What is the Apple success formula? Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (book review)

As Steve Jobs was dying of cancer of the pancreas in 2011, it was ironic, Isaacson notes, that all the top-notch medical specialists gathered around him should have the same fenced-off departmental or ‘silo’ pathology Jobs fought all his life:

He realized that he was facing the type of problem he never permitted at Apple. His treatment was fragmented rather than integrated. Each of his myriad maladies was being treated by different specialists—oncologists, pain specialists, nutritionists, and hematologists—but they were not being coordinated in a cohesive approach. (pp. 549–50)

I am not saying an integrated or holistic approach to their patient’s health would have kept him alive. Indeed, Jobs’s New Age ideas on eating and health (what Andy Grove of Intel called ‘trying to cure himself by eating horseshit and horseshit roots’ – p. 454) may have killed him; he refused surgery in October 2003, when even a leading alternative health practitioner advised him in favour of it. (I am not criticizing or diminishing Jobs; I sympathize with his fears.)

2/10. The original title and cover. Vulgar, cheap and disrespectful – though to be fair to the publisher it pre-dates Jobs's death. 'iSteve' is false chumminess. 'The Book of Jobs' is another meaningless joke; it also encourages us to pronounce the surname wrongly. The Jobs-enforced radical rethink (according to Isaacson's interview on CBS, accompanied by a refusal to permit publication otherwise) testifies to Jobs's power to compel the publisher to let him have it laid out by the Apple design department – and give it a new title too. And he was right – see below.

Jobs lived and died a particular kind of relation between the individual and the organization, between creativity and corporate departmentalism. It is one of the strongest stories in the book. It is fascinating to wonder whether Jobs’s career – perhaps our own too? – can be considered as repetitions, with some modifications, of one really quite simple idea or position. Whether we love or hate Jobs and his products we cannot deny he found a formula that has made Apple the world’s most valuable commercial company.

What is it? Before I attempt to answer, two points: (a) it is not a secret, and (b) if it was easy, Jobs’s competitors would have done it – but they didn’t. Let’s look at some case studies from the book in chronological order.

1. The teenage Jobs was bright, rebellious and literally odious – his affiliation to the counterculture, Dylan, bizarre diets, Indian mysticism and dope/acid came with a belief that deodorant was for straights. He was a good but not brilliant electronics engineer. He could, however, recognize genius in, and be trusted as a friend by, Steve Wozniak. ‘Woz’ was too geeky to see the potential in commercializing his inventiveness, but – as with the first Apple personal computer later – Jobs could: in 1975 he subcontracted a commission from Atari for a single-player version of Pong (with a bonus for each chip saved below 50) to Woz. Jobs then shared the basic fee but pocketed the bonus without telling him.

2. In December 1979 Xerox PARC in Palo Alto was the place of Jobs’s Damascene conversion to the graphical user interface and the mouse. Note (a) he was again making use of other people’s original work, (b) he saw a chance to design a machine around the way he thought people really do work, feel and think, and (c) Xerox deliberately placed their research group 3000 miles away from their headquarters in Rochester NY to ‘allow’ it creative freedom. This begs the question of how much Xerox really wanted to do anything with their intellectual property.

3. Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985 by the powerplays of senior management finding him too obsessive and disruptive. They were intent on turning Apple into a ‘sensible’ company. Earlier Jobs had shown his leadership and an admirable instinct for grasping the key point in asking John Sculley, then President at Pepsi, ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?’ The markets, though, backed Sculley: Apple shares went up 7 per cent on the news of Jobs’s departure, even if Nolan Bushnell of Atari presciently asked Time readers: ‘Where is Apple’s inspiration going to come from? Is Apple going to have all the romance of a new brand of Pepsi?’ (p. 217).

