Looking behind the curtain at Apple

How do you make a book about Apple interesting if it isn't about Steve Jobs?

Adam Lashinsky, a senior editor at Fortune magazine, has taken on that difficult-sounding mission, with somewhat predictable results. Published by Business Plus, his effort to explain how the Apple machine really functions is like trying to lift the veil on a master conjurer's secrets: The humdrum mechanics that lie behind the tricks can never be as interesting as the magic.

Yet even if it doesn't have the allure of Walter Isaacson's recent bestselling biography of Jobs, this book, "Inside Apple: The Secrets Behind the Past and Future Success of Steve Jobs's Iconic Brand," still starts out with a worthwhile goal. The world's second-most-valuable company (after Exxon) has always fought hard to stay out of business-school case studies.

The author, however, promises to "decode [Apple's] secret systems." If there is a formula here, it is surely worth distilling and conveying for the edification of aspiring managers everywhere.

So let's cut to the chase. There is, in the end, little mystery. The things that make Apple tick, according to this account, are deceptively simple to sum up: a single-minded focus on products, a relentlessly performance-driven culture that does not allow for failure, and a marketing and advertising machine honed to send clear, simple messages, from the TV ads to the famous Jobs keynotes.

Many managers would claim to be inspired by the same or similar goals. The difference with the Apple that Jobs created is that it actually seems to have lived by them.

Lashinsky's account rings true in its analysis of how Apple has been willfully oblivious to current management orthodoxies. (There is none of the fashionable pursuit of employee "empowerment" in Jobs' draconian management style.) It is in the detail that the book disappoints.

Without direct contributions from the company's senior executives, and often stitched together from interviews with former executives and anonymous sources, it feels like snatching a glimpse through a half-closed blind.

Among the more interesting issues discussed here is how Apple has managed to maintain its ability to come up with bold products and create entirely new markets, even as it has grown to become a seriously big multinational concern.

The company has organized itself along functional lines, not into separate business units. No executive other than the chief financial officer has responsibility for a profit-and-loss account.

According to Lashinsky, that has produced a tight group of narrowly focused experts who each do one thing really well. Such a system runs smoothly, of course, when there is a strong manager to keep the all-stars in line.

This points to the big question that hangs over the book, as it does over Apple itself: Can the company possibly continue its recent string of successes without Jobs at the helm?

The Apple described here is clearly the projection of his personality. The chapter titles that claim to distill the secrets of Apple's success — "Embrace Secrecy," "Focus Obsessively" and "Overwhelm Friends/Dominate Foes" — sound like a litany of the co-founder's own, most obvious character traits.

By comparison, the final chapters — with titles such as "Plan for After Your Successor" and "Inspire imitators" — ring hollow. There is little evidence that Jobs devoted himself to building a legacy with anything like the intensity he gave to creating his company's products. And the Apple co-founder had no interest in inspiring copycats.

Members of the latest generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have taken to holding up Jobs as an inspiration. Whether this homage amounts to anything more than a pixel-perfect stylistic imitation is impossible to tell.

Waters is the West Coast editor for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World