Review: Inside Apple, by Adam Lashinsky

Originally I had no intentions to read “yet another” book about Apple – a) I feel a bit queasy about the hype Jobs‘ death set off, and b) I had read some other books in more or less the same domain, back in the 90’s – namely Steven Levy‘s Hackers and Insanely Great (the old edition) respectively, plus Robert X Cringley‘s Accidental Empires (also the old edition) and Katie Hafner‘s Where Wizards Stay Up Late. That I ended up doing it anyway I blame on a colleague who shared a link to a video featuring Adam Lashinsky‘s talking about his book Inside Apple; some of the things he said made me hope that this book might bring an interesting analysis on Apple’s corporate culture and business practice to the table, so eventually I got it.

It is a rather slim volume, only made to look more substantial by the heavy pulp paper and the wide-spaced large typography. The author himself states that he has not been able to secure interviews with any Apple executive – only with people formerly at Apple, and many of those had a guarded attitude. So it is no surprise that many of the events told about in the book are public events or events told by others – the team behind him must have rifled through reams and reams of articles and books and other media to find relevant quotes – and thus already known to those of us who sometimes listen with an ear towards the rumour mill.

Lot’s of regurgitated stuff, thus. Which, given Apple’s attitudes towards information, doesn’t come as a surprise.

Yet I thought the book an interesting read, not least because Apple’s corporate culture and business practices provokes thought.

Apple has partly reached success because they have gambled. Gambled on a design or a product and its viability on the market. They stroke luck, and no one really knows how much of it has been pure luck and how much of it that has been Jobs’ genius in collecting intelligence through networking and information gathering. Or, for that matter, how much of Job’s alleged total control really were total control.

This is not only interesting because it will tell how well Apple will do in times to come but also because it tell something about the possibility to transplant the Apple method to other businesses. Was it only Jobs’ charisma, or was it something more, something tangible and thus repeatable?

Truth is no one knows, and this is why the book feel like a heap of guesswork. A real case study cannot be made in another handful of years. Instead, what was interesting to me was the comparison I, and in some few cases the author as well, can make with another huge company that has retained its cool, in the eyes of people, namely Google.

Where Apple is closed and secret, a secrecy enforced by threat towards the individual – compartmentalised and sect-like – Google is open. Google lives by perpetual beta, everyone who is interested can know what they’re working on. Apple only release what they view as finished products and the less people know beforehand the better. Google encourages innovation on an individual level – at Apple only Jobs, and perhaps a few of his most trusted people, were allowed to think things up. At Apple you did what you were best at, for life. At Google you’re welcome to try your hand at whatever (or so the rumour is).

There is no question that the Google way is more compelling. It’s probably a fun place to work. I bet Google employees don’t have to pay to use the company gym, or has to be paranoid about who they’re talking to.

But. There is a dilemma. I – and I’m hardly alone – always strive for design excellency. Not always achievable, I am, after all, a consultant, but I don’t want to release second class product.

And looking at Google and Apple – who has the nicest, most easy to use, most desirable products? From the point of view of many consumers, me included, something that looks nice and feel nice makes me as a person look and feel good when using it or displaying it for others to see.

Google is an utilitarian stool, made from a sawed off tree trunk stood on its end.

Apple is a Danish designer chair, a piece of modern.

I might not have money enough to buy it but I desire it just as I desire a Ferrari Testarossa.

If you buy a carton of milk while returning home after a tour on town in your Testarossa there’s no room to keep it. No boot (trunk, for you Americans), no storage space. But the storage space is not why I desire the car. It’s something else, something ephemeral.

And, of course – the Apple product is often easy to use, which is more than you can say about an Italian sports-car ;-)

See my dilemma?

Coming back to the review proper I think this is the dilemma the author struggles with as well. A love-hate relationship that makes it hard to step back and be purely objective. See there the strength of a brand, the strength of consequent brand management.

But in the end – this book is a quick glimpse into Apple’s management and business practices, probably aimed at stressed out executives, to read during a boring flight. As such it’s more like a fleshed out magazine cover story than a book.

A person like me who thinks culture and what comes from it is interesting this is a good read. For those who yearn for more tidbits about Jobs there’s nothing new to see. Decide for yourself which category you’re in and read it or not based on that.

Me, I’ll probably get Steven Levy’s In The Plex now, to read for comparison ;-)

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

So, at last – Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl. A near-future story set in a world where we have run out of oil all the while genetic science has its heyday being used by the corporate world as a way to more or less covertly own and commandeer all of the world and its peoples.

Welcome to Thailand. A nation set on isolationism as a way to avoid ceding its national sovereignty to corporate America. The greenhouse effect has brought a rise in the water table so half of Bangkok is now more or less sunken while the other half is kept dry by way of dikes and pumps. A fight is on with the isolationists on one side and the ones favouring trade with the world outside on the other; when we enter the story we don’t really know who to side with but it is clear that confrontation is impossible to avoid.

