A Harsh Attack on Steve Jobs, By Way of a Review (Not Mine) of His Biography

It is not often my wont to criticize what other journalists and bloggers write, but I came across a review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on the elitist New York Review of Books web site (the same one which, a couple of weeks ago, a conspiracy-theory fueled article about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair). I’ve subscribed to the NYRB off and on over the years, but the type of attack articles they’ve taken to publishing pretty much ensures that I won’t do so again.

I read the Steve Jobs biography, which is certainly no surprise, since I write about Apple products. (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about half-price on Amazon.com.) Fittingly, I read it on my iPad. I have to admit that I found it painful to read. I had long heard stories about Jobs’ mercurial personality, but reading it in such harsh detail was brutal and shocking. I think it’s fair to write about the biography, and about Jobs, and point out strengths and weaknesses in books, but the NRYB’s approach is to tell the entire story of a book in a “review,” which is especially problematic for a novel. Do you really want to know most of what happens in a novel before you read it? Over the years, I managed to avoid such reviews, unless I had already read the novels in question.

In this “review,” then, the author, Sue Halpern, tells the story of Steve Jobs. She is harshly critical of Jobs, and of Apple in general. Of Jobs himself, she says:

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read.

I have to agree with part of the above. While I wouldn’t use some of the adjectives that Halpern uses, I did find the book painful to read, and ended up skipping over parts of it.

But where Ms. Halpern goes wrong is in blaming Apple for the woes of the world:

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ms. Halpern seems to think that Apple is, if not the only manufacturer of computers and cellphones, most likely the largest and most responsible for their impact. In fact, Apple’s market share for computers is in the single digits, and while iPhones sell well, Apple’s market share is slipping in that sector. (Apple actually only sells fewer than 5% of all cellphones in the world.)

It’s convenient to attack Apple as a poster child for the computer industry, as was common with Microsoft a decade ago. But it’s not hard to look up statistics to back up the claim quoted above, which is the final paragraph of Ms. Halpern’s review. I’ll accept her judgement of the book, but her knowledge of the computer and cellphone industry is seriously lacking. The New York Review of Books could use some fact-checkers to avoid such a blatant personally-motivated attack.

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22 replies
  1. smithdewey says:

    Like all of us, as a human Steve Jobs was a mixed bag. But his genius was very real, and the abrasive personality and raw ambition to create were necessary byproducts in building communication tools that inspired and fueled millions. His family and friends loved him, I am sure, and in some ways because of his unique way of confronting the world and not just in spite of it. The writer of the critical review should take a long look at themselves in a mirror before finding others short.

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  2. A.M. Claussen says:

    Blind admiration aside, Jobs and Apple truly represent MUCH of what is wrong with the USA nowadays: Apple does NOT manufacture but a tiny fraction of what it sells IN the USA, its workforce (in USA), is mainly composed of mediocre salary sales people, while the true geniuses that materialize the undoubtely great Jobs concepts, are mostly outside the USA. Apple thus, do NOT create much jobs inside the USA, nor well paid ones (except for the extraordinarily high bonuses for Jobs itself and a few top ranking officials… In a sense, Apple and Steve Jobs represent a lot of what is wrong today in the USA. Lets admire him as a genius for its concepts, but not not much else for the way he handled the company, the outsourcing and the resulting mostly Non-American enterprise. Truth sometimes hurts.

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    • kirk says:

      Apple has some 60,000 employees, most in the US, and probably half of them are engineers, support staff, and other non-sales staff. They happen to be relatively well paid compared to employees in similar positions in other companies. Steve Jobs, as far as I know, never received any bonuses, but he did get stock options, as have other members of senior management. (I’ve never read about any bonuses for any of them either.) In fact, Steve Jobs was paid the grand salary of $1 a year since his return to Apple.

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  3. A.M. Claussen says:

    Well, I ‘d be happy to know the percentage of USA components in a typical I-Phone or similar, the percentage of design of the specially made components, IC’s and others, the percentage of jobs outside USA that are used to produce the products, the percentage of american assembly, and how much of the total selling price remains outside the USA… It is NOT about criticizing Steve Jobs, but to be critic about the lame state of the USA as a producing country, compared to 20 years ago, and how people like him did or did not help this sad fact.

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  4. smithdewey says:

    @amclussen. I agree that we no longer live in 1950s America, and am nostalgic for it also. We live on a planet where corporations seem blind to countries’ borders … there is a lot of bad with that, but we aren’t going to return to a time where the United States was assured the continued top role. We will need to find more ways to compete … manufacturing, sadly, doesn’t seem a likely path to continued prosperity. I don’t have the answer, but I agree with Kirk’s observation that Apple has seemed to be better than most.

