1999-08-14: Infinite Loop

Infinite Loop

How the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane (1999)

by Michael S. Malone (1954-)

This book tells of the founders, the founding and history of Apple Computer, up to October 1998. Malone is strongly (and perhaps justifiably) critical of Steve Jobs, as well as of the other leadership of Apple. Unfortunately his tone is strongly sensationalist, and his writing is slanted by a desire for a clever turn of phrase, and the conceit of his subtitle. His approach is especially unfortunate at the very end. He takes it as a foregone conclusion that Apple is doomed, a conclusion that colors his whole work, but leaves me wishing he had waited a bit to see how the story ends. Nonetheless, there are a few interesting passages.

An interesting point is made concerning Microsoft’s interest in the survival of Apple. In addition to the billion dollars of software sales to Mac owners, Microsoft has (or had) an interest in maintaining at least the appearance of competition, to counter antitrust charges. He quotes ?, assigned to Cupertino to lead Microsoft’s Silicon Valley operations, to the effect that Microsoft wanted Apple to maintain a market share of between 8 and 11 percent. Its low point during Amelio’s regime was less than 3 percent; the most recent sales figures I have heard indicate Apple has reached 12 percent. Malone also mentions a ridiculous notion that a company must have 50 percent market share, or it will die.

When talking about Jobs’s efforts to establish the company, Malone has an interesting passage concerning entrepreneurship:

Jobs now had cash in Apple’s account and fifty more computers to build and sell. He was on a roll. Entrepreneurship is, at its heart, a kind of fraud. You begin with nothing more than an idea, and at every step thereafter you must convince employees, customers, suppliers, investors and often even yourself that your enterprise is bigger and more sophisticated than it really is. You sell a fantasy of the future as if it was a reality of the present. To investors, your résumé is deeper than it really is, product development further along, customers hungrily lining up in legions, your finances so strong that you hardly need the added money. More than anything, even than the product itself, start-up entrepreneurship is playacting, constructing an elaborate persona in the belief that someday it will be indistinguishable from the real you.

For Steve Jobs, who had been trying on and tossing off images since childhood, this was the most intriguing and exciting role yet. And he took to it as well as anyone before or since. The summer of 1976 was his debut as an entrepreneur. He had begun the summer almost a stranger to personal computing; he would finish it as the best businessman in the industry.

Malone also quotes Jef Raskin concerning the character of Steve Jobs:

Steve had chutzpah in the extreme . . .  And you can explain Jobs with another Yiddish word, mensch. It is high praise to say of a person that he (or in these enlightened days, she) is a mensch or “a real mensch.” A mensch is cultivated without losing the common touch, upholds high principles while remaining practical, is kind and generous without shortchanging himself, and is attentive to his responsibilities to himself, his family, his business, his associates, his community and the world. If you understand the qualities that make a man a mensch, then you understand a lot about Steve Jobs. Everything a mensch is, he isn’t.

This is a long book: 578 pages. It contains lots of juicy details, but is still a slow read.

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