I’ll admit it right now, I’m not exactly an Apple fanboy. I’ve had two Macs over the years and had uneasy relationships with both. One died an agonizing death, taunting me as I faced a looming deadline. The other was ultimately thrown overboard for a Windows laptop after several years of enduring its flaky behavior (alas, it ran a late version of OS9, not OS X).
However, I did just acquire an iPod Classic after years of resisting its siren call. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to “follow the crowd.” And I must say that it is quite the elegant device. In its sixth generation, Apple seems to have hit the sweet spot for a hard drive-based DAP. Of course, many of you are miles ahead of me and have known this for some time. Functionally and aesthetically, the iPod, which is now in its sixth generation, is far and away the market leader in its segment, and for good reasons.
The design of the iPod, like the design of everything else that comes out of Cupertino, is ultimately vetted by one man. In “Inside Steve’s Brain,” Leander Kahney digs into the design process at Apple. What he turns up is quite simple: At Apple, all roads lead to Steve Jobs.
Upon his return to Apple in July, 1997, following a period in which he founded NeXT Computers and the Pixar motion-picture studios, Jobs found a company in severe trouble. So much in trouble, in fact, that he returned somewhat reluctantly. Kahney uses this period in Jobs’ career to paint his picture of the personality from which a successful business model springs. Jobs is known as a major control freak—that is unless you’ve gained his confidence, which is no easy feat. But once you have, as has the industrial design genius Jonathan Ives, Jobs gives you a reasonably wide berth.
Jobs’s mantra is “simplicity,” a concept he applies to his personal life, his company, and its products. The simplicity premise is as readily apparent in the case of an iPod or the packaging that holds a new iPhone as it is in the iTunes music store interface or the Apple Store at your local mall. All of them reflect Jobs’s belief that technology can be as complex as it needs to be under the hood, but it must also present a friendly face to its users. And all of them must pass muster with Jobs personally or they don’t see the light of day.
Each chapter of Inside Steve’s Brain explores a different facet of what’s made Jobs and Apple (not to mention Pixar) so successful: organizational genius, perfectionism, elitism, despotism, passion, inventiveness. It also looks at some of the traits that have made him a legend in Silicon Valley. Kahney pretty much takes the high road in describing Jobs’s tendencies toward harshness with those who don’t live up to his almost impossibly high standards. For example, he describes the stories about Jobs firing people in elevators as apocryphal; indeed, some of Jobs’s closer cohorts at Apple say they’ve never seen any such episodes.
But projects at Apple—many of them—have been “Steve’d” over the years, which is to say they were summarily killed by Jobs when he was dissatisfied with their progress. He’s been known to comment, favorably and unfavorably, on extremely minute details of product designs during the endless progress meetings during the development cycle. But, Kahney maintains, Jobs is right a lot more often than he’s wrong.
The book includes a case study of the iPod, which saved Apple from sinking into ruin and became a cultural touchstone. Among other important lessons from the iPod’s development, there is no “Podfather,” not even Jobs himself. It was very much a team effort that spanned engineering and marketing. Jobs is a firm believer in accepting input from wherever it comes if it’s worthy. He’ll challenge your ideas firmly, but if they stand up, they are considered.
If you are an Apple fanboy, you’ll surely enjoy “Inside Steve’s Brain,” which delivers a reasonably fair portrait of your hero. Even if you’re not, students of the technology business and what goes into Apple’s success makes this a worthwhile read—maybe even on the beach with your iPod.