Steve Job’s death raised the question all of the tech and business worlds were afraid to ask earlier: could Apple stay great without its leader? It had come close to total failure the first time it was without Jobs, and now the challenges were greater than ever. The author is a very experienced business journalist, covered Apple for the Wall Street Journal. She has found a large number of sources − no easy thing to do when the company you write about is as paranoid about secrecy as Apple is. And many people are sure that Apple is not the company it once was.
So we have big questions, lots of sources, experienced journalist and the right attitude. This should be good! Reality falls flat.
Kane begins by describing Jobs’s last few years at Apple − driven as always to produce innovative and stylish products, (and large profits) despite his failing health. There is a lot in here, and it reads well. But then the book comes undone.
We are taken through the later history of Apple as a series of mistakes and missteps, legal problems and production difficulties. Central to all of these is Tim Cook, Job’s hand-picked successor. It is obvious from the beginning that Kane has problems with Tim Cook. But often it reads as “He isn’t Steve, so he’s hopeless”. Kane admits that she has had no help from Apple (no-one ever gets that!), and a careful reading reveals little about Tim Cook’s motivations or vision for Apple. Cook is a business executive − a numbers man − and Jobs wasn’t, and that becomes the core issue. Ultimately every problem (real or imagined) is sheeted home to Cook being less mesmeric than Jobs.
Once Jobs is gone, the book falls apart. There’s little structure: many chapters seem to be isolated essays. The supply chain, production issues, the troubled introduction of Siri all get a turn as a failure on the part of Apple to maintain the paradise to which Jobs had lead them.
Then we are taken step-by-step through some of the many patent battles between Apple and Samsung. This really is step-by-step at times – describing legal team meetings and courtroom drama in mind-numbing detail. Quite why this level of detail is a mystery to me. Patent battles have been a fact of life in technology for decades.
And on it goes. Apple does everything wrong.
Throughout the book Tim Cook can do no right. The author traces his background to a small rural town, and forms a picture of a rather boring student who became a boring business man, boringly rational and obsessed by reducing inventory. There’s no coherent portrait of the man. Sure, it’s hard to penetrate the secrecy thrown up by Apple and by Cook himself, but the reader deserves better than is offered.
At every stage Kane interprets whatever Cook says or does in the most negative light she can find. Here’s one example. Jobs asked his managers to try out Apple’s soon to be released iMovie software. Some made films of their family. Cook made a movie about the Palo Alto real estate market. Conclusion drawn: the new man was a cipher. No thought that a CEO might want to maintain some distance between himself and his subordinates.
The book is hard on the reader. Apart from a lack of structure, and the relentless piling up of negativity, much of the writing is over-melodramatic, and no opportunity for a snide aside is ever missed.
Many questions can be asked about post-Jobs Apple. Do Apple executives look over their shoulders, wondering what he would do? What does the future hold for Apple? How many of the problems that Kane describes are a result of Jobs’s decisions of years ago? Why did Jobs get into the battles with Samsung, and Amazon? This book does not ask them all, or answer the ones that it does. The facts within are useful; the interpretation is not.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs
by Yukari Iwatani Kane
Published by William Collins