As if this wasn’t complex enough Bacigalupi adds a vat-grown human being, debating if this really is a human or not, and we follow her in her ongoing and daily humiliation. Because in isolationist Thailand anything not from within is impure. And anything genetically enhanced is a symbol for the devil enemy from abroad, something that deserves abuse. And abuse she takes, until one day she lashes back…

As the Chinese are said to curse – may you live in interesting times. The people in this book certainly do so.

The story is well written and well imagined but roaming a territory defined by William Gibson, Ian McDonald and, to me, containing much of Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It very much feels like a first novel, trying to stake out a part of that land for his own. Yet, and perhaps because of his territorial neighbours, whom I love so much, I recommend this book highly.

Fast, fun, imaginative; not without originality; good penmanship, a fluid mind. And with one foot clearly set in the now. Because the world he describes is a result of how we presently treat our planet and our fellow humans. As extrapolations go, not very far-fetched. Which is scary.

Read it.

Review: Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Fast, fun, and highly rhetorical if not downright political. The standalone – yes, I think it works well on its own – sequel to Halting State Stross‘ Rule 34 is a good read.

The story revolves around sidestepped and showed sidewards Inspector Liz, a set of murders that are too coincidental to be coincidence, and the cast that comes with it.

At first the way the story is told throws me a little. To tell a story from different perspectives is relatively common in modern SF; that was not unusual. No. What got to me was that the story of every person is described as by someone else. Soon enough I got used to it, to the extent that I started to reflect on it… and indeed – it is a clue. The track grows stronger in the last third of the book, where clues are dotted all around – sometimes begging you to backtrack what you read, to check the way another person experienced it… and so the ending does not surprise.

Still, done in a neat way, so not to depend on the surprise moment.

Like with Halting State I think anyone living in the modern world should read it. Not for its poetic values and fantastic storytelling. There are, after all, better authors than Stross out there. No, you should read it because it is highly relevant to the times that we live in, asking questions about where we’re headed, and how.

This perfect day, indeed.

Review: A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

Highly political and hard on ideology, Vernor Vinge‘s A Deepness in the Sky is not an easy read – not to me at least. It might be that it would had been different if I had read A Fire in the Deep first but I don’t know – all I know now is that it was interesting on an intellectual level but never really interesting interesting.

A mission to a faraway star ends in disaster when two parties with conflicting ideas about how to manage society clashes, with the more violent and dictatorial initially gaining the upper hand. The leader of that party manipulates his way through the decades, waiting for the natives of the planet they encircle to gain enough technological and scientific knowledge to be worth scavenging, all the while telling the humans of the two factions that what they really want to do is trade with the aliens; to trade themselves out of their precarious situation. His real plan is to engineer mayhem downplanet, mayhem that will look like it is the result of a war between multiple nation states, war that will lay the spoils of a naive but skilled society open to him.

(This made me think of Naomi Klein‘s Shock Doctrine, as it is the same theory at work – create chaos and you can then reshape the society to fit your specific needs. Not viable long-term, but in the short – definitely.)

It doesn’t stop there. Rather the book seems to argue that central government never can be successful; that it inevitably ends up being repressive; and that the only viable model is… what?

Throughout the book the other human party seems to be the most likely contender for power, and as it is a community based on trading rather than creating, it seems like Vinge pitches repressive dictatorship against a loose organism whose main interest is profit. But then, surprise surprise, the aliens turn out not to be the victims everyone thought them to be, and it is the nation with the best ability to turn scientific progress into a development that benefits the whole of the society that ends up the winner.

Hrm. Interesting indeed. But to truly enjoy the book and its 774 pages I think “interesting” isn’t enough. Fact is that with 100 pages left I had to force myself to just sit down and finish the damn thing, so I could be allowed to read something else, for a change. Because interesting as it might be character development is at an absolute minimum, despite the fact that the core story spans 40 years and a lot of change and hardships.

Of course, some characters do change. But their change is true to what the ideas need to get properly displpayed, not necessarily true to how a human might respond to challenge or time.

And bottom line, the people – be they machine or humans or aliens, I don’t particularly care, so let’s agree on calling them sentient beings – is what ideas need to be viable, to come to life. We are the material ideas need to become real. And I’m sorry to say but 774 pages of mannequins acting out the ideas of the author is a wee bit too much.

Or perhaps it’s just that Vinge’s voice doesn’t appeal to me. Because I think this book looks like a piece of unfinished wood when stood beside someone like Ian McDonald or Iain M Banks.

So, I’m glad that I finished it but I’m not that eager to read anything more from him.