Book: Inside Apple

I expect many of you have read at least one book on Steve Jobs and Apple since Jobs’ death. If you, like me, grabbed and consumed a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a recommendation for you. Go buy a copy of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky. It’s much better, much more interesting, and in many ways, more revealing.

I’ve long admired Lashinsky’s writing in Fortune. Sometimes he makes me want to scream when he missed the mark, but often he gets under the surface of what is going on an covers it in an interesting and compelling way. He doesn’t write puff pieces while at the same time avoiding the trap of always writing nastiness, especially unfounded stuff, that many journalists seem to have fallen into the trap of (which – I expect – was prompted by competition from bloggers and the endless fight for headlines and link bait.) Lashinsky has avoided this trap, which makes me enjoy reading him even more.

I wrote a short but extremely positive review of Isaacson’s bio on Jobs. I liked it a lot, but as time passed I felt mildly unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a dinner conversation with a friend who knows Isaacson and some of the back story of the book. It came up randomly in our conversation and after I told him what I thought he responded that he thought it was a huge disappointment. He said that Isaacson totally blew it and his publisher, and the pressure of “publishing now” undermine the potential for what he was working on.

My friends suggestion was a simple, yet profound one. Isaacson should have publicly stated that he was delaying the book for a year and then gone back and re-interviewed many of the people he’d talked to. He should have probed deeper on the character of Jobs and explored things that people might not have been willing to say – both good and bad – when Jobs was alive. And he should have taken his role as official biographer more seriously – rather than rushing a book out on the heels of Jobs’ passing, he should have paused, thought hard about how he was trying to portray Jobs, and worked incredibly hard to nail it.

His words rang true. And, as I read through Inside Apple I kept thinking about what my friend said. We all know that Apple is an intensely secretive company and the external (and internal) messages are tightly controlled. By Jobs. Now that Jobs is no longer around, the dynamics around this might change. It certainly would change in anonymous conversations with an official biographer. Regardless, another level of research, thought, and analysis would be powerful.

This is what makes Lashinsky’s book so interesting. He doesn’t focus on Jobs, he focuses on Apple. But by focusing on Apple, he does a magnificent job of exploring and revealing Jobs. As a bonus, this isn’t yet another story of Jobs’ progression from adopted son to the Apple II to Next to Pixar to Mac to iPhone to iPad. Instead, it’s a contemporary look at the company, what makes it tick, and how it really works.

Lashinsky gets to some provocative stuff. In a section about “the narcissist (Jobs) and his sidekick (Cook)” he discusses how the narcissist / sidekick relationship can be incredibly effective. In this one section, he nails the notion of a productive narcissist, which captures part of the psychology of many successful entrepreneurs I know. It’s much more subtle – and useful – than the normal “pathological narcissist” discussion that follows many entrepreneurs around. A tweet about this section in the book from me generated an email exchange with an organizational psychologist friend which gave me an even deeper understanding of this dynamic.

Overall, I give this book an A+. If you are into Apple, curious about it, use their products, or are curious about Steve Jobs and the other leaders at Apple, I highly recommend this book. And yes, I read it on an iPad.

  • I wonder how much of Isaacson’s experience writing his book is like that of a startup.

    Founders can go back, take a year off, redo the entire system to make sure it is perfect or they can launch.  They can push it out there and get going.

    We only have 50 years or so of working life. Why should Isaacson go back and burn another one of them on Jobs?  His subject maybe that important to you, but is it worth it to Isaacson? Or should he just publish and imperfect world, let the world judge it as they may, learn and go on…

    • Having read other Isaacson books (including Einstein – which I think I need to go read again) I think one of his motivations is to be the biographer of record for amazing people. If this is his goal, spending another year (or even six months) on this would have been a tiny investment relative to the potential improvement.

      • definitely.  isaacson did a poor job on his biography

  • I viewed Isaacson’s book as what it I thought it was, an unprecedented level of access to Jobs’ personal life from an intelligent, but technologically/appley naive viewpoint, so I’d defend comments from my friends with:

    “If you want insightful analysis, or complete technology information/understanding, there are other books … But Isaacson’s book has unique info and it’s valuable in a different way, take it as is and appreciate it from that regard.”

    I guess I still don’t like the concept of an official biography that has to be the end all be all of understanding of a person, as it seems bound to lead to disappointment, but your comments here were the first time I realized it might have been a lot more.

    • Yeah – I’ve struggled with this also. I really want to love Isaacson’s book, but the more time that passes the more I realize it could have been a lot better.

  • Anonymous

    Argh.  I just downloaded “The Startup of You” on your recommendation and then I saw your tweet on Lashinsky’s book, which I’ve heard so many good things about. I knew I’d have to add it to the queue.  You turned me on to ZAMM and the Daemon series and haven’t steered me wrong yet.  Thanks. As on old soul song says: “Pass the Information, Extend the Knowledge.”

    • All good choices!

  • Tom Nocera

    Thanks Brad for sharing your special and thought-provoking insights. Do you envision a business model for vc’s to identify and match possible sidekicks to narcissistic entrepreneurs to strengthen and add balance as part of an investment deal?

    • I think many VCs screw this up and don’t really understand the dynamics around productive narcissists. I don’t think a business model is the right answer – rather, I think some VCs either need to think harder about this or spend time with other VCs who understand this dynamic.

  • Ken H

    I passed on the Isaacson book after reading Gruber’s scathing review. I read The Steve Jobs Way instead. Good book, very inspiring. Looking forward to Segall’s Insanely Simple, too.