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  5. A.M. Claussen says:

    According to OpEd News article by Marc McDonald, Apple only employs about 50,000 people worldwide, not in the USA, citing the article: “A second problem with Apple is that many of its workers are not particularly well-paid. Sure, the likes of Jobs and other company top elites have pocketed enormous pay packages. But the average Apple employees make mediocre wages. In fact, most of Apple’s employees simply consist of the unskilled sales people in the company’s retail stores…” and there is more:
    Consider this: as Robert Reich pointed out in an article in December:

    “About $61 of the $179 price goes to Japanese workers who make key iPhone components, $30 to German workers who supply other pieces, and $23 to South Korean workers who provide still others. Around $6 goes to the Chinese workers who assemble it. Most of the rest goes to workers elsewhere around the globe who make other bits.”… And the share of the U.S. workers (whose role is mostly research and conceptual design on the iPhone): a mere $11. (!)
    In any case, lets be critical before we start comparing Jobs to Edison or other inventors. Let’s remaind him for his true achievements, not else.

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  6. A.M. Claussen says:

    BTW, I truly admire Steve Jobs genius, its contributions to modern life and creativity.
    But not for the way Apple produces or creates a benefit for the economy, and the way people believe it is a great US company, and an example to follow. for me, it is clear it is Not.

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  7. smithdewey says:

    @amclaussen. You have to live in the world as it is, not as it was. Jobs shaped that future in several important but narrow ways … to cast blame on the company he created for not reshaping America’s economy is a little off mark. You may find it interesting to read the biography … Jobs did start manufacturing plants here … he did lobby the head of our government to make it easier for companies to build things here. I don’t think that’s even possible.

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  8. smithdewey says:

    @amclausen. You’ve got me curious now … what ARE the companies you consider to be “great American companies?” With one caveat … please restrict your answer to currently operating companies. Who are you comparing AAPL to?

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  9. A.M. Claussen says:

    I was NOt comparing Apple to any other company.

    I was just trying to put things in perspective: There is little to admire in the way Apple REPRESENTS what is to be considered OK in the USA today, because too many people keep citing Apple and the role of S.Jobs as a “model” to be admired and followed.
    Please read the complete article cited in my post, then ask yourself if Apple really is a model to be admired or not. (BTW, I also admire most (certanly not all) the concepts behind Apple products. My posts have little to do with the grandeur of Jobs, but to the fact that American economy, industry, education etc etc is headed today, with the beneplacit of too many famous persons, dead or alive.

    Responding to your question on “great” American companies of today… ahem, ahem… let me see… I Could mention examples from 30 years ago? Hmmm sorry then… today the company I work with received a lot of new large printers/scanners/copiers… Guess what: It is another Japanese brand the one which won the bid (we used to have Xerox equipment back in 2004, but then it went to Sharp, and now to Toshiba… get my gripes?

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    • AdamChew says:

      @amclaussen

      It was a business decision to manufacture overseas and it is also a matter of survival.
      If Apple products were made in the US they would n
      Have no chance of competing with other American brands which are yes made in the East.
      Can you also kindly state the rest of the computers makers which don’t make their products in the US and I believe you should also recommend their products to be made in the US and then see whether you can afford them.

      @kirk
      I read the review and it will also be the last time I read their review again because it left a bad taste in the my mouth.

      Reply
  10. smithdewey says:

    @amclaussen. Got it. You are not upset with Apple, you are upset with the global economy. Many are. Its really hard for we Americans, who have always considered ourselves to be the top of the heap, to be the ones who have to “lose” manufacturing to less developed countries to improve their people’s lives. That battle is lost, but I hope we can work together to pressure Apple and others to insist on fair and humane treatment of workers worldwide in a sustainable way. We in America need to learn to live simpler with less reliance on consumption as compensation for social insecurity. We could learn from the Scandinavian countries I would think. I’d still take Apple as a symbol and reality of “American ingenuity” and drive over any other 100 companies any day. As a country we need to start to “Live different.” it’s not a choice, it’s simply a recognition of global realities. Rome didnt last forever, but Italy lives.

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  11. Ronin says:

    Halpern doesn’t even know her subject and ignores facts and details. For example, she states

    “Jobs’s Zen aesthetic (he was a longtime student of Buddhism), his passion for design, his good fortune to hire Jony Ive, who must be the finest industrial designer working today…”

    Jobs did not hire Ive. Ive was at Apple when Jobs returned. This is a well know and easily found fact.

