Archive for September 2018

Book Review: Losing The Signal

Losing the Signal is the cautionary, underreported tale of the smartphone technology company Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) rising into the stratosphere and then fairly quickly falling from grace. The journalist authors are competent writers and story tellers who did a significant amount of background research to make the book happen. They interviewed all of the primary players, including extensive interviews with the co-CEOs of Research in Motion for much of the company’s lifespan, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.

The authors are more than fair to the primary players, whom they enjoyed strong access to. As much as it tells the story of BlackBerry, Losing the Signal is equally a narrative of the careers of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. The beginning of the book starts as almost a hagiography of the former co-CEOs as it weaves in and out of their respective childhoods and early careers in an effusively glowing tone. Through to the end, the authors seem cautious with their criticism of the two. They never quite blame either whole-heartedly, and instead just report the facts as they see it and let the reader make up his own mind. That shows some integrity as journalists, but perhaps it can also be read as conflicting gratefulness for the high level of access that the two provided them.

Not taking a stand can be frustrating for the reader. Throughout its 250 pages, Losing the Signal offers little meta-analysis of the events that are duly reported from an all access vantage point. It can’t help but be surmised that the authors either did not want to offend their subjects, or that they simply did not have a full grasp of some of the more technical issues that brought down the company. The latter certainly does bleed into the pages in parts.

There are numerous errors/misunderstandings/omissions in the book with relation to its coverage of software technologies. For example, on page 169, it says “Lazaridis realized that to match Apple, RIM would have to base its next browser on the freely available technology called WebKit.” However, in the following paragraph, it’s never mentioned that WebKit is actually an open source project sponsored by Apple itself, an ironic point that highlights just how much of a follower BlackBerry had become. Another example, is on page 172: “What made the Java system ideal to run a narrowly focused e-mail device left it ill-suited to handle the more complicated functions of a smarter smartphone.” There’s two problems: 1. throughout the book, the authors don’t seem to understand that Java is a programming language and virtual machine that systems are built from, and refer to it nebulously as an all encompassing system in and of itself and 2. of course Android, the smarter smartphone that is challenging Blackberry during the narrative, is powered largely by software also written in the Java programming language, making the authors blame of Java seem hollow.

There are more technical errors than the two illustrated above—which is always one of the issues when tech business books are written by journalists. It would’ve helped to have had a software specialist do a proofread of the manuscript, especially when software issues were one of the main reasons BlackBerry declined. The authors’ lack of understanding of this critical area is the main flaw of Losing the Signal.

If you do a book search for “BlackBerry” on Amazon, Losing the Signal is the only title related to the company that will come up. The authors deserve praise for their significant research and painstaking interviews to tell this important technology and business story. Losing the Signal is flawed, but it’s probably the best objective narrative of the BlackBerry story that will ever be produced. There just does not seem to be that much interest in BlackBerry now that it has dwindled into its diminutive form of today. That might be because it’s not an American company, or that might be because its contributions seem less important in retrospect. Either way, it’s good that two competent journalists took the time to lay down the historical record for posterity.

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Book Review: Small Fry

Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a good writer: quick-witted, poignant, and observational. Her style reminds me of her aunt’s (Mona Simpson) novels. This is no surprise, since she mentions her in Small Fry as an inspiration. Also of note, is that her aunt has written a fictionalized account of the same period in Lisa’s life as is largely covered by Small Fry. I read that novel, A Regular Guy, when I was a teenager. In fact, I’ve been reading books about Steve Jobs for about two decades now. Like many readers, Steve Jobs is the reason I picked up Small Fry, but Lisa’s journey resonated with me almost as much as the moments about her father.

When you become interested in a historical figure and start watching and reading about them, there’s a cast of characters—their family, their friends—that you’re introduced to along the way. My first exposure to Lisa came through the 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley, in which the story of her relationship with her father plays prominently. By the time I had read The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman the following year, to me she was an important sidenote—his initial denial of paternity of her following her birth, a significant blemish, for an otherwise heroic figure. The deeper you go in a canon (and there is a Steve Jobs canon—at least fifteen books), the more you become interested in those peripheral characters. And somewhere along the way I became interested in Lisa’s story.

Lisa’s story is intertwined with that of her mother, Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s high school girlfriend, first love, and financial dependent for a large portion of Lisa’s life. She wrote a memoir a few years ago, The Bite in the Apple. So, in actuality we have three books—A Regular Guy, The Bite in the Apple, and Little Fry—which overlap very significantly in the period and relationships that they capture. Each comes from a different perspective, and I think it was likely important to Lisa that she recapture her own narrative through this memoir. It’s not only a chance to correct the record, but also can provide some kind of closure.

Ostensibly this is more than a memoir about her relationship with her father. It’s a memoir about growing up with that as a backdrop, but I frankly found the first half of the book pretty slow. That’s probably because there’s less of her father in the first half, and the parts with her father were the parts that interested me the most.

Lisa has a tendency to write about events that occurred to her 30 years+ ago in great levels of detail. Levels of detail so great (exact words, imagery, and small happenings) that one has to conclude she either has a photographic memory, or is remembering things in the most dramatic way to suit her narrative. The Bite in the Apple also suffers from this flaw—overly exact ancient memories that cause the reader to question the veracity of their content. It is of course possible that both mother and daughter have incredible memories, but it’s also possible that there’s a little bit of dramatic license in their accounts.

Small Fry is emotionally powerful. The story is dramatic enough that even readers more interested in Lisa’s emotional journey than Steve Jobs will get something out of it. Ultimately, as most memoirs by definition tend to be, it’s also one-sided. The low points with her father seem awful, and the high points seem agreeable and fascinating but dulled. Mona Simpson and Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow) have put out a statement questioning Lisa’s harsh treatment of her father. I think, in wanting to recapture her narrative, Lisa did have something of an agenda in writing this book, even if she’s not willing to admit it to herself in its pages. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, that doesn’t take you on a meaningful emotional journey, and further develop your understanding of Steve Jobs.

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