digital cameras, etc. were all invented by others. But Jobs worked incessantly to make the complex (deceptively) simple and easier to use, and in his iPhone / iPad products, brought together a host of useful technologies into an harmonious whole, integrating them in a way that opened up more possibilities than were there when used separately, blending them in a way that required very little instruction in order to use them.

If that was not enough, Jobs also was enormously successful in film-making, building the great Pixar studios, which became the best animated film producer in the 1990’s and 2000’s, so much so that the vaunted Disney animation studio was left behind, and ultimately bought Pixar to help rejuvenate their animation films. Here Jobs took some of his computing devices, in this case the NeXT product line, and applied them to the burgeoning field of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Again the success of Pixar wasn’t driven by technological innovation alone, but by effectively using technology to produce great films.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.


Jobs made serious innovations in yet a third arena, the music industry: His iPod, iTunes and, most important, the iTunes store, changed the way music was bought and sold, shared and played. The iTunes store was ground-breaking; being able to buy and download just the songs that you desired, as opposed to full albums was new and a fundamental paradigm shift for a flailing music industry. The iPod music player was not by any means the first portable digital music device, just as downloading individual songs was not a new idea, but, like the iPhone that grew from the iPod, it was intuitive, deceptively simple in its operation, and married in a very effective way with the personal computer. The iPod just played the music, but the music collection was managed on the computer, because it each was more suited to those roles.

The iTunes software used on the PC to do this was the epitomy of the Jobs school of design. Just one comparison demonstrates this. To load a music CD onto a PC using the Windows Media Player, for example, might require opening the sofware, then performing three or four steps and traveling down several menus to access and perform those steps; using iTunes, one simply had to slip the CD into the CD reader on their PC, and when the task was done, the CD automatically ejected: One step. Technically challenged people use Job’s products with a minimum of awareness of the complexity underlying all of the components harnessed to produce the required features.

Isaacson suggests that the commonality between these seemingly disparate pursuits of computer manufacturing, film-making, and purveying music, was Job’s obsessive single-mindedness (or as the Brits might say, bloody-mindedness); he was driven to make products that, in his mind, worked perfectly, or that told the story in the most effective way, and masked the complexity of the technology being used to provide the features.

Isaacson’s biography is very unusual in that it showed both Job’s strengths and weaknesses as a person in equal measure; most biographies at least flirt with hagiography, if not always embrace it. Isaacson suggests that Steve Job’s accomplishments came at a heavy human price; he was with few exceptions a harsh, brutal and deeply selfish man, one almost impossible to admire on the personal level. It raises the question: Is it in fact possible to be a kind and caring human being, one deeply concerned with the people around him, and at the same time, accomplish great things? It is an old question, and the answer often seems to be illustrated by the dilemma that is Steve Jobs: Ruthlessness is a common denominator for many great men; perhaps it is an inevitable price of greatness.

A gift from my wife Cindy.

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