The Apple Revolution: Book review

The Apple Revolution: Book review

Summary: A company with Apple's current level of profitability seems more like the establishment than the counterculture, no matter how many "Think different" adverts praising "the crazy ones" you've seen. This book charts the company's progress from garage to boardroom.

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Luke Dormehl's hefty 532-page history of Apple "as a social artefact" imbued with the ethos of the countercultural revolution starts with artist Ron English pointing out the inherent conflict with a guerrilla version of the award-winning "Think different" ads featuring cult leader and mass murderer Charles Manson. Dormehl's potted history of the rise of the geek (via handheld calculators, the Whole Earth Review, Ted Nelson's influential Computer Lib/Dream Machines manifesto and the Homebrew Computer Club where Steve Wozniak planned to give away the blueprints to the Apple I before Steve Jobs convinced him to turn it into a business) sets the scene well. Although Steven Levy's Hackers has far more detail and less gushing awe, Dormehl goes further back to early entrepreneurs in what would become Silicon Valley, making safer chicken coops and manufacturing radio components.

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Not all the hippies, pranksters and counter-revolutionaries wanted to live on communes and disdain profits — reclaiming the power of computing from faceless corporations and the military-industrial complex and using it for protests or communications is an idea that dates back to the student activists of the 60s. Dormehl does a good job of showing how the more practical and purist ideologies — which he dubs "hippy progressive capitalists" and "New Lefties" — mingled and spurred each other on.

But his account of the young Steve Jobs as aggressive, confrontational and disdainful of social niceties (from polite conversation to soap) feels sketchy, and various anecdotes about Jobs being dictatorial, controlling, unfair and yet charismatic and successful don't quite add up to the whole picture. There's more detail about his time at Reed College and Atari than in many Apple books, but the familiar story of how Jobs took over the Macintosh project only to lose control of the company has been better told, although not always with as many fascinating anecdotes. There are so many good stories about Steve Wozniak that even fans may not have heard all the ones recounted here — from 'phone phreaking' Richard Nixon to staging ill-fated music festivals.

The Apple Revolution does take a broader view than many books on Apple, covering NeXT, Pixar and the recruitment of Jonathan Ive (disappointed by the negative reception of his less-than-practical designs for toilets by Ideal Standard apparently, although it's a shame Dormehl misses out Ive's involvement in the eMate, whose design prefigures many elements of the iMac, in favour of details of his university career).

Cramming in all the interesting stories makes you want to keep reading, but leaves the book feeling inconsistent. The viewpoint jumps frequently and the amount of detail varies in a way that seems to make time dilate — Apple Writer author Paul Lutus's decision to move from NASA to the rural idyll of a cabin in Oregon gets as much space as the entire Apple CEO tenures of Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio, for example. This particularly affects the section on NeXT, which takes a rollercoaster ride from investment by EDS to aesthetic statement (every component had to be black) to delays, overspending and failure. There's more detail than you might expect on the creation of the ground-breaking 1984 advert and the "Think different" campaign, and a number of gaps in between, with Macs jumping from the SE/30 to the PowerBook offstage. The story of the iPhone has been told so many times that concentrating on details of the very uncountercultural secrecy and an anecdote about Jobs taking one of the first iPhones to a sick friend is both different and a little unbalanced.

One the other hand, the repeated attempts by Alvey Ray Smith and Ed Catmull to build hardware and software that would be powerful enough to animate a whole feature film are less well known and just as fascinating. Small errors here grate though: Dormehl makes the common mistake of thinking that TRON was computer-animated (the techniques were so slow that only a few minutes of the film were done on computer). Most of the stories match what we know from other sources, although Dorhmehl sets right some myths (John Sculley and Alan Kay were responsible for the prescient Knowledge Navigator video showing a voice-controlled tablet). However, several of the anecdotes Dormehl quotes from his many interviewees make more sense in the versions on the Apple history site folklore.org.

In the end, this is mostly a history of Apple, almost completely divorced from the wider world around it — even as a backdrop. Occasionally Dormehl goes back to the idea of counterculture and tries to find connections (whether the original Apple logo referenced Snow White, Alan Turing's suicide or the gay pride rainbow flag; how the voice actor in the first iPad commercial was once in a theatre group named for 17th-century religious radicals the Diggers), but mostly these attempts underline the contradiction between the success of Apple, the fanatical control and secrecy and the liberating ideals of the geeks who built and use Apple products.

Read The Apple Revolution for the stories rather than the writing. I'm not sure what "the recontextualisation of technology from tool of the military industrial academic complex to consumer product" has to do with people mistaking early video games like Pong for computer programs instead of single-purpose devices made from digital components; and if you're interested in the details of how the Macintosh was built you probably already know what a codename is. But learning that Steve Jobs was almost selected to fly the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission, or that when Doug Englebart (inventor of the mouse) took LSD he came up with a toilet-training aid called the Tinkle Toy, is worth the occasionally dense prose.

Generally The Apple Revolution manages to be both detailed and readable, but it doesn't really do what it promises, because the fascinating details don't get either the real-world context or the deeper analysis they need to turn this from insider anecdotes into cultural history.

The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, the counterculture and how the crazy ones took over the world
By Luke Dormehl
Virgin Books
532 pages
ISBN: 9780753540626
£12.99

Topics: Apple, Reviews, After Hours

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Million, Billion, Shmillion

    Does it really matter whether Apple "makes $85 million in the first half of 2012" - or $85 billion?
    WebSiteManager
  • Tron & Computer Animation

    Not only was 3D graphics primitive in those days, they couldn't even do compositing. So there are no scenes containing both live actors and computer graphics (except for one brief one where the actors are in one corner, I believe).

    All those fluorescent highlights on the actors' outfits were drawn by hand, frame by frame.
    ldo17