Book Review: Defying Gravity - The Making of Newton

Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton is a special and unique book. Photographer Menuez and author Kounalakis were provided extensive access to Apple’s Newton team throughout the product’s development over multiple years to document the process of its creation. When they finished writing the book in 1993 at the time of the Newton’s release, it was unclear whether the product would be successful. Of course it was not successful, but the book is still a gripping read as one experiences the ups-and-downs of high pressure product development at John Sculley era Apple. It also provides an incredibly high-bandwidth look into the early 1990s technology industry.

From its experimental layout, to its color palette and cultural references, Defying Gravity is very early ’90s. The photography by Menuez is skillful and reminiscent of his other photo book covering roughly the same period in the tech industry, Fearless Genius. However, this is much more than a photo book. The writing has depth and really takes you on the journey of Newton from idea to launch. The authors balance covering marketing and engineering well. It’s a much better balance than most tech business books achieve, which usually are overly focused on marketing. There are also photos and vignettes that add a personal touch—really letting you step into the shoes of the team members. In particular you really get to know marketer Michael Tchao and engineer Steve Capps, who could arguably be called the book’s protagonists. Interestingly, both of them have enjoyed long-and-illustrious careers in the technology world after Newton.

Defying Gravity’s only fault is that it is perhaps too uncritical. It seems eternally optimistic about the technology, also a very ’90s trait. While this makes for refreshing reading in the age of big-tech pessimism, it also seems like the authors perhaps traded access for spin. All of the Newton team members at Apple are presented in a flattering light. Maybe this is accurate, but it doesn’t always feel genuine. John Sculley in particular, with a quarter-century of further hindsight, could perhaps be better viewed as using the Newton as a desperate grasp for his own legitimacy, than as being a “visionary.”

Defying Gravity also paints a picture of an out-of-control work culture that celebrated continuous 16-hour days. There is something heroic about giving your all to a cause that you really believe in. And that was clearly portrayed throughout the book. However, there is also something troubling about pushing people to work beyond their limits. And for one team member this seems to have led to tragic consequences. I think a book written today would have a more balanced view of the pros-and-cons of such an environment.

Defying Gravity provides a unique look at the high pressure development of an early 1990s computing platform at Apple. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in that era of technology, Apple history, or who enjoys business dramas. It’s unimaginable a writing team today would be provided such unprecedented access, which is unfortunate because the result is really quite enjoyable and insightful.

Book Review: Tim Cook

Leander Kahney deserves credit for taking on the task of writing the first full-length biography of Tim Cook—an important figure who’s successful leadership of the world’s most influential corporation deserves study. Kahney found a similar niche by being the first to write a book on Jony Ive. Unfortunately, both books suffer from a lack of access and a significant amount of superficiliaty around their subjects’ time in leadership at Apple. While well researched (at least from public sources) and competently written, Kahney’s Cook biography delivers little new insight, and comes off largely as a superficial hagiography.

The first third of Kahney’s “Tim Cook” is the most interesting. Kahney was able to elucidate important details about Cook’s early life including his time growing up in Alabama, his time in college, and his early career at IBM. Whie I would have liked even more details, the profile that Kahney builds clearly sets the stage for the work ethic and social values that Tim Cook is so well known for possessing. The roughly middle third of the book about Cook’s rise at Apple is fairly interesting for two reasons: it clearly explains the inventory and supply-chain issues that Apple was suffering from prior to Cook’s arrival and how he went about fixing them from a business perspective, and it includes original interviews with high-level Apple executives about Tim (although these interviews do not provide as much insight as one would hope). The last third of the book is largely about social issues, such as Apple’s stance on the environment and diversity. Doubtless these are important issues to cover, and it’s good that Kahney covered them, but there is so much about Tim Cook as a person and as a manager that are left out. You would think these pages, about Tim Cook as CEO of Apple, would be the most interesting, but instead they are the least because Kahney’s writing is largely driven by well publicized speeches, interviews, and press releases, with little original reporting.

When I read a biography about a business-person, I expect to gain an understanding of how they conduct business. How does Tim Cook manage his team? What is it like to sit in a meeting with him? What is his philosophy on R & D spending? How is he as a negotiator with other companies? Very little of this is in the book. We do get a strong sense that Tim Cook’s social values drive some of his decision making at Apple, but that doesn’t tell us what it’s like to work for Tim Cook, or how Tim Cook behaves as a manager.

While we get some insight into Tim Cook’s early life, Kahney provides little information about Tim Cook’s personal life as an adult. When you read a biography of someone, you do expect to learn about their personal life, because someone’s work life is only half the story. I’m not saying I need to read gossipy lurid details in a biography, but I do want to know what someone’s friends think of them. I do want to know how they interact with their family. However, Kahney seems downright opposed to this sort of reporting (or maybe it’s an excuse for his lack of access). On page 188, Kahney writes: “While researching this book, I didn’t pry into his personal life at all. Cook keeps his private life private, and I’m happy to respect that.”

There are some minor factual errors in the book, that probably only someone like myself, deeply enmeshed in books about Apple, would catch. They don’t take away at all from the overall narrative. For example on page 217 Kahney refers to well known former Apple employee Don Melton as “Doug Melton.” I noticed other similarly small errors. They are not a reason to not buy the book, but they do speak to perhaps the book being a little rushed to market, where it could have used more research into Cook’s business and personal life. Perhaps that’s reading too much into them though.

The subtitle of Kahney’s Tim Cook is “The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level.” I really like Cook, and I gained an even greater respect for him from reading this biography. But, Kahney did not provide enough new insight to justify his subtitle calling Cook a “genius.” Perhaps Tim Cook is a genius, but I would’ve liked to have seen more evidence. What I did take away is that Tim Cook has an incredible work ethic. And that in of and itself is inspiring. That someone can achieve so much just through determination, very hard work, extreme competence, and good social values is a great message in and of itself. As for Tim Cook, though, he deserves a more thorough biography.

About Me

I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.