Book review: Inside Steve’s Brain

Inside Steve’s Brain is the third book about Apple written by Leander Kahney, the managing editor of Wired News and head honcho of one of my favourite blogs: the well-known Cult of Mac blog. His two other books are The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod.

I was intrigued by the title of this book, so I picked up a copy. (I haven’t read Kahney’s previous two books.)

While the book’s title is obviously an exaggeration – Kahney hasn’t been at Steve Jobs’s head with a scalpel, or stuck him on a psychiatrist’s couch – it does offer some insights into how Jobs might think about product design, marketing techniques and the user experience. It also offers a decent-enough potted history of Apple and Jobs’s involvement with it over the last 30 years (though there are other books out there that do a much more thorough job of this).

Fascinating facts

Some of the interesting things I learned from reading this book:

  • When Jobs returned to Apple, he cut the product line from around 40 products to just 4 core products – 2 laptops, 2 desktops – a move that undoubtedly saved Apple from going under.
  • He hates having multiple windows open. (This makes me laugh, since the zillions of windows you get with many Mac apps was one of the things that put me off Macs initially – yet now I love the multi-window approach.)
  • One Apple store can make as much as 6 other stores in the same mall combined; they’re “insanely profitable”. (Which reminds me, I really must get off my backside and check out the new Sydney store this week.)
  • Jobs understands what design’s really all about. “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course … it’s really how it works.
  • Apple is so secretive that no single department sees the whole product, and even the head of marketing can’t tell his family about the latest iPod until after it’s launched.
  • Jobs got his family involved in a constant 2-week debate over which washing machine to buy (actually I do this as well – I’m terrible).

One good thing about the book is that is looks at both sides of Jobs and his career. Yes, he’s done a lot of things right, but he’s also made some big mistakes like the G4 Cube, which sold poorly because he misread the market. And he seems to have an irksome habit of screaming at an employee for having a bad idea, then turning round the next day and saying it’s a great idea.

Book or magazine?

The book is not without its flaws, though. For one thing, it’s repetitive; the same facts mentioned in an earlier chapter get trotted out again and again in later chapters. And there’s not much connection or flow between the chapters. It’s almost like each chapter was written by a different person (though obviously that’s not the case!). The content of the book is fairly lightweight, much like a series of magazine articles – understandable I suppose, considering Kahney’s background.

The “Lessons from Steve” boxes at the end of each chapter are supposed to offer insight into the workings of Jobs’s mind, but really there’s not much in there that you couldn’t pick up from any one of a thousand business/life management paperbacks. Examples include: “If you miss the boat, work hard to catch up” (duh) and “Don’t be afraid to start from scratch.” (I did love “Don’t listen to your customers. They don’t know what they want” though – so true, and key to Apple’s success, I believe.)


Overall, Inside Steve’s Brain is an entertaining and easy read, and I think Kahney’s probably nailed Jobs’s approach to things pretty accurately. I’d have preferred to see more substance to the book though.

Rating: 3/5.

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2 Responses to “Book review: Inside Steve’s Brain”

  1. Brett Says:

    I’m not inclined to read this book. The author has no credibility with me.

    Leander’s column in Wired magazine was titled The Cult of Mac, which I always found offensive. The Macintosh community certainly has its dedicated fans and even a few nut cases, but I think it is a demeaning exaggeration to label it as a cult.

    Steve Jobs is no doubt an interesting character but I think it’s presumptuous title the book “Inside Steve’s Brain”, when the author had not interviewed Steve Jobs personally. Instead it’s all just conjecture based on second-hand information.

  2. Matt Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Brett. Your “Cult” point is interesting. I wonder if the phrase is meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, or whether it’s seriously considered a cult? Also I agree that it’s a massive exaggeration to label all Mac users as some sort of cult, but I always assumed Leander was referring to, as you say, the “dedicated fans and nut cases”. Who knows?

    And yes, the title is over the top isn’t it. Still, it does grab your attention – which, no doubt, was the author’s intention! 🙂