Haunted Empire Book Struggles To Shed Light On Apple After Jobs [Review]

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Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs by Yukari Iwatani Kane
Category: Book
Price: $27.99 hardcover

Writing a book about any technology company is hard. Books take a long time to write, and a longer time to make it into print and arrive in stores. Technology, on the other hand, moves quickly. As a tech author, you have two options. One is to write a book that tries its best to be timely by making it to market as soon as possible. The other is to wait until a book-length narrative has unfolded, and then to write about it. Tech writers, I suggest, would typically prefer the latter. Book publishers prefer the former.

Among all tech companies, Apple is one of the toughest to write about. It’s extraordinarily secretive in a way that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Want to get a sense for what it feels like to squeeze journalistic blood from the Apple stone? Listen carefully to what Apple gives away in its public statements next time it acquires a new company. Answer: not much.

[Kane is] a journalist who has covered the Apple beat for the Wall Street Journal.

But while that makes Apple an interesting challenge to write about (and at this point I must disclose that both myself and Cult of Mac editor Leander Kahney have written Apple books), tougher is the other side of the equation. Apple is a hard company to write about not because practically no-one has access to it, but because practically everyone is writing about it anyway.

You therefore need to bring something pretty new to it to make it worthwhile.

It is this that Yukari Iwatani Kane sadly hasn’t done. A journalist who has covered the Apple beat for the Wall Street Journal, Kane is — on paper — one of the more interesting people to have written about the company in recent years. Her book starts off well enough — if predictably — as a recap of the last days of Apple under Jobs.

Apple may not have fallen apart after Jobs' death, but the book certainly does.

Apple may not have fallen apart after Jobs’ death, but the book certainly does.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but it’s fine. Finding good Steve Jobs stories isn’t hard. Speak to any Apple executive, journalist, or other miscellaneous third party who dealt with him, and you’ll get at least one. Usually more. Good Steve Jobs stories are, to techies, what gruesome war wounds were to Robert Shaw’s character, Quint, in Jaws. They’re badges of honor.

Narrative focus is lost when we move into the post-Jobs era (although the “Haunted Empire” of the title comes into play, as Jobs regularly features in flashbacks.) Seemingly every interview Kane has given about Haunted Empire suggests that what she will do is to construct a critique of Apple in the wake of its iconic co-founder, and then argue this case. Whether or not you would agree with it, this seems as though it would be the best option. Everyone might have their own take on the Apple narrative, but pursuing one course at length would demonstrate Kane planting a flag and then arguing for its placement. Instead, she jumps from topic to topic in a way that feels a bit like sitting down to watch television with a hyperactive person playing couch commando with the remote control.

One chapter is about Tim Cook’s childhood and rise through Apple; the next is about Foxconn and worker conditions; the next is Jony Ive being knighted at Buckingham Palace; the next is about a junior high school teacher who struggles to use Siri. There are interesting factoids along the way, but because the chapters are short and then we’re on to the next thing we never feel that the ideas are anything more than name checks.

Kane adds unfortunately little of her own voice.

Walter Isaacson’s book skipped from topic to topic, but it always had Steve Jobs at its center. Haunted Empire feels centerless: a smattering of different scenes that feel as though they are supposed to be part of a bigger argument, but really aren’t. Perhaps the book’s fractured structure is some kind of postmodern joke about how modern Apple doesn’t have a core driving force behind it as it did when Jobs was alive and running things. But I doubt it. And even if it is, that doesn’t make a book that skips from place to place any more palatable.

Kane talks about her extensive investigative reporting and 200 interviews, but strangely we rarely get to hear it. There is certainly little sign of anyone inside of Apple talking, with even the old tech standby — “an unidentified former Apple employee told me” — missing in action. Kane adds unfortunately little of her own voice, either. Apple is one of relatively few technology companies that genuinely thinks long-term, and its proactivity rather than reactivity should make it perfect for a book length treatise. There were so many points in the book when I wanted Kane, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, to join the dots and argue what such-and-such an event means — even if I would have possibly disagreed with the interpretation. Instead, Haunted Empire seems content to do little more than recap what has happened, with no real regard for the bigger picture.

