Book review: ‘Steve Jobs, A Biographic Portrait’, by Kevin Lynch
Image credit: White Lion Publishing
The first full-colour, illustrated study of Steve Jobs - ‘the Man behind the Macs’ - and the inextricably entwined story of Apple, the computer company he helped create.
Given that we’ve already had three major motion pictures about the life of Steve Jobs, it’s somewhat surprising that no one has thought to tackle Jobs’ life and work in print before with the same heavily graphical, stylised angle of tech journalist Kevin Lynch’s ‘...A Biographic Portrait’ (White Lion Publishing, £20, hardback, ISBN 9781781317228) - a book executed almost as cleanly and elegantly as an Apple product itself (albeit an unauthorised one). Then again, people are still managing to find new ways to spin The Beatles’ legend over 50 years since that band finished, so perhaps we should be expecting more Jobs tomes in the years to come.
Mentioning The Beatles here is not entirely random: as it happens, The Beatles were one of Jobs’ two lifelong musical passions (the other was Bob Dylan). Jobs once described the Fab Four’s influence on him thus: “My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”
And so it was at Apple (ditto NeXT and Pixar). From the outset, Jobs was technically capable and certainly immersed in the milieu of the burgeoning computer age, but he was self-aware (and self-assured) about his own strengths and weaknesses, originally helping to form Apple in 1976 in order to market and sell Steve Wozniak’s Apple I computer (Jobs was one of the three founding partners, with Wozniak and Ronald Wayne).
It’s widely recognised - and this book reminds us - that one of Jobs’ key attributes was identifying opportunities, both in business and in people, and then allying himself with them, surrounding himself with brilliant, creative co-workers and driving the team forward with unflinching ambition and impeccably high standards - as per his interpretation of The Beatles’ dynamic.
Lynch’s book documents Jobs’ life from early childhood in California, right up to his final months at Apple, across its 272 pages, with 100 photographs and illustrations. It’s not always a breezy read, as early-period Jobs was an abrasive character, frequently dismissive of people - friends, colleagues and rivals - who didn’t live up to his expectations. Jobs’ attitude seemed to barely differ between his private and business lives: he seemed to always simply be ‘Steve Jobs, man on a mission’.
Naturally, as any business manual will tell you, nice guys rarely finish first and being a bit of a bastard is almost a prerequisite - especially so if you happened to be heading a multi-million dollar Silicon Valley business in the financially aggressive 1980s. What Jobs did was establish Apple Computer Inc. as the cool computer company of choice, fashioning it very much in his own image as the antithesis of boring PCs. Apple’s public image has hardly wavered since.
Jobs’ habit of spotting new hardware and software opportunities, seizing upon them and then ‘Apple-ising’ their core concept, design and functionality is a recurring theme across the decades at Apple. It was a Jobs mantra that you don’t necessarily have to be first with an idea: you just have to do it better than anyone else (witness the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad). For some people, Apple and Jobs’ magpie-like acquisitive bent of new technologies and even whole companies suggested a lack of true innovation at heart, but there can be no denying Jobs’ showman ability to proselytise, evangelise and enthuse. Whenever Apple had a new product, Jobs sold it to the masses. His focus and passion laid the foundations for Apple to become the world’s first trillion-dollar market value company earlier this year.
Of course, it wasn’t all the smooth sailing which Apple’s latter-day golden reputation as arguably the most-fêted consumer technology brand would suggest. There were plenty of highs and lows for Jobs across the years, both personally and professionally, long before the iPhone was even a twinkle in Jobs’ eye. Kicked out of Apple, struggling at NeXT, denying paternity of his first daughter, born in 1978, for several years until a law suit forced his reversal - there were hard times, for sure.
Anyone with an interest in Apple history should know the full story of Jobs and this book lays out all the facts in an even-handed manner. There’s little sense here of any fawning fan-boy tendencies in Lynch, although you do at least get the feeling that he holds an admiration of, and affection for, Apple and what Jobs accomplished.
At first, the format of the book may strike you as strange, as the written chapters about Jobs’ life are interspersed with infographics about e.g. Apple’s monumental cash reserves, equating the total value to how many Neymars this amount of money could buy you (surely a unit of measurement that will date rapidly). Turn the page again and you’re instantly flashed back from 2018 to 1970s Palo Alto, California. A little weird at first, but once you ‘think different’ about the reading, the graphics help break up the strictly linear biographical retelling of the Jobs legend.
There are over 100 photos and graphics in the book, helping to distill complex ideas into a more digestible visual format. Sometimes a picture really is worth 1,000 words. Actually, sometimes a picture is barely worth 10 words: Lynch could have described Jobs’ preferred presentation outfit as, “Man, he really liked black turtle-neck jumpers and jeans”, but it’s more amusing to lay out a double-page spread illustrating ‘The Steve Jobs’ look’ using 12 near-identical images of Jobs from across the Apple decades. Jobs really did like black turtle-neck jumpers and jeans.
The problem facing any new book specifically about Steve Jobs is that the definitive tale has already been told by Walter Issacson, to whom Jobs gave unprecedented interview access in his final months. That was the authorised story that Jobs wanted the world to know - a comprehensive review of his life’s work, from soup to nuts - so any new interpretations or commentaries are going to have to work a little harder at finding a fresh angle. ‘...A Biographic Portrait’ succeeds in this endeavour, taking a lighter, more playful approach to the subject matter and, although ultimately a certain degree of nuance is inevitably lost in any abridged recounting, Lynch doesn’t brush over or neglect any of the key events in Jobs’ life.
To return to the Beatles analogy, Lynch’s book is like the Jobs equivalent of the Fab Four’s famous Red/Blue compilation albums - all the career-spanning big hits in an easy-to-digest, thoroughly enjoyable and historically accurate package - whereas Issacson’s mammoth autobiography is akin to the complete stereo and mono album box sets, plus Anthology albums 1, 2 and 3 for good measure - exhaustively comprehensive and nigh-on definitive, for sure, but probably all too much for the more casual fan.
Happily, there is room in this world for both factions to exist, so even if you already own one, that’s no reason not to enjoy the other. ‘Steve Jobs: A Biographic Portrait’ will complement any existing Apple literature on your bookshelf as elegantly as Apple’s Air Pods pair with an iPhone X.