4. The Pixar success story was another good Jobs pick of some very talented people who eventually found they could integrate their technology skills with an appeal – without sentiment or kitsch – to our shared humanity. Jobs invested in them when the animation was just a hobby – at the time they were trying to sell image rendering software. Note that, a bit like Xerox, the competing Disney corporate culture under CEO Michael Eisner had been so inimical to creativity (‘rapacious, soul-less’ – Roy E. Disney) that they had had no major box office successes for 10 years. 2006 saw a de facto reverse creative takeover by Pixar of Disney, with Pixar personnel now holding the key creative positions and (incidentally) Jobs becoming the single largest Disney shareholder (7 per cent of a current $37 billion valuation). The longest index subentries (under the main entry for Jobs) in Isaacson’s book are for ‘controlling personality of’ and ‘offensive behaviour of’, but with Pixar Jobs also clearly backed and continued to back, even under severe financial pressure, other people’s creative skills when conventional corporate wisdom would say bail out.

8/10. Compare this with the publisher's first attempt above and note the improvements in every way. Even though the 'iSteve' cover uses Apple's house typeface Myriad, the Helvetica here recalls the most recent devices themselves. The qualities of simplicity, whiteness and directness have almost become defining properties of Apple itself and here strongly impute Apple ownership. This is odd, because the book is fully independently written and published. The only false note is the rather weak use of 'by' in the title/author line. The Svengali-like image, compared to the type, is borderline too powerful.

5. By 2001 some people had already written music compilation software and made digital music players; the iPod was comparatively late into the market. But only Apple understood that their device needed to go beyond consumers’ fear of change by being simple, cool and elegant. This was not market-researched – Jobs didn’t believe in it. Note the real product development thinking behind what Jobs said about the iPod’s victory over Microsoft’s rival offering Zune: ‘The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out’ (p. 407). In a commercial world where pseudo-passion disguising worship of money is now the norm (as I write, the buffoon Alan Sugar – ennobled in the UK for his cheesy parody of hi-tech entrepreneurship – is on the TV), Jobs’s pride in his products exalts us by reflection as buyers. Note too that hiving off the complexity of downloading/making playlists onto the bigger screen of the computer made the Apple integration gestalt start to pay off: in a virtuous cycle Apple consumer products were driving sales of Apple computers. And by controlling the route to market and return of money (Marx’s ‘means of distribution and exchange’) shortly afterwards via iTunes, Apple were early, trusted and dominant players in e-commerce, staking out an enormously valuable piece of real e-estate. But what about the competition? Sony had everything they needed to blow Apple away: a history of excellent consumer electronics product design, including the precursive Walkman; they were also early adopters of a vertically integrated product strategy, including the large-scale acquisition of rights to music (including Jobs’s beloved Dylan) and video content. Isaacson: ‘But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service’ (p. 400).

6. The idea of Apple stores appears to have first seen the light of day around the end of 1982 in a cheery memo by John Sculley: ‘Invest in in-store merchandizing that romances the consumer with Apple’s potential to enrich their life!’ (p. 150, Sculley’s underlining). At the time the first store opened in Virginia in May 2001, Apple’s former chief financial officer Joseph Graziano offered Business Week readers a classic quote about the clash of creativity with mean-spirited-control-freakery-pretending-to-be-sensible: ‘Apple’s problem is it still believes the way to grow is serving caviar in a world that seems pretty content with cheese and crackers’ (p. 374). Yet as Jobs was to say in 2010, the Fifth Avenue New York store ‘grosses more per square foot than any store in the world’ (p. 376). In terms of the underlying Apple success formula, Gateway had previously tried selling its PCs in malls, with disastrous consequences. Apple’s desperately marginal market share at the time (under 3 per cent) seems to have driven a particularly bold hybrid strategy integrating education/outreach with retail. Hence near the entrance the shops act as a virtual playground or nursery school, and deeper inside (I am grateful to my father-in-law Clive Boyce for this suggestion) more like a church; the Genius Bar is an altar, complete with priests watching over (as Richard Brautigan didn’t quite say) – with loving grace – the machines.

