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Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

I tend to review books like this one in several parts, because the thought-flow is so high per page that it’s simply impossible to capture everything of value. This book is particularly dense. I’m only about 20% into Becoming Steve Jobs (iBooks is not so user-friendly in telling me how far I am), but every page feels like taking a deep breath and only releasing it after the (slight criticism) overlong paragraphs finish. But there is also something else that makes it difficult to skim this book, Steve Jobs’ emotional journey is described in significant depth, which is incredibly immersive, at least to me.

That is really the insight that lead me to write this short review (which may be followed by another). We / I tended to view Apple as this great mysterious black box, something that could be speculated about because it was fun and intriguing. By my count, I’ve perhaps written dozens of times about Apple, without ever really feeling that I understood something deeper than the superficial veneer Apple was comfortable in disclosing.

This book is, to use a terrible term, a game changer. It tells us so much about the man, stuff that was perhaps revealed in news articles here and there over the last 50 years, but all combined to create a persona that we can perhaps, to the extent that it is possible, understand. Steve Jobs (pre-NeXT is revealed as a man that is far less than perfect, who put his vision far ahead of the details, who is used to employing tantrum-techniques to get his way, who managed to burn more bridges than perhaps build them.

I’ve read plenty of other good business biographies over the years (of the founders of eBay, McDonalds, Ikea, Starbucks were the ones that stood out), but this one is different in that it is only authorised after the fact. Steve Jobs, as far as I understood, could’ve picked Brent Schlender to cover his life, but perhaps didn’t because he was much too close, much too perceptive. Isaacson was chosen instead, this historical biographer of great persons like Abraham Lincoln, which is such a Jobs move, at least the Jobs you read about in this book.

The title is of course Becoming Steve Jobs, which is not really a guide to being like the man, but rather a witnessing of the transformation, evolution, descent, or ascent, depending on how you interpret this journey. The tagline reads: “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” which is quite mixed as well. It’s a testament to the unauthorised character of this biography, that it is able to show the dark sides of Jobs as well. An incredibly fascinating journey already in this short portion of Jobs’ career.

The strange transparency of Apple’s App Developers

Now, when I say transparency, I do mean that in a very limited way. Datapoints are being revealed left and right by developers, but even so the majority of app developers are keeping their sales numbers quite hidden.

A little background: Overcast, Unread, Monument Valley and several other more prominent developers have been quite open about the financial results of their respective apps (MacStories has more). In the greater context of things, this is perhaps not unusual. As I pointed out in previous blogposts, we live in an age where information is speeding up and increasingly becoming commoditized. Still, you don’t really see many commercial businesses revealing their numbers, unless they are public and obliged to do so to their shareholders.

So I have a few theories about this, the primary one being that the App Store is a learning platform for many developers. It has built-in tools, an audience, and a revenue structure that is by and large complete, just missing that special recipe that makes the app (what many have pointed out is lacking however is the App Store as a marketing and sales tracking platform). Apple is also quite transparent to not want anything more from its developers except for their 30% cut and certain, sometimes oblique, values to be respected (no adult content, spam, advanced functionalities in notification center?). Apple is also the market leader as far as these app platforms go (alternatives are Google Play, Amazon, Facebook, you name it), providing a certain stability and confidence in developers that it, at least, is here to stay. Finally, there is the combing trend of communities enabled by the Internet and even before that around Apple, that makes it easier for people to open to up to what they feel are sympathetic audiences.

The bigger question is will this lead to something? For many developers, I can imagine it will. You can do a computer science degree to learn how to code, you can learn how to code from the Internet. To run a business, the best learning is made from the marketplace and these kinds of ‘revelations’ are invaluable lessons to budding entrepreneurs. That said, there are no guarantees that the App Store is a viable platform forever. Marco Arment and others publish statistics about what it’s like to have a relatively successful app in that marketplace, with its inbuilt mechanism to make the purchase possible. Arguably building for mobile will always require some kind of App Store, but there is no certainty about it making you rich.

On Tech: The iEnabler 2

Let’s take my last middle-of-the-night idea to the daylight, i.e. would there be a spot for it logically? My stance is that the main value added for a wearable device is as an enabler for other functionality to happen. The size is too restrictive for it to have many more functions than, let’s say, a watch with some added notification features. But could it be a hotspot for other devices, such as an iPad, iPod, and the Mac, as well as possibly act as a “beacon” of sorts to open other doors, for lack of a better term?

What I essentially see it as a Swatch watch, showing very little extra on screen to the actual time function, but under the hood having space for a mobile simcard, wifi and/or bluetooth, and a battery that actually functions like a normal long-lasting Watch battery. A possible added feature would be for it to have an integrated phone , but I personally don’t find it a comfortable position to hold my watch to my ear.

