A new peek at what makes Jobs tick

A Steve Jobs-sanctioned biography is said to be in the works. Will it be more flattering than past attempts to characterize the visionary behind Apple?

Steve Jobs iPad
Steve Jobs on stage at an Apple event in January. James Martin/CNET

The famously private Steve Jobs is apparently ready to tell the world what it's like being Steve Jobs.

According to a report in The New York Times Monday, Jobs is cooperating with a book to be written about his life and career. It will be penned by Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine, who currently runs a nonprofit. The report says Isaacson has, in the course of collecting material for the biography, been invited for a tour of the house where Jobs grew up.

While public interest has certainly been piqued by the prospect of getting an inside look at Jobs, who maintains a distance from the press despite enormous interest in both his company and personal life, this book won't be the first to have such access. Twenty-five years ago Michael Moritz wrote "The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer." That book was updated and re-released in November as "Return to the Little Kingdom."

It has, of course, been a quarter of a century and much has changed. Since that book's original release, however, there have been plenty of unauthorized histories written about the man behind Apple. Many of them have been rather unflattering in their attempts to give the full picture. A Jobs-approved telling of his story would be his chance to offer his spin on his life and his work.

Because he is notoriously private, Jobs hasn't looked kindly on these unauthorized accounts. One of the more recent attempts to tell Jobs' path from the child of Silicon Valley working class parents, to the founding of Apple Computer, his firing and subsequent return to the company's helm, was not received well, according to reports.

In "iCon: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business," Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon included personal details beyond just the business side of things at Apple. They depicted things such as his general unpleasantness (one reviewer said "the authors paint a vivid picture of Jobs as an occasional genius and a regular jerk") and about Jobs at first refusing to acknowledge paternity of a daughter born to a former girlfriend.

It was not an entirely unflattering look at Jobs, but it is said that he was so upset by Young and Simon's account that he reportedly temporarily removed all books from their same publisher from Apple Stores.

There have been other attempts to reveal the inner workings of Jobs over the years as well. Some authors are quite obviously fans of the man, such as Leander Kahney, who wrote "Inside Steve's Brain." An exercise in helping others see what makes the most influential man in technology tick, Kahney also didn't exclude the ugly parts of Jobs' brain and personality. A reviewer for Booklist magazine said the book "is a tale of two Steves: a perfectionist, charming, charismatic executive but also a man who's known as an elitist, manipulator, and sociopath, all in search of a dream: providing easy-to-use technology for individuals."

Then there are those Jobs biographies that are almost entirely critical.

"Infinite Loop" was released in 1999, before Apple made its comeback, and was sourced from lots of other accounts of the history of Apple. It was intended as a kind of revisionist take on what had by then become Silicon Valley lore. The result was rather harsh: Kirkus Reviews called it a "long-winded invective against Steve Jobs" and the culture of the company he founded. Written by Michael Malone, former editor at Forbes, the book's take on Apple and Jobs can probably be summed up in this quote from Infinite Loop: "Of all the great companies of recent memory, there is only one that seemed to have no character, but only an attitude, a style, a collection of mannerisms. It constructed a brilliant simulacrum of character, in a way a man without empathy or conscience can pretend to have those traits."

Randall E. Stross' "Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing" tells the story of Jobs' firing from Apple and moving on to his next company, NeXT. Publisher's Weekly at the time said that Stross paints Jobs as "pathetic" and a "megalomaniac" in his struggle to re-create his success at Apple at a new company.

It's unclear what kind of access Isaacson would get as Jobs' sanctioned biographer, but it's not hard to imagine that there will be less of a focus on Jobs' personal traits and treatment of employees and more on his legacy as a technology visionary.

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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