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Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs
The problem with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is not what it is, but what it isn’t: as a quick tour d’horizon of Steve’s life, it covers the highlights, but the book lacks the texture and analysis that would leave us with a better understanding of one of my heroes. In 1981, Tracy Kidder* wrote The Soul of A New Machine; he devoted 320 pages to a description of the year-long effort by the team that developed the Data General Eagle minicomputer. Yet Isaacson, due to obvious limitations of time and space, gives us only a few pages each on the creation of the Apple II, the Mac, the 1984 commercial, Pixar, the Apple Stores, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the App Store, the iPad, the iCloud, and the structure of Apple, Inc. itself. Yet each one of these achievements was a revolution in its area, and each one alone has the makings of a fascinating book.
In addition, Isaacson unfolds his narrative in chronologically linear manner — the book at times seems to be an “as told to” autobiography. Isaacson spends little time on themes like the reasons for Jobs’ brilliance at innovation, his politics, his reading habits regarding life and technology (though a good number of books are mentioned en passant), and the many subjects that Steve discussed with the great men and women who seemed to make their way to him.
Particularly compelling, however, are the brief descriptions of otherwise accomplished business executives who failed to understand Jobs’ ideas and creations when first shown them:
● Though Apple’s salesforce was thrilled by the now-iconic 1984 commercial, after the Apple Board of Directors viewed it for the first time, “Most of them thought that it was the worst commercial they had ever seen,” according to John Sculley, who ordered the company’s ad agency to sell of the Super Bowl slots that had been reserved for it.
● When Jobs proposed creating Apple Stores, his Board was dubious, to say the least. “I’m scratching my head and thinking that this is crazy,” opined Director Art Levinson, CEO of Genentech. As a sop to Jobs, the Board approved the initial creation of only four stores.
● Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner was oblivious to the merits of Finding Nemo. He wrote: “Yesterday we saw for the second time the new Pixar movie Finding Nemo, that comes out next May. This will be a reality check for those guys. It’s okay, but nowhere near as good at their previous films. Of course, they think that it’s great.”
● Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put down the iPhone: “It’s the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.”
● Similarly, Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates did not understand the iPad: “I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen, and a real keyboard — in other words a netbook — will be mainstream… It’s a nice reader, but there is nothing on the iPad I look at and say, Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.”
Throughout the book Isaacson notes Jobs impatience, bluntness and downright rudeness. Ideas can be “crap” and people “bozos” or worse. But, to my mind, Jobs redeems himself somewhat when faced with a person of equal energy and creativity, as Isaacson describes in this lovely anecdote:
For the iPhone, the original plan was for it to have a plastic screen, like the iPod. But Jobs decided it would feel much more elegant and substantive if the screens were glass. So he set about finding a glass that would be strong and resistant to scratches.
The natural place to look was Asia, where the glass for the [Apple] stores was being made. But Job’s friend John Seeley Brown, who was on the board of Corning Glass in Upstate New York, told him that he should talk to the company’s young and dynamic CEO, Wendell Weeks. So he dialed the main Corning switchboard number and asked to be put through to Weeks. He got an assistant, who offered to pass along the message. “No, I’m Steve Jobs,” he replied. “Put me through.” The assistant refused. Jobs called Brown and complained that he had been subject to “typical East Coast bullshit.” When Weeks heard that, he called the Apple switchboard and asked to speak to Jobs. He was told to put his request in writing and send it by fax. When Jobs was told what had happened, he took a liking to Weeks and invited him to Cupertino.
Jobs described the type of glass that Apple wanted for the iPhone, and Weeks told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what they dubbed “gorilla glass.” It was incredibly strong, but it had never found a market, so Corning quit making it. Jobs said he doubted it was good enough, and he started explaining to Weeks how glass is made. This amused Weeks, who of course knew more than Jobs about that topic. “Can you shut up,” Weeks interjected, “and let me teach you some science?” Jobs was taken aback and fell silent. Weeks went to the whiteboard and gave a tutorial on chemistry, which involved an ion-exchange process that produced a compression layer on the surface of the glass. This turned Jobs around, and he said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months. “We don’t have the capacity,” Weeks replied. “None of our plants make the glass now.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good humored and confident but not used to Jobs reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise that Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn’t accept. He stared at Weeks unblinkingly. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”
As Weeks retold the story, he shook his head in astonishment. “We did it in under six months,” he said. “We produced a glass that had never been made.” Corning’s facility in Harrisburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, was converted almost overnight to make gorilla glass full-time. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” In his airy office, Weeks has just one framed momento on display. It ‘s a message Jobs sent the day the iPhone came out: “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
Isaacson concludes with the observation that history will put Jobs in the pantheon with Edison and Ford. He’s right. We are all lucky to have been alive with Steve.
*Kidder is known on the Hanover Plain as the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, in which President Kim is mentioned. (Kim is first noted on page 100, and overall he is referred to 44 times in the 312-page book).
Addendum: Dartmouth alumnus Pete Volanakis ‘77, T ‘82 joined Corning in 1983 and he was President from 2007 until his retirement in 2010. He is now Strategic Advisor to Chief Executive Officer Wendell Weeks. Corning has produced a wonderful video about gorilla glass.
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