Preparing for communion: the technological priesthood in the Apple Store, Cambridge UK. Note the backlit images of products are like stained glass windows. I really have no complaint about this, but Apple company policy is not to permit photography in their shops. It is perfectly reasonable that they should wish to promulgate only the images that are the most idiomatically appropriate to their medium and which reinforce Apple's severe uncluttered Zen-like visual style. 250,000 RGB pixels are not enough for the visually messy plurality of humanity, whereas when we are there in the shops our sensorium tells us they feel sterile and grey unless people are all around. The Apple press office have kindly replied and said that images are not available; to fill the gap I offer this one, but I apologize for withholding the source of this image.


7. The iPhone is another repetition of what is by now clearly visible as the formula: copy the idea, connect it up with something usually separate, make it really work, make it simple to understand and beautiful to use. Also:

  • Have the courage to back what you think is right; have more courage to pick yourself up again after you were wrong. The contrast with the cowardice of competing corporate managers covering their backs by playing it safe – what could be more dangerous than that? – comes out in this book again and again.
  • Have the intelligence and insight to understand something that is worth having the courage to defend; in Jobs’s case he had a vision of integration and symbolic expressiveness that is a good deal more than a Bauhausian design-led ‘form follows function’ mantra. Apple’s products reflect the psychic and bodily fullness of our humanity. What does this mean? Truly good things reach, with generosity and respect, our curiosity, our childlike sense of wonder and pleasure of being-in-the-world. Fear, laziness and fallibility are human responses too and deserve corporate responses that are not secretly contemptuous. We all know in a thousand ways what companies really think of us. Yes, Bill Gates made billions of dollars by making things that were intentionally no more than pragmatic, but where now is Microsoft’s sustainable business idea? It will be fascinating to see if Google have a more powerful and creatively generative commercial relation to the zeitgeist. Perhaps Jobs’s business model was the first to truly understand (and, importantly, to commodify) our world of increasingly instantaneous information integration.

People at the virtual playground end of the Apple Store, Cambridge UK. See what I mean about people as visual clutter? Please don't misunderstand, I am only talking about people *in pictures*. (My photo, taken with approval outside the shop)

On the deficit side of the ledger, the foul-mouthed Jobs was clearly no saint, and it becomes increasingly clear that the lock-in to Apple (why can’t we change the battery in our iPhone?) is also a kind of possessiveness that could push us away.

The future? The book gives us a big hint at an Apple television, which would fit the formula very well. The increasing complexity of our user experience of television (when linked to the web) – just like music downloads 10 years ago – is a classic opportunity for Apple. My VirginMedia Tivo box, for example, works well enough as a machine, but the human interface is poorly considered. An Apple TV would also connect seamlessly (two key Apple words) with iTunes online selling and distribution of video content. The iMac design is already a television by another name without a purpose-designed user interface, and the high screen resolution of the iPad 3 is a bravura display of what Apple can do.

In a tilt at some bigger windmills Jobs pitched heavy-duty changes in the US education system – based on iPads of course – to Obama. Only Jobs had enough personal kudos to take this on; new CEO Tim Cook will wisely leave this alone. As for the breakup of monocausal/departmentalized diagnoses and treatments in the health sector, we may just have to wait until the New Jerusalem.


Two very minor gripes about an otherwise fascinating and inspiring book:

1. Isaacson talks too much about Jobs’s ‘reality distortion field’. I am pretty sure most people married for more than 10 years would say their spouse distorts reality – we all do it, and not knowing about our distortion is the distortion. The difference with Jobs is that he had the power to make people comply with his ‘vision’ (if we like it) or ‘obsessions’ (if we don’t). He would fire them if they didn’t. Not many people get a book written about them; Isaacson’s book is another distortion field that continues Jobs’s distortions of reality anyway – as does this post.

2. The index entry (p. 612) for Jonathan Ive, English-born visionary designer afforded uniquely privileged status and power by Jobs, refers to his nickname (actually ‘Jony’) as ‘Sony’. I enjoyed this well-meaning but embarrassing proofreader’s mistake very much – I’ve done a couple like this in the past. But I’ve mentioned it here just to see if the magic of social media and search really does get through to the people who have the power to change these things.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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