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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.
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.
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.
|Product 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.
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