The much-anticipated "unauthorized" biography of NeXT is about to hit bookstores across the country, feeding the aficionados of popular business books with another dose of Silicon Valley pop mythology.
Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing (Atheneum, New York: 1993), by Randall Stross, a business professor at San Jose State University, is sure to cause a big stir in the NeXT community. It is ripe with lurid stories and blistering financial analyses. What it doesn't offer is a big-picture context that draws larger meaning out of the facts of the company.
Unfortunately, Stross settles for cheap shots in place of real historical perspective. It might have been different had NeXT cooperated with Stross, but his early overtures to the company were rebuffed, and he continued the project based on interviews primarily with former employees and competitors. Thus, Stross the professor turns into Stross the investigative reporter. Bob Woodward he's not.
First, he allows his story to be shaped by who would and would not speak to him. The truth is independent of the ease of a reporter's access to facts. A negative viewpoint doesn't become more valid simply because negative sources are more readily available. Readers rely on a reporter to do hard work and judge facts dispassionately, regardless of the travails necessary to gather them.
The sourcing sometimes takes the book careening off in strange directions, as in an opening-chapter rehash of the Xerox PARC story (more relevant to Apple than NeXT) and a rambling digression on the history of SPARCstations. More seriously, a Sun-centric tone permeates much of the book, which may not be surprising considering the warm welcome Stross evidently received in Mountain View and the cold shoulder in Redwood City.
Although Stross claims to have interviewed more than 150 people, he relies far too much on secondary materials. He ridicules the naivete of the general press and then quotes liberally from its stories to prove specific points.
Also, Stross allows himself to be sucked into the dubious but popular pastime of armchair psychoanalysis of Steve Jobs. It is always seductive to listen to the anecdotes about temper, irrationality, and sheer genius, and cobble together a psychological portrait like a New-Age consultant. But it has been done better in many places before.
Finally, the book operates with perfect hindsight. Of course, the role of history is to show past mistakes in a context from which people can learn. But the best history explains the motivations of the characters in the context of the information available to them then, not from the vantage point of five years later.
The book does have some value, in-cluding a wealth of amusing anecdotes I had not heard before. And when Stross goes with his strength Ð business matters Ð he comes through with excellent research and analyses of NeXT financials and its relationships with Canon and Businessland.
Certainly, NeXT's saga is the stuff of a great book. And, yes, that book would include tales of blown opportunities and burned money. But it would also have some warmth for its subject and some appreciation for NeXT's considerable accomplishments to balance its glee over NeXT's failures. It would also recognize that the NeXT Big Thing, though altered and battered over the years, is still out there, still ready to be grasped.
Dan Lavin comments on business issues in NeXT Ink.