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    • kirk says:

      Ms Halpern has become, it seems, the de facto “person who writes about tech” for the NYRB, which is not a tech-oriented publication, of course. This is not the first time I have found a number of facts incorrectly stated in her articles; I recall an article about the iPad, when the first model was released, that contained quite a few errors. I wrote the NYRB to suggest corrections, notably pointing out that this is my turf and I know a bit more about it than they do, but they never replied.

      Reply
  12. Anon E Mouse says:

    When I worked for them, Apple had a large manufacturing plant in Sacramento, where they made Macs. They eventually had to close it, because it just wasn’t possible to compete on price with stuff made overseas — and consumers now buy on price for most everything.

    As for creating jobs and stimulating the economy: in 2010, Apple employed rougtly 46,000 people; in 2011, that figure was just over 60,000. That’s 14,000 new jobs during a time of global recession. Even if those are all sales-level jobs, they are jobs generating paychecks, that include health care, and provide benefits to the employees.

    Feel free to hate the globalization of the economy, but don’t single out Apple for being particularly better or worse than any other company trying to compete in that economy. (If you look at the jobs created, though, I’d argue they’ve been much better than most others.)

    -Anon E Mouse

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  13. A.M. Claussen says:

    Please read carefully: Even if Apple has shown growth, it still REPRESENTS what is wrong with the economy of the USA, and not only the economy, but mainly, a total disrespect for adequate planning in too many areas, like education, infrastructure, industry… too many to mention. Remember the age old question: What was first: the hen or the egg? As I see it, it was not China or India or any other “cheap workforce” country which came to USA to ‘steal the jobs’. It was the inconmensurable greed of the american CEO’s trying to steal every penny from competitors by sending production to those countries, in an absolute effort to drive earnings above all, in order to get their astonishing bonuses.
    It is exactly like the defrauded customers of Bernie Madoff: He didn’t put a gun to his customers to make them put as much money as they could. And I am NOT hating globalization per se, or, as smithdewey says: becoming “upset with the global economy”, but making a reflexion on how an innovative company like Apple represents what is wrong with the USA today.

    And, after much thinking, I could only remember one American company, currently operating, that still has some of my admiration; even when it is way too smaller than Apple: It is Shure, a company best known for its microphones and sound equipment. They have opened manufacturing plants in other countries, but in the case of China, they operate like a Chinese company, investing there and sending americans to work with the Chinese. They saw that Neodimium was becoming an strategical material, and because they were already well stablished in China when the Chinese government got control of this material imposing heavy tariffs for exporting it, these measures didn’t affect Shure as much, because they actively participate in fabricating in China, instead of only placing purchasing orders there. But still as it is, I DO NOT APPROVE them for closing their plants in Mexico, because, as you can see, transporting the fabricated items from China to the USA consumes much more fuel than transporting them just across the border, so, in the end, it still is another example of what is wrong in the USA today!

    Reply
  14. smithdewey says:

    @mcclaussen. Okay, got it. You don’t hate globalization, you hate America. That’s okay, we are a free country.

    @AnonEMouse. Thanks for stating what I was trying to!

    Reply
  15. A.M. Claussen says:

    @smithdewey: NOPE ! I do not hate America or globalization. It is the lack of proper education, that produces non-constructive comments like your last one, what bothers me. The enormous lack of insight that most people show nowadays is what bothers me. In past decades, the USA was a model to follow. Let me give you an example: Why do you need to return an entire Ipod, just because the damn battery is NOT user replaceable? An educated user would become bothered by this lack of serviceability, while an ignorant user will trow away a perfectly usable devicein disgust, and run to buy a newer one, producing toxic garbage in the move. And, if the company that produces the device charges too much for replacing a used battery, then the real reason for making it non user-replaceable comes to the light. It is a matter of sustainability, not “hate” or other oversimplified arguing. Another example: Why is everybody believing that USB is the way to go, when Firewire was much more better in several respects? Because people is ignorant, and they follow stupid market trends, instead of studying a little and becoming more intelligent, more demanding consumers. Think about it.

    Reply
  16. A.M. Claussen says:

    SMIRK? I don’t really understand “smirk”… you know, English is not my native language, and I’m still self-teaching. But I try to learn everyday. Maybe it is the reason my posts aren’t always understood! Anyway, best wishes for everybody.

    Reply
  17. smithdewey says:

    @claussen. A smirk meant that I was not so serious. Good natured teasing. I did not mean to say that you really hate America . I do not think you are wrong in your criticisms of the United States and of corporations, but think your use of Apple as an example of what is bad about America is misplaced. Apple is a happy American success story, not perfect but not to be vilified for being commercially successful playing under global rules. Peace.

    Reply

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