In a most auspicious setting Walter Isaacson took to the floor last night to talk about his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs. Having visited Amsterdam and Oxford this week on a whistle stop tour promoting the book it was particularly notable that Isaacson’s visit to London found him in a location that is special for all sorts of reasons but particularly in reference to science of which Isaacson’s past biography subjects include Einstein and Franklin.
Taking place in the famed lecture theatre of The Royal Institution in Mayfair, Isaacson set off the session retelling much of what is present in the biography of Jobs that was released not long after his death in October 2011. Mercurial is a word that pops up a lot when trying to create a summary of Jobs but according to Isaacson Jobs was a fan of the word.
When telling about his first encounter with Steve Jobs in 1984 Isaacson explains that whilst at Time magazine Jobs had come in to demonstrate the Macintosh. Whilst Isaacson was the only one using a computer the rest of the magazine was still stuck with typewriters, according to Isaacson Jobs had him looking at the display of the Macintosh with an artist’s loupe inspecting every pixel.
It was this encounter that Jobs spoke of wanting to get the Oxford English dictionary on the Macintosh and had looked up mercurial and seen it describe someone who is prone to “sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind”, it was not this that attracted Jobs to the word but in fact the antonym which suggests “calm, tranquil and unchangeable”.
During the same encounter Jobs demonstrated his mercurial spirit by suddenly becoming aggravated as to why Time magazine hadn’t made him ‘Man of the Year’.
Much of Isaacson’s book of Jobs focuses on his love of simplicity and the same rang true during Isaacson’s 30 minute opening piece in which he described Jobs as having a passion to drive people to do things that weren’t previously thought possible and that Jobs recognised the importance of “connecting beauty to technology”.
Amongst a number of anecdotes about Jobs’ attention to detail Isaacson brings up the story of the iPod’s on/off button, or lack of. Jobs according to Isaacson went into a meeting during the iPod’s creation and asked the design “what the fuck is that?” pointing at the off button, after an uncomfortable silence someone answered saying that it was and on/off switch, Jobs retorted “what does it do?”
Much later on whilst Isaacson and Jobs were talking in the Apple founder’s backyard the question of life and death came up. Jobs expressed much of his Buddhist beliefs that life is a spiritual journey and it’s important to put something back into the flow of history. Jobs then said after a long pause that maybe it all ends just like an off switch, click and it’s over. Then with a little expressed, maybe that’s why I don’t like putting them on Apple products.
Once Isaacson had spoke a bit about the the writing of the biography and restating many of the anecdotes inside he sat down with Roger Highfield for a quick interview and then questions were opened to the floor.
First up was Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who asked Isaacson that if he could question Jobs on anything else now what would it be? Isaacson gave no specific example but mentioned that one subject he could not get Jobs to talk about was philanthropy despite Jobs’ wife having setup College Track and serving as its president.
Much like as is outlined in Isaacson’s book he states that Apple’s focus is on digital photography, textbooks and the TV market. Expanding very little on what is already known Isaacson did say that Jobs would have wanted a very integrated system offering whatever you want when you want it.
On the same day that Isaacson spoke in London Google CEO Larry Page had an interview on Bloomberg’s Businessweek and claimed that the differences over Android and iOS were “all for show”. Isaacson disputes this referring back to when Mac OS and Windows were having a similar show down, Jobs believed that Gates and stolen a lot of Apple’s hard work and had then begun licensing it to hardware manufacturers.
According to Isaacson Jobs saw what is happening with Android as a repetition of history, that Android stole much of Apple’s hard work and is now licensing it how to “junky” hardware manufacturers.
Isaacson admits that Jobs was emotional about this, the success of Windows saw his time at Apple come to an end in the 80’s and that his reactions will have be channeled through those emotions. Isaacson says that Tim Cook is less emotional and will deal with the lawsuits and Android differently.
I got the chance to ask Isaacson about those recordings he has of Jobs from their many interviews and whether any revisions are planned to the book. Isaacson told me that most of the interviews are actually in note form and releasing the few interview tapes would be difficult as they’d need some censoring.
More interesting though was Isaacson’s take on any future revisions or additions to the book. At first the answer seemed to be a strong no, expanding upon it Isaacson suggested that the missing bits, or lack of colour in some areas, in the biography would most likely be filled in by biographies of other key figures at Apple. I’m skeptical of how many copies a biography of Jony Ive or Phil Schiller would sell.