John Gruber’s Critique of Walter Isaacson’s Biography of Steve Jobs

John Gruber has an excellent critique of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I’ve read the biography last year, but I couldn’t make an informed critique like this:

There is much that is wrong with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, but its treatment of software is the most profound of the book’s flaws. Isaacson doesn’t merely neglect or underemphasize Jobs’s passion for software and design, but he flat-out paints the opposite picture.

Isaacson makes it seem as though Jobs was almost solely interested in hardware, and even there, only in what the hardware looked like. Superficial aesthetics.

In Chapter 26, “Design Principles: The Studio of Jobs and Ive”, Isaacson writes (p. 344 in the hardcover print edition):

“Before Steve came back, engineers would say ‘Here are the guts’ — processor, hard drive — and then it would go to the designers to put it in a box,” said Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller.
“When you do it that way, you come up with awful products.” But when Jobs returned and forged his bond with Ive, the balance was again tilted toward the designers. “Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integral to what would make us great,” said Schiller.

“Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice versa.”

On occasion this could backfire, such as when Jobs and Ive insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminum for the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers worried that it would compromise the antenna. But usually the distinctiveness of its designs — for the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad — would set Apple apart and lead to its triumphs in the years after Jobs returned.

Isaacson clearly believes that design is merely how a product looks and feels, and that “engineering” is how it actually works.

Jobs, in an interview with Rob Walker for his terrific 2003 New York Times Magazine profile on the creation of the iPod, said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
That quote is absent from Isaacson’s book, despite the book’s frequent use of existing source material.

The entire post is worth reading, especially if you’ve read Steve Jobs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s