The gist of her argument seems to be that Tim Cook is ruining Apple, but none of the evidence we are given supports that. Many of the things singled out as examples of Apple losing its way happened under Steve Jobs.

Siri's failure to live up to Apple's standards is just one of Cook's many failings, according to the book. And ignoring the fact that it was a Steve Jobs project.

Siri’s failure to live up to Apple’s standards is just one of Cook’s many failings, according to the book. And ignoring the fact that it was a Steve Jobs project.

In one point in the book, Kane questions Cook’s performance at the Apple helm — and then, in a writerly touch, compares him to Siri who is described as “hapless[,] confused [and] devoid of soul.” The CEO whose passion project unwittingly points out their personal failings might be fair enough in the case of, say, John Sculley — the last CEO to take on the role of Apple’s inspiration leader after Jobs departed the company. In Sculley’s case, the Newton became a symbol for everything he lacked that Jobs had in spades: not simply the scope of vision, but the ability to execute it.

A missed opportunity.

With Tim Cook? Well, the parallel sort of falls apart when you realize Siri was a Steve Jobs innovation.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know just who Haunted Empire would appeal to. The best guess would be someone with a passing interest in Apple who stopped two-thirds of the way through Isaacson’s Jobs biography, and hasn’t followed anything to have happened since then.

I was predisposed to like Yukari Iwatani Kane’s book. Kane is a talented writer, as can be seen from her other work, and based on qualifications alone she seems to be the perfect person to write something like Haunted Empire.

There’s a fascinating book to be written about what happens to a company like Apple when it loses the micro-manager leader who, for all intents and purposes, was the company. Perhaps with a different approach Kane could even be the writer of such a book.

But Haunted Empire isn’t it, and as such I can’t in all good conscience recommend it to readers.

A missed opportunity.

Screen_Shot_2014-03-13_at_22Product Name: Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs
The Good: An acceptable primer on Apple since 2010, if you’ve not been keeping up with the news.
The Bad: Sadly fails to hang together as either a narrative or as an argument. Lacks focus.
The Verdict: The idea of Apple as a “haunted empire” left rudderless without its brilliant leader is an interesting one. Unfortunately this book doesn’t deliver on its premise.
Buy from: Amazon.com

  • winstonsmith39

    Every excerpt from this book I’ve seen makes it a miss for me. You say Kane hasn’t inserted enough of herself – from what I’ve read, that’s a good thing. She doesn’t seem to have a clue about Apple despite covering it for a long time.

  • Joey Lopez

    Wait what? Siri was Siri, an app that Apple bought wholesale, including the Wolframm Alpha collaboration, while it became more, it wasn’t a “steve jobs” or a tim cook innovation, it was an acquisition. That’s like calling WAZE a larry page innovation.

    • Luke Dormehl

      You make a valid point, and perhaps I should have phrased this differently. I’m aware that Siri was a standalone iPhone app before the technology was licensed by Apple, but my point was that using Siri in a failure narrative about Tim Cook is nonsensical, when Siri was brought in under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

  • Bo Guss

    Having been a Mac user, and for the most part, a fan of Apple in general for a very long time, I see and perhaps feel, that Apple is no longer the same without Jobs at the helm. Innovations seem to take the back burner to profits. And it’s showing. I think it was a bad move to make the Mac Pro, iMac, iPhone, and iPad completely integrated that it feels like one thing. I’m a Mac Pro user, and a designer, and with Mountain Lion and Mavericks, these systems don’t feel like desktop systems anymore.

    Many Mac users are designers, editors, animators, etc… And I may not speak for them, but the new look and feel of the Mac OS, is something that I’m not very happy with. Cook is going the way of more users, by making everything generic, at the cost of simplicity, reliability, and customization. It’s a mentality of “this is what we are giving you, take it or leave it”.

    • Uplift_Humanity

      Bo Guss:
      I have to disagree with you slightly.

      I agree the UI changes Apple made recently are commoditizing their OS products. However, this is something they’ve ALWAYS done (commoditize their own products) — and should continue to do it for good reasons. I believe it’s time they did this with the GUI (again). It means that they (or someone) will create a revolutionary new UI. You can of course ask Siri for the answer: “Siri, is there any latest UI technology out there?” I don’t think she’ll have an answer [hint: she’s currently too dumb to foresee her evolution….]. But it will happen. Steve gave “her” a purpose.

