Link Gruber on Isaacson

Everybody asks what I thought of Steve Jobs’ biography, and my answer is usually not what they expected. I disliked it, but couldn’t really explain why, except to say that it didn’t seem to accurately convey anything more than that Jobs was an asshole, and we all knew that already. Gruber has shed more light and actually identified a few of the shortcomings; there are many more, I feel, but reading this would at least give you a sense of the types of things Isaacson missed completely when painting a historical picture of a technology legend.

Gruber’s mild obsession with the NeXT years is something that is entirely warranted. Those were arguably the most important years, the decisions made there ultimately shaped the direction Apple would take when Steve resumed the helm, and NeXT’s software formed the foundation on which not only Mac OS X and iOS is built, but also every single application that makes them into the giants they are. Many object classes inside Apple’s Objective-C API (called Cocoa), are prefixed to this day with NS, referring to the NeXTSTEP operating system. Yet, despite its importance, and its lasting impact on the industry, Isaacson chose instead to barely scratch the surface of the NeXT years. Instead, he focused an inordinate amount of attention on Pixar and Jobs’ relationship with Disney and the turmoil that resulted. Jobs’ was proud of Pixar, and rightfully so, but the story of Pixar deserves its own book, and NeXT shouldn’t be resorted to an expanded footnote in the biography of a technical revolutionary like Jobs.

I don’t remember much about the back half of the book, largely because of its focus on Pixar, then the jump to the Return to Apple story, which begat the iMac, which begat the iPod, which begat the iPhone, which begat the iPad, and suddenly the book was over. Whether or not that’s what it was, that’s what I took away, and I’m an Apple geek. I should have been engaged by that point, denying myself meals and sleep to read more. As it is, I can’t even bring myself to pick the book back up to identify where exactly I started to dislike it. But here’s a summary of what I remember, picking up when Jobs was ousted:

Jobs recruits talent from Apple and starts NeXT. Jobs buys Pixar from Lucasfilm. Pixar stops making rendering hardware. Pixar takes eons, lots of money, and lots of strife to make Toy Story. Disney almost ruins Toy Story. Pixar makes Toy Story better. Toy Story is wildly successful. NeXT is failing. Pixar and Disney fight about the future of both. Pixar continues to do well. NeXT continues to fail. Disney realizes they need Pixar to survive. NeXT, despite being an abysmal failure, is purchased by Apple over Be, Inc. Apple throws out NeXTSTEP, and uses the acquired talent to save the Mac OS.

Of course, as Gruber points out, the last line wasn’t true at all. But if you were to hand the book to somebody who didn’t already know that, that’s precisely how it reads.