  • typo – it says “heals of jobs’ passing” it should be “heels of jobs’ passing”

    • Damn – I have a heals / heels problem these days. I’ll go fix that now.

  • Thanks for the review, Brad. I just gifted a copy to my girlfriend, who wanted to read a bio of Apple/Jobs.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, just got it on my Kobo (don’t ask).  Also a heads up, sometimes your viglinks can lock my browser tab (Chrome).  Why even use viglink anyways?  Is the revenue meaningful?  It raises an eyebrow as a user, to be held up on a long viglink url in my browser for 30 secs.

    • I didn’t even know I still had Viglink on there! I’ll take it off.

      • lol.. viglink working a little too well it seams.

  • Compelling review. I loved Isaacson’s book actually. From your disappointment, I guess it was too glorified..

    Have you read ‘The second coming of SJ’ by Alan Deutschman? And if yes, what did you think of that.

    • I haven’t read The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. Is it any good?

      • I liked it. It is a much harsher (and probably truer) version. So, when I read Isaacson I naturally took a whole bunch of stuff with a pinch of salt.

        For example, Isaacson portrays a very nice and easy relationship between Steve and Pixar while Deutschman goes deep into a relationship that was very close to being broken multiple times thanks to Steve’s personality clashing with Lasseter’s.

        I guess the truth lies somewhere in between..

        The only downside is that the book was published in 2001 so only has 3 years into the second coming.

  • Just added Lashinsky’s RSS feed ..a lot of good reading in there :).

    • Yeah – he’s really good.

  • Very nice!

  • Ah! Then that’s the book I’ve been looking for. Agreed that Isaacson’s book felt rushed and shallow in some parts. 

    What I want is just the facts, not too much analysis. I want to be able to get into Steve’s mind, and know what he was thinking, why, and why and how he acted. I don’t really care about the labels people gave Steve Jobs, i.e. as a narcissist or perfectionist or being too demanding. 

    I just like to learn more about him. The man is a study. I think he’s the Einstein of the tech world.

  • Ah! Then that’s the book I’ve been looking for. Agreed that Isaacson’s book felt rushed and shallow in some parts. 

    What I want is just the facts, not too much analysis. I want to be able to get into Steve’s mind, and know what he was thinking, why, and why and how he acted. I don’t really care about the labels people gave Steve Jobs, i.e. as a narcissist or perfectionist or being too demanding. 

    I just like to learn more about him. The man is a study. I think he’s the Einstein of the tech world.

  • “…[a]nd yes, I read it on an iPad.”

    …using the Kindle app.  Meta.

  • James Mitchell

    From an editorial quality point of view, perhaps you are correct that Isaacson should have taken more time. But from a business point of view, it is a no brainer that Isaacson should not have waited. His book came out at exactly the right time. As in most parts of business, timing is everything.

    I still don’t understand one thing — Isaacson gave numerous examples of Jobs being a total asshole, and not just in the beginning or middle of his life, but also at the end. Yet few people talk about this.

    • That’s part of the point – did Isaacson chose “business success of the book” over “quality of the book”? If so, did he realize deliberately that he was doing this. And, if so, does he care? I can’t read his mind so I have no idea, but I do know that his previous books didn’t focus on maximizing their business success – rather they were all about being the definitive, durable biography of the subject.

      • James Mitchell

        I have never written a book, but I suspect the dynamic is something like — Due to his reputation and the subject matter, Icaacson received a large advance, possibly $1 million to $2 million. For the publisher to earn back that kind of advance, it has to sell a lot of copies. Since many people suspected Jobs was going to die relatively soon, the publisher was probably pushing him to get it done.

        Like entrepreneurs, VCs, and movie directors, writers are as only good as their last deal. I suspect Icaacson got used to receiving these wonderfully large advances. Which meant his book has to sell a lot of copies so he can get a large advance for his next book.

        All of this assumes your assumption is true, that he made editorial shortcuts. I thought the book was quite good. When it came out, a whole lot of reviewers agreed, including yourself. Jobs is a complex person to understand. A book about someone who has just died is going to be a different book than a book about someone that died a while ago.

        Like software, one’s writing always sucks, it is just a matter of degree. At some point, you have to ship it. To invent a phrase, “real artists ship.”

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  • Anonymous

    Brad, I was really surprised to read your original reaction to the Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs biography.  Glad to see that you’ve come around a bit 🙂

    IMHO, the release of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography was mainly motivated by timing, not quality.  As a result, final product suffered profoundly (that’s just one of the reasons it was not good, actually).  

    In December 2011 this notion was somewhat confirmed by WI’s suggestion that he might well rework the book for a second edition (Fortune):

    Fool me once….

    After reading “Steve Jobs”, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would have been had someone else written it.  In my ideal world – albeit not at all likely – John McPhee would have been that author.  I believe Jobs himself chose WI, which continues to baffle me.  Perhaps Jobs sensed someone who was intelligent enough to write something very good, but didn’t have the backbone to ultimately fsck Jobs over.

    In the end, WI had unprecedented access to a uncommonly remarkable person, but only went through the motions when it came down to sharing what he learned about Steve Jobs. Shame, really.  One thing could salvage the situation: if WI freely distributes the audio recordings.

  • Bobby

    Read Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs. Must admit this book is definitely ‘Movie’ script material. Missing some personal spice, it has dope, drama, politics, plot, revenge & sad (heroic)  ending.  Any takers?

  • Read over the weekend: very quick read with a lot more details than the Isaacson book. Incredibly instructive for any startup thinking about establishing and maintaining an organizational culture.

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