      Apple has learned to intentionally “obsolete” its own technologies. This nudges them to innovate internally — instead of letting their competitors do it. Apple introduces game-changing technologies every decade or so, and then leap-frogs themselves when it becomes commonplace. They’ve transformed the way the world does things, repeatedly. Here’s a list of their past game-changers:

      – Apple ][ PCs – a Personal computer (one a PERSON could afford and use)
      – Mac – PC with INTUITIVE Graphical UI anyone can figure-out (no/low training)
      – Newton – the first PDA that molded itself to how humans work (handwriting).
      – HyperCard – an early precursor to HTML (it influenced web design & HTML)
      – iPod – your own super-easy-to-use personal portable radio station
      – iTunes/App store – easy DISTRIBUTION of music (and now all digital media)
      – A smart SmartPhone (remember the clunkers from the 1990s/early 2000s?)
      – iPad – easy-to-use portable reconfigurable (apps) INFORMATION APPLIANCE
      – iWatch/iBand – Wrist-band to collect/analyze your PERSONAL HEALTH info
      – iTV – CONSUME chosen MEDIA on your terms (when, where, any device)

      The Apple ][ was a revolution in computing hardware and software (they took the latest digital ICs & CPUs, added custom programming to bring minicomputer capability to average people). It let people afford, use, and program their own “personal” computer at a time when computers were only owned by large corporations with teams of professional programmers, or the closest “personal” computer had 8 flip-switches with 8 lights on its front-panel (no screen, no keyboard). Apple’s game-changing technology was quickly copied by IBM (IBM PC, XT, AT…) which became ubiquitous and the Osborne 1 PC introduced portability. Apple ran with the “portability” idea and decades later introduced the Newton (a truly portable “almost tiny” PDA by 1985 standards). PC hardware became commonplace but still had hard-to-use command line interfaces (CP/M, MS-DOS, GEM, and DESQview were usable by “trained” people, but very cryptic for most people) and cryptic software commands (Control-Shift-F2 and ALT-Q).

      Soon Apple revolutionized PC USABILITY, not just by adding any old GUI, but a GUI that was truly easy to learn, intuitive, and FUN! Unfortunately the hardware was still expensive in 1984-87, and this gave Microsoft time to copy the Macintosh while it remained expensive (Microsoft took Mac internal secrets through a mistaken “licensing” deal Apple struck with Microsoft). By the time Windows 1.0 came out, hardware (graphics cards, mouse/trackballs, color displays) got cheaper. With their GUI being copied & commoditized, Apple turned to new ways of sharing text and ideas – HyperText. Others combined it with other ideas to create HTML and the WWW. The first browser, website, and HTML was developed and tested on a NeXT computer at CERN. Jobs was behind the NeXT, and initially funded it entirely with his personal money. Apple bought the NeXT operating system (NextStep) — and NeXTStep eventually became OS X and iOS today. It’s in Apple’s history to keep doing this — commoditizing their once game-changing technologies, and leap-frogging over everyone else.

      Most Apple imitators (competitors like Microsoft and Samsung) flatter Apple by copying their products (like the iPhone and iPad now) – and they end up making only endless incremental “improvements”. We can all imagine a Galaxy XIV foldable-phone coming out in 2019… with more plain improvements. No innovations, just obvious tweaks: a different screen, different size, different transceivers, more memory, new ports, new cameras…. similar to a car company offering 20″ tires instead of 19″ tires. Or 3-zone A/C instead of 2-zones.

      Getting back to the point of this article – I’m not sure Cook thinks like Jobs. I haven’t seen any inkling that Cook even thinks about radical or decades-later game-changing technology. The stuff currently on the Apple rumor-mills is all about “incremental improvement” products that were started or white-boarded by Jobs previously. No new radical technology. That takes decades to foresee, fund, and make happen.

      So in that sense I agree with you that “Apple is no longer the same without Jobs at the helm”. Cook needs a true VISIONARY by his side – that was Jobs’ role for Apple (and for every industry he competed in, remember Pixar, NeXT?). He had many flaws, but this one trait overshadowed everything else. Cook needs this in a hurry, before his 10 years runs out.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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