Steve Jobs was many things: visionary, showman, iconoclast, hippie, bully, mentor. It turns out he was also naive.
As Fred Vogelstein writes in “Dogfight,” his illuminating, lively book on the war between Apple and Google, Apple engineers knew that Google was working on its Android phone software as they were preparing to release the iPhone in 2007. But Jobs wasn’t worried. The companies were partners, even friends. Jobs was a mentor to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was an Apple board member, even appearing onstage when Jobs introduced the iPhone. These Google guys would never betray Jobs.
But of course they did.
When Google entered the mobile-phone business, Brin and Page knew the stakes. “It’s hard to imagine a more revolutionary object than the object the two companies started fighting over: the smartphone,” Vogelstein aptly writes. “The smartphone has fundamentally changed the way humans get and process information, and that is changing the world in ways that are almost too large to imagine.”
Apple vs. Google is a battle over who controls the new way information — music, video, words, pictures, data — flows through the world. That Google opened up a lemonade stand right next to his own enraged Jobs, and it led Apple to sue Google’s hardware partners around the world. It eventually led to a tablet battle that in the coming years will almost certainly lead to a TV battle. “What this means is that Apple versus Google isn’t just a run-of-the-mill spat between two rich companies,” Vogelstein writes. “It is the defining business battle of a generation.”
If that strikes you as hyperbole or silly words about silly gadgets, the next time you have dinner with your spouse at Applebee’s, look up from your smartphone and gaze around: You’re probably not the only one scrolling on a gadget when you should be, you know, talking. These tiny screens dominate our lives. We are entertained by them. Our children learn with them in school. Our doctors diagnose us with them. They disrupt industries — television, newspapers, book publishing, telephones, who knows what’s next. Surveys have shown that not a small percentage of Americans would give up sex for a week before giving up their smartphones.
Vogelstein, a contributing editor at Wired, does a solid job introducing us to the foot soldiers in the information war — the non-household names who engineer the devices and software we can’t quite put down. Jobs, it turns out, was more a master editor of other people’s ideas than strictly an idea generator of his own, terrain that Walter Isaacson previously explored in his brilliant Jobs biography. “Jobs had to be talked into building a phone,” Vogelstein writes.
Perhaps the most riveting part of Vogelstein’s book is his re-creation of the days leading up to Jobs’s now-famous introduction of the iPhone. What nobody knew as Jobs showed off the device onstage is that it barely worked. It was riddled with bugs, and there was only a faint chance it could actually complete a call. Engineers gave Jobs a “golden path” of tasks to perform for his show, ordering the functions so the phone wouldn’t crash. They sat in the audience taking shots of scotch after each successful part of the demo. By the end, the flask was empty. The iPhone worked. It was, as so many said afterward, magical.
Vogelstein seems to think Google’s smartphone and tablet strategy — mostly giving away its software to manufacturers to put on their devices — is beating Apple’s grand ambition, which is to control everything, from the glass to the icons. He notes that Google’s Android software dominates the smartphone market and is running neck-and-neck in tablets. Those stats are true but miss more important data points.
For one, Apple has never cared much about market share. It does care about profits, and it controls more than half of smartphone profits around the world, though Samsung is closing in. Also, it’s not just how many devices Apple sells but what people do with them. And that’s a lot. Industry statistics show that Apple’s operating system crushes Android in the United States when it comes to mobile Web traffic — the very bits of information Google and Apple are brawling over. The more data that flow through Apple’s devices, the more entrenched those devices become in people’s lives. And Apple sells more. It’s the circle of digital life. Already Apple is slowly easing users away from Google’s services. Apple’s Siri voice search is now powered by Microsoft’s Bing. Google Maps no longer comes preinstalled on the iPhone.
Vogelstein thinks Google is also beating Apple on the software side, noting Apple’s recent debacle with its maps program. This point is debatable. I find some of Google’s productivity apps better than Apple’s, but Android overall is clunky and not as smooth or pretty. I doubt my mom could figure it all out, but I do know that when I bought her an iPhone, she held it up to see how thin it was, peering as she would at a museum piece.
And that brings me to one of the few shortcomings of Vogelstein’s book — the way he underappreciates product design in this war, especially in appealing to the masses.
Apple’s chief designer, the handsome, tight-T-shirt-wearing British knight Jony Ive, is but a bit player in Vogelstein’s book. I think that’s a mistake. Consumers ogle smartphones and tablets as they would a Donatello sculpture. Apple’s marketers play a large role in shaping that fascination, positioning their devices as works of art built with novel, high-end materials. On its Web site, for instance, Apple notes that the “iconic Home button” on the new iPhone 5s is made with “laser-cut sapphire crystal.”
Leander Kahney’s book on Ive is a good overview of the designer’s role at the company, though it draws heavily from previous books about Jobs and Apple, including Isaacson’s bio and Steven Levy’s “The Perfect Thing,” a riveting inside account of the iPod’s development. Ive is Apple’s chief minimalist. He persuaded Jobs to love the color white, particularly for the first iPod.
He reduces products to their bare minimum, letting the design get out of the way. The original iPod did not have a dedicated power button. “As such a radically new product, the iPod was inherently so compelling that it seemed appropriate for the design effort to be to simplify, remove and reduce,” Ive is quoted as saying.
Jobs and Ive’s many collaborations — including the iPad and, before that, the brightly colored iMacs that helped turn Apple around — come alive in Kahney’s book, as do the brutal sessions when Jobs was presented with design ideas. It turns out that Jobs was somewhat naive about this process, too. To make sure he picked “the right design,” designers were coached to bring three ideas to meetings, presenting the lesser ones first and their best one last. Jobs typically fell for it.
Kahney ends his chapter on the iPhone’s development right after Jobs’s onstage demo. Legendary computer scientist Alan Kay is in the audience. Jobs asks him afterward whether the product is good enough to criticize — meaning, is it a meaningful addition to the computer world? “Make the screen at least five inches by eight inches, and you will rule the world,’” Kay replies.
He was already talking about the next product in the war: the iPad.
Michael S. Rosenwald, a Washington Post reporter, often writes about the impact of technology.
Read more from Outlook:
How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution
By Fred Vogelstein
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 260 pp. $27
The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products
By Leander Kahney
Portfolio/Penguin. 305 pp. $27.95