It is fitting to begin with a picture of my beautiful iPod, a birthday present years ago from my children which made me one of the cool people at the gym. It was my first Apple product and I loved it dearly. Reading this book prompted me to find it, though I haven't used it in years and it's been replaced by iPhones.
t am trying not to use all my superlatives at the outset of this book description, but it's a struggle to subdue my enthusiasm. Steve Jobs was a fascinating character and a person who changed so much about our online lives and Walter Isaacson has written an account of what Jobs did differently in the corporate world and in imposing his aesthetic sensibilities on the emerging technology. Perhaps my favorite story to illustrate Steve Jobs comes early in this 571 page book.
In 1979 shortly before Apple stock was to go public, Xerox was interested in investing. Steve Jobs offered to let them invest a million dollars in Apple if they would allow him and his top staff to see the work that was being done in Xerox PARC. That was a research center created by Xerox in 1970 to create digital ideas, located across the country from corporate headquarters. Xerox agreed and despite much foot-dragging by the researchers at Xerox PARC, they divulged what they had created.
When Tesler finally showed them what was truly under the hood, the Apple folks were astonished. Atkinson stared at the screen, examining each pixel so closely that Tesler could feel the breath on his neck. Jobs bounced around and waved his arms excitedly. "He was hopping around so much I don't know how he actually saw most of the demo, but he did, because he kept asking questions," Tesler recalled. "He was the exclamation point for every step I showed." Jobs kept saying that he couldn't believe that Xerox had not commercialized the technology. "You're sitting on a gold mine," he shouted. "I can't believe Xerox is not taking advantage of this."
The three key features were networking computers, object-oriented programming, and the third, the one the Apple team was truly excited about, was the graphical interface made possible by bitmapping. That third item changed computing from the DOS, character-based computing (oh yes, I remember that) to using the mouse ultimately to click on items displayed on the screen and move them around.
What makes this book wonderful in my view is that Isaacson takes this further to assess whether this was a theft by Apple or gross error of Xerox to give this away. Some say Xerox could have dominated the computer industry:
Jobs and his engineers significantly improved the graphical interface ideas they saw at Xerox PARC, and then were able to implement them in ways that Xerox never could accomplish. For example, the Xerox mouse had three buttons, was complicated, cost $300 apiece, and didn't roll around smoothly; a few days after his second Xerox PARC visit, Jobs went to a local industrial design firm, IDEO, and told one of its founders, Dean Hovey, that he wanted a simple single button model that cost $15, "and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my blue jeans." Hovey complied.
While the work done at Xerox PARC was transformative, it was not a simple matter that any company could put to use. While Xerox did make computers, they couldn't incorporate those ideas successfully. We are all aware of Jobs transforming the computer from the insider/hobbyist approach to a machine that helped you accomplish your task with ease. I certainly recall longing for a machine in the workplace that would work as well as a refrigerator, an amazing machine that quietly and easily does its job.
I have many passages in this book marked with sticky notes, but I believe the Xerox PARC story illustrates what makes this a wonderful book: the story of Steve Jobs, brilliantly told.
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 571 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.