The question is whether people would buy it with those features (minus the phone)? If you look at the base cost for the iPhone 5s ($199 with a retail price of $849) and the cost of the iPod Nano ($45 with a retail price of $149), there must be space in the middle there for a “watch” that costs maybe $100 and retails for $300. This is a good price for a semi-luxury watch! Any additional smart and health-tracking function are added benefits that increase the value.

Of course, I don’t know what it will be and frankly I would expect more leaks about parts for this from Apple’s supplier around the world, which are not really happening for any devices other than the iPhone and iPad. So whether all of this will happen, I don’t know, but for this, I believe there is a place for it in Apple’s line-up and in the market.


On Business: What the Beats acquisition tells me about Tim Cook’s leadership style

When Tim Cook took over the reigns from Apple, we were all afraid of the consequences. Was this golden horse that seemed to poop gold going to turn into something more mundane, we all wondered? There’s nothing worse than regular horse poop, I can attest, being surrounded by horse police in the Netherlands that seem to serve no other function than that. But back to Apple.

Apple survived. As Steve Job’s bio read, there was a five-year plan and Apple had lots of products in its pipeline. The problem turned out to be that this and Time Cook’s assurances (“It’s all cool, guys.”) was all we heard for a long while. Yes iOS 7 turned out well, the iPhone 5 and 5s were good, the 5c less so. What else that was new in Apple land, we all wondered? Was it just going to be incremental from now on?

Don’t get me wrong. Incremental innovation is just good business. You build on capabilities you already developed and you increase your margins. But no matter what the Apple pundits say, I think that we all feel like something new has to happen. A next new wave for Apple. A new product launch.

I can’t and won’t tell you what that is. We’ve all heard the rumors, which are as bad as spoiling a great movie. The nicest new thing is the one that you aren’t expecting and right now we’ve heard too much to not expect a lot. That’s bad for us and bad for Apple. It’s like overpraising a new movie coming out and going in with expectations that are too high.

Back to Cook. Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs. He can never be. But Tim Cook is Apple and part of what made it be a mainstream technology on every country. Tim Cook is the man that made Apple a giant corporation, long before Steve Jobs passed.

Where the gap lies is the role that Steve Jobs had as this stubborn leader that thought far into the future. I’m not a leadership expert and much has already been written about the magic of Steve, something that never feels complete, but perhaps provides many parts of the puzzle of that man.

When Tim Cook took over, he also had to make sure that the visionary part remained in the management team responsible for the present and future of Apple. The first contender for this was … his name escapes me… the guy responsible for making everything on iOS look like cloth and paper (Scott Forstall). He left and Sir Johnny Ive took over hardware and software, which seems like a great decision. Ive was engrained into Apple just as much as Cook was, just in the area of industrial design. His software chops were established with iOS 7, I feel. Both make a great team to run Apple going forward.

But is that enough? We have a smooth operation (Cook) and technology chops (Ive), but Steve Job’s DNA also had something I would just call outspoken stubbornness. There was an interview with Ive around the time that Jobs passed away, where he described the experience of going to a hotel with Steve. Johnny would go to the room, not unpack and wait for the expected call from Steve that this hotel sucked and they would switch. Would Cook ever have such an experience with Johnny Ive? I don’t know.

Jobs was also unafraid to make sweeping changes, in a way that I don’t think Cook is. I found the announcement about the Beats team joint Apple telling. Cook isn’t taking any risks, both hardware and Beats Music fall into specific leadership segments within Apple, under Eddy Cue (iTunes) and Beats Electronics under Phil Schiller (marketing). Both of these people are undoubtedly capable, but it also suggests that … what… Beats products are now Apple products. It also is very corporate in its feel, a division of labour, a hierarchy.

When I watched the Jimmy Iovine interview on Recode recently, some things struck me about him. He has great personality, a visionary that wants to keep moving forward, roots in music engineering, and a great network/reach in the music business, as well as the ability to connect with music lovers. He is pure music and thus makes for a great fit with the space that iTunes currently occupies within Apple.

The company is clearly huge, bigger than Beats if course but also bigger than Burberry as the hiring of the CEO Angela Ahrends to a director position attests. She is also an interesting personality that built a direct connection to Burberry’s customers through the store model in the last 8 years, and a perfect match for taking Apple retail to the next level.

Tim Cook’s Apple is in refinement mode, which is great for Apple’s core strength and reputation for building reliable products. We are all still waiting for that spark and I’m very curious who it’s champion will be, as I do believe great innovation requires a visionary that can span boundaries and the great challenges that come with that.

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