Who Was Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs

by Walter Isaacson
Simon and Schuster, 630 pp., $35.00
Anthony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images
A man wearing a mask of Steve Jobs pretending to present new iPads outside an Apple store in Hong Kong, in a protest against conditions at Foxconn factories in China where Apple products are made, May 2011

Within hours of the death of Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, people began to show up at Apple stores with flowers, candles, and messages of bereavement and gratitude, turning the company’s retail establishments into shrines. It was an oddly fitting tribute to the man who started Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976 and built it up to become, as of last August, the world’s most valuable corporation, one with more cash in its vault than the US Treasury. Where better to lay a wreath than in front of places that were themselves built as shrines to Apple products, and whose glass staircases and Florentine gray stone floors so perfectly articulated Jobs’s “maximum statement through minimalism” aesthetic. And why not publicly mourn the man who had given us our coolest stuff, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and computers that were easy to use and delightful to look at?

According to Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert writing in The New York Times just a week before Jobs’s death, when people hear the ring of their iPhones it activates the insular cortex of the brain, the place where we typically register affection and love. If that’s true, then the syllogism—I love everything about my iPhone; Steve Jobs made this iPhone; therefore, I love Steve Jobs—however faulty, makes a certain kind of emotional sense and suggests why so many people were touched by his death in more than a superficial way.

By the time he died in October at age fifty-six, Jobs was as much an icon as the Apple logo or the iPod or the original Macintosh computer themselves. Known for his casual jeans-and-black-turtleneck look, Jobs had branded himself and, by extension, his company. The message was simple: I’m not a suit, and we don’t make products for suits—suits being a euphemism for buttoned-up, submissive conformists. America loves its business heroes—just a few years ago, books about General Electric’s former chief executive Jack Welch, the investor Warren Buffett, and Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca topped best-seller lists—and it also celebrates its iconoclasts, people who buck the system and make it on their own terms. As Walter Isaacson’s perfectly timed biography makes clear, Jobs aspired to be both, living as if there were no contradiction between the corporate and the countercultural, and this, along with the sexy hardware and innovative software he bequeathed us, is at the root of the public’s fascination with him.

Isaacson’s biography—which is nothing if not a comprehensive catalog of Jobs’s steps and missteps as he went from being an arrogant, mediocre engineer who had been relegated to the night shift at Atari because of his poor hygiene to one…

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