Book review: What Would Steve Jobs Do?

This book is neither a biography of Steve Jobs nor a history of Apple. Instead, it attempts to distill the Apple co-founder's work into some fairly basic business advice.

It's hard to know how seriously to take a book about innovation and leadership in business that comes up with this howler: "The last IBM breakthrough doesn't even come to mind". Even if you dismiss hard drives, floppy disks, DRAM, the scanning tunnelling microscope, relational databases and ATMs — all invented at IBM — with "Yes, but what has IBM done for us lately?", there's still 2011's Watson, the Jeopardy champion with a future as a medical diagnostic assistant.

Watson could hardly have been given greater or more admiring media coverage. But it's possible that Peter Sander, the author of What Would Steve Jobs Do? was living in a cave filled with Jobs' Reality Distortion Field at the time.


If you have ever travelled in the American South, you've probably seen the phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" on billboards, church signs and even personal jewellery, sometimes abbreviated to WWJD. The idea is that this is what you're supposed to ask yourself at moments of uncertainty: it makes Jesus your conscious role model. The conscious evocation of this slogan in this book's title tells you right off: this is not going to be a critical book about Jobs, his company or his leadership. Still, the man built one of the greatest business success stories of recent years, and so it's a legitimate question: what can business owners and managers learn from the decisions that Steve Jobs made, and how can they apply those lessons to the decisions they have to make every day? Can they, too, create an innovation culture in their companies?

Sander makes clear from the outset that he's not writing a either a biography of Jobs or a history of Apple. That's just as well. It's clear from the outset that Sander simply doesn't have the grasp of technical or historical detail to do either. Although it's possible some of the numerous small errors that grate could be put down to sloppy editing, claims such as the one early on that Apple had "virtually no acquisitions" ignores a history of dozens of acquisitions from 1988 to the present — acquisitions costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars, including such significant technologies as Siri, flash memory and music streaming.

The IBM comment above forms part of an argument that invention isn't enough by itself; innovation or changing the game requires inventing things with a customer and a marketable vision in mind. While it's certainly true that some companies have failed to exploit their inventions (Xerox being an obvious example), it's also true that without the basic research done by IBM and others the technologies that Apple fashions into innovative products would not exist.

Sanders' main effort, however, goes into distilling Jobs's work into some fairly basic advice. Have a vision. Understand what the customer doesn't yet know that he or she wants. Don't let research and development become cut off from the rest of the company. Find rule-breakers with passion. And so on.

If you like your business advice potted, this may be the book for you. But if you really want to understand Steve Jobs's business modus operandi, you might do better to study it in context. We'd recommend Charles Arthur's Digital Wars , which charts the comparative paths and fortunes of Apple, Google and Microsoft from 1998 to 2011, as a better bet.

What Would Steve Jobs Do? How the Steve Jobs Way Can Inspire Anyone to Think Differently and Win
By Peter Sander
McGraw Hill
215 pages
ISBN: 9780071792745