Book Value

Behind the scenes with the Apple jocks: Tricks are not just for kids

INFINITE LOOP by Michael S. Malone (Doubleday/Currency, 1999)
DEALERS OF LIGHTNING by Michael Hiltzik (HarperBusiness, 1999)

In Infinite Loop: How Apple, The World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane, Michael Malone reveals in 500-odd pages everything we ever wanted to know about those zany guys who brought us the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the iMac. It's a compelling read, filled with the minutiae that only a journalist who's been following the company for years could compile. (Malone is editor of Forbes ASAP.) Every legendary and not-so-legendary Apple incident is here, from the first meeting of founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Jobs's triumphant return to the fold, in late 1996.

If ever there was a blueprint for a partnership gone bad, it was the one Malone depicts between Jobs and Wozniak. After they built a game called Breakout for Nolan Bushnell at Atari (Malone claims Wozniak did most of the work), Jobs delivered the product and went to Wozniak to split the $700 bonus they'd received. "Wozniak was thrilled" with the $350, Malone writes. But "Jobs had lied. The [bonus] was, in fact, $7,000. It had not been enough merely to exploit his friend or even enough to take all the credit for the result. Jobs had then gone on to steal most of the award for Wozniak's Herculean effort. It was a breathtaking betrayal; a glimpse into the dark center of Steven Jobs's soul."

Malone paints a picture of Jobs as the definitive megalomaniac. The question is whether to agree with Malone's somewhat contrarian viewpoint. Take, for example, his retelling of one myth, the one about Jobs's visit to Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in late 1979 or early 1980. It's often said that Jobs recognized the commercial application of many ideas there and incorporated them into the new Lisa (a noble failure) and the Macintosh. Malone disagrees. He points out that the Macintosh and Lisa projects were approved and begun in September 1979, " at least three months before Jobs' visit to PARC."

Besides, he asks, is Jobs "a guy capable of walking into one of the leading research institutions in the world, seeing a collection of radically new technologies whose implications weren't even fully understood by their inventors and then, like the young Jesus before the rabbis, extemporaneously peppering the director of that institution with questions so penetrating and knowing that even the experts were taken aback? Please."

But others argue that Jobs did just that. Michael Hiltzik is one. He recounts Jobs's visit in Dealers of Lightning. While Hiltzik writes that "to this date no two people involved in the episode recollect it quite the same way," he does say that Jobs and the Apple engineers were very much taken with PARC's mouse as well as with the concept of overlapping windows. It gave them more confidence in their own ideas.

Yet, as Malone points out, sometimes we believe legends because we need to. And the story of Apple has indeed become legendary. There's a sentiment at the end of the great John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that argues that when the facts contradict the legend, print the legend. Maybe that holds true for entrepreneurial myths as well.

The moms have it

WEAR CLEAN UNDERWEAR by Rhonda Abrams (Villard, 1999)
THE SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS PLAN by Rhonda Abrams (PSI Research/Oasis Press, 1993)

Some books have titles so awful, you wonder whether someone is trying to stop us all from reading them. Take Rhonda Abrams's new book, Wear Clean Underwear: Business Wisdom from Mom. Makes you ready to loathe the thing, doesn't it? But, shock of shocks, the book's not bad. In fact, it's full of sound business advice based on Abrams's visits with, interviews of, or research about some of the leading names in business.

Abrams--who writes a syndicated business column and is the author of the very good book The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies--uses the mom thing as a gimmick, ending each chapter with a remembrance from one of the main business characters about lessons learned from Mother. My favorite comes from Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines: "She taught me to be a behaviorist; pay attention to what people do instead of what they say."

Despite Abrams's precious little metaphors ("Getting employees to act entrepreneurially is the corporate equivalent of getting a kid to try spaghetti. It can look pretty yucky"), the book is full of commonsense advice from big-cheese executives at companies as diverse as 3M, Odwalla, Kinko's, Cumberland, Nordstrom, and Ben & Jerry's. Some of the stories you'll have read before (why Post-Its are yellow; how Nordstrom has an inverted organizational chart). Even Dilbert has his say as Abrams quotes cartoonist Scott Adams: "My mother taught me that 99% of everything you do is unimportant. You may think they're important at the time, but you have to step out and look at it from 35,000 feet. Ultimately, none of those choices matter."