I’ve been on a bit of a computer history jag lately. After watching ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley,’ I bought two books more specifically about Apple and Steve Jobs.
The first is by someone intimately involved with Apple, Andy Hertzfeld. Hertzfeld was one of the team on the original Macintosh computer. His book, ‘Revolution In The Valley,’ is an in-depth look at how that ground-breaking computer came to be, against a lot of obstacles (some of them internal to Apple).
The book is actually a distillation of Folklore.org, a brilliant website dedicated (currently) to the Mac’s genesis. As good as that site is, it can’t compete with the lavish, beautiful book.
From the first time you open ‘Revolution In The Valley,’ you’re treated to a sumptuous history of the Mac and much of Apple history. Some of the bits I’ve most studied are Hertzfeld’s original notes and plans – I would have paid just to see these amazing historical documents. They’re a peek (sic) into how the world’s first personal computer GUI was implemented through sheer hard work and high sorcery.
But don’t think this is at all a dry or academic read. Hertzfeld does dish out geeky details of how elements were achieved but he also writes with a rare passion and honesty. Through all the anecdotes and asides, all the confessions and conniptions, Hertzfeld makes what could easily have been a musty, dusty journey into something of a techno-thriller. Although we know that the Mac got made, there’s a genuine sense of tension as we see the team face one trial after another. And best them!
Another strength of the book is that Hertzfeld never tries to portray what he’s saying about the history of the Mac as the truth but only as a truth. A lesser man would have portrayed himself at the centre of the Macverse, overegging the pudding. Hertzfeld freely recalls episodes and criticisms of himself that are severely un-flattering. The result of this honesty is that the reader can try and establish their own perspective on the story; they aren’t locked-in to Hertzfeld’s world.
Steve Jobs looms over this book, of course, in much the same way as a tornado looms over a small farm. The picture Hertzfeld paints of Jobs is of a go-getter genius and also a mercurial egomaniac. A man you could trust to procure resources for your project but who you’d hide from if he was walking down your corridor. He also mentions the legendary ‘Reality Distortion Field,’ the force of Jobs’ actinic charisma, which battered even his most vociferous critics into becoming giggling cheerleaders.
If there are heroes in the story, they’re people like Steve Wozniak, father of the Apple II and baby-faced Burrell Smith, uber-engineer of the Mac. Hertzfeld writes about these people like a teenybopper with a crush on Frankie Avalon. And so he should! Without geeks of this stature, this insanity, I probably wouldn’t be typing this now. Or maybe I would… on a CLI terminal leased out from IBM in some grey building…
If you’re at all a computer geek, if you’ve ever dabbled in assembler, PHP or even tweaked a CSS stylesheet, ‘Revolution In The Valley’ is an essential purchase. Even if you’re not into computers at all, this book is a fascinating unearthing of how the tech you’re now using to read these words came to be.
‘iCon,’ by Jeffrey Young and William Simon has a much larger remit than Hertzfeld’s book. It’s basically intended to be a biography of Steve Jobs but functionally also ends up as a biography of Apple. Whereas ‘Revolution In The Valley’ covers only the original Mac era, ‘iCon’ starts with Jobs’ birth and adoptive parents and travels with him up to 2005. As such, there is more scope for drama. In fact, you couldn’t have a Jobs biography without drama since the man has lead a startlingly dramatic life.
This is the story of a hyper, over-sensitive kid that spent time wandering round penniless in India, trying to find spiritual enlightenment and instead getting scabies. This is the man who, as the cliche goes, was worth $1 million at 23, $10+ million at 24 and hundreds of millions at 25.
Young and Simon leap into the drama gleefully. Sometimes, perhaps, a little too gleefully. Whereas the tone of Hertzfeld’s book is serious, detailed and historical, sometimes ‘iCon’ veers dangerously close to ‘Hello’ territory. I won’t say it’s prurient but it’s definitely occasionally nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
This detracts from what is already a jet-powered read. The book oozes detailed research, shoe-horning factoids into every sentence. One of the best sections is towards the middle when the authors describe the gestation and birth of Pixar and Job’s subsequent war with Disney boss Michael Eisner. The detail here is both meticulous and essential: without all the ins and outs, the reader would have no sense of the subtext behind the terse corporate statements. Just this section alone would be more interesting than most of Hollywood’s current output if it was made into a movie. And you can’t often say that about corporate politics – that’s the power of Young and Simon’s writing.
Naturally, all the early Apple history is covered. A lot of this may already be familiar to computer geeks: the garage days, Homebrew Computer Club, the screeching at Bill Gates, “are you a virgin.” Nevertheless, ‘iCon’ presents familiar history with elaborated contexts and a lot of additional information. Certainly, I was surprised at the spend on the West Coast Computer Faire of ’77 – this is almost always presented as the shirtsleeve, hacker days of Apple. Plexiglass signs and five thousand dollars on presentation – now that’s serious promo!
Comparing the Jobs of Hertzfeld’s book to the Jobs of ‘iCon,’ there are a lot of similarities. There are even some key scenes that are in both books and it’s fascinating to compare them. I think the Jobs of ‘iCon’ is more extreme than that of ‘Revolution In The Valley.’ Young and Simon have naturally got a lot more timeline to play with and that includes some truly over-the-top Jobs’ shenanigans. The most telling of this is the infamous whiteboard incident: Pixar founder Alvy Ray wanted to demonstrate a point so he tried to use Steve’s whiteboard. Jobs apparenty went absolutely nuts, shouting psychotically at Ray. Ray quit and was subsequently painted out of official Pixar history, like Trotsky out of Stalinist photo libraries. Perhaps it’s a very good thing that Jobs has never been seriously interested in politics.
Being picky, there a few technical points that ‘iCon’ flummers around or simply gets plain wrong. The explanation of MP3 is quite hazy, implying that there was an MP1 and MP2. When, as any Googler can tell you, it stands for Mpeg-1 Audio Layer 3. And what about the bit where the authors ramble on about iLife apps called iPhotos and iMovies? Surely it doesn’t take much to have a look at your dock and see the actual, un-plural names?
Also dodgy is when they say Brad Bird had no experience with CGI animation when he approached Pixar to pitch ‘The Incredibles?’ Huh? What about ‘The Iron Giant?’
I’m only being pedantic about the above points because I’m not a huge geek, I’m a wannabe. But if a wannabe like me can spot these schoolboy errors, what would an Apple insider or proper techie make of this book? There may be other errors that I’m not informed enough to spot.
However, don’t let those teeny criticisms put you off this book. Although very different in tempo and temperament, ‘iCon’ is as gripping a read as ‘Revolution In The Valley.’ Perhaps, for some readers, it’s the more gripping book because there’s less hardcore techiness and more dramatic sweep of history. Really, it’s crying out to be made into a feaure film. Steve Jobs has lived a life a thousand times more interesting than most high-octane fiction. I think ‘iCon’ captures that crazy majesty adeptly.
So, buy both these books, read them and you’ll see the world around you entirely differently, even if you’re not a Mac user. Unless you haven’t got an iPod. Or ever watched a Pixar film. Or ever used web browser…