Biography Trapped in Steve Job’s Reality Distortion Field

Walter Isaacson has written once again a biography for the masses, wrapped in a pretty high gloss dust jacket, that could have come straight from the Apple design factory, featuring Steve Jobs on front and back. The book was not supposed to be published until 2012, and in some minor details it shows. It would have benefitted from a few more editorial rounds, to avoid a few logical errors in sentences and overuse of some words such as “reality distortion field” coined by Jobs’ colleagues. All in all, it is an enjoyable read; only rarely did I trace back to double-check details. In less than four days, the 571 pages had turned almost by themselves. In the end, I wished both Jobs and Isaacson would have had a chance to write a few more chapters.

Nothing demonstrates better how Isaacson has captured the Steveness as the heading toward the end of the book “And One More Thing…” followed by Jobs’ own words on his hopes for his legacy. The account of Jobs reflecting on death, and the possibility of God, sounds almost too good to be true. Still, even if Isaacson sugarcoated the last paragraph, it is the perfect ending that surely would have pleased even Steve. For an Apple fan like myself, this book is a joyful read but leaves something to be desired.

Despite his best efforts, Isaacson fails to avoid the reality distortion field. Isaacson does portray Steve Jobs truthfully as an egocentric, flawed human being, but falls for Jobs’ compelling mantra of control when it comes to Apple’s business practices. Failures of Microsoft, Google, IBM and others serve as a backdrop for Apple’s insanely successful products and iTunes and App Store strategy, followed by the future in the iCloud. The mantra goes as follows: tightly integrated hardware, software and content will lead to innovative products and user-friendly experience. Isaacson acknowledges a few casualties of this approach, porn and political satire censored by Apple, and refers to the debate casting Apple as the Big Brother. The chosen examples, and the email exchange between Jobs and Valleywag editor Ryan Tate, not only reveal Steve’s attitude – but also Isaacson’s, that it is a company’s responsibility to draw the line somewhere and protect the people from whatever it is the company deems undesired or harmful. What Isaacson ignores to disclose, is that Apple has already demonstrated the dark side of being the Big Brother, and it is not merely a frightening possibility of the future.

iFlow, by BeamItDown Software, used to be a feature-rich eBook reader with a promising start to become the next generation eBook reader for the iOS, but earlier this year Apple changed the rules for the App Store predicting a negative cash flow for BeamItDown Software among others. The new agent model required a 30% cut for in-app purchases and banned directing users to a website to purchase subscriptions and digital products. Combined with the requirement of a fixed commission of 30% for all book sellers, Apple intended to make sure only they could sell eBooks on Apple devises with a profit. In one swift move Apple killed the innovative iFlow reader  and crippled other eBook readers, such as Kindle for for iOS, in favour of their own iBook.

The large companies in the eBook market were able to push Apple to loosen up the new rules, allowing publishers to mark-up the price for in-app purchases, to account for the 30% cut, or forgo the initially required in-app purchase option altogether. A change that was disguised as an enhancement to the user experience, and intended to ensure users pay the same price regardless which eBook reader they use, ended up doing exactly the opposite.

For the music industry, it is already clear that you need to play ball the way Apple sees fit, or you won’t play ball at all in the digital market. The big players in the eBook market were able to avoid the fate of iFlow this time around, but the playing field is now rigged for Apple to hit a home run with the next version of eBook. I’m sure Apple will eventually deliver a wonderful next generation eBook reader that the users will love, and we will once again marvel the clever innovations. I also predict that we will be astonished how they did it without Steve, forgetting that anything that Apple dishes out in the next three years probably bears his thumbprint.

Isaacson states at the beginning, and repeats near the end of his book, that Steve Jobs did not ask to read the biography in advance. I would be surprised if Apple PR department didn’t get to review the book before it reached the printers. In 2005 Apple was not happy about an unauthorized Steve Jobs biography, “iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business” published by John Wiley & Sons, and decided to remove all the titles of the publisher from the iBookstore. For Apple to refuse to sell an unauthorized biography of its co-founder is dubious for a company that touts freedom yet it is understandable. But to pull the plug on Wiley’s other books, in attempt to force the hand of the publisher, is a blatant example of misuse of power. It is a frightening prospect what Apple could do with this power if the next insanely great product is the next generation iBook reader, and even more so, if it is iCloud instead.

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One Response to Biography Trapped in Steve Job’s Reality Distortion Field

  1. Really well written and enjoyable, I don’t need to read the book now as I have little interest in technology. Like the comments at the end about Apple’s control freakery and the inherent dangers for all of us. Apple, Facebook and Google – an unholy trinity? Stephen

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