April 4, 1999
Three new books offer very different perspectives on Apple Computer.
By DAVID POGUE
DEALERS OF LIGHTNING
Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age.
By Michael Hiltzik.
448 pp. New York:
Harper Business. $26.
How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane.
By Michael S. Malone.
597 pp. New York:
The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc.
By Owen W. Linzmayer.
Illustrated. 268 pp. San Francisco:
No Starch Press. Paper, $17.95.
Why is Apple Computer such catnip to writers? After all, Apple is
neither the most successful high-tech institution nor the least,
neither the largest nor the smallest. Nonetheless, books pour forth,
retelling the legends of Apple's origins and its business blunders.
The authors of these three books, in fact, explore Apple from such
drastically different perspectives that they resemble the blind men
encountering an elephant; only when their descriptions are taken
together do they begin to create something of a complete picture of
their challenging subject.
The most famous Apple legend tells of young Steven P. Jobs's 1979
visit to a Xerox installation known as the Palo Alto Research Center
(PARC). There he saw prototypes of then revolutionary, now standard
computer features: the laser printer, Ethernet networking, E-mail and
a graphical interface with mouse, windows and pull-down menus. So
inspired was Jobs, the story goes, that he stole the ideas, rushed
back to Apple and invented the Macintosh. Computers were never the
The real story is a good deal more complicated -- and more
interesting. Michael Hiltzik's long, overly detailed but ultimately
rewarding new book, ''Dealers of Lightning,'' tells the amazing tale
of Xerox PARC itself, from its founding in 1970 to the fateful day of
At first, it's a joyous ride; Hiltzik, a reporter for The Los Angeles
Times, superbly documents the arrival of each brilliant geek in Palo
Alto. These young men quickly discover the highs of working among
fellow geniuses when the dreams are big and the funds are lavish.
As the team makes one technological vision after another come true,
however, it discovers that its corporate parent back east isn't the
least bit interested in marketing the work. ''Xerox's top executives
were for the most part salesmen of copy machines,'' Hiltzik explains.
''The customer paid Xerox so many cents per page.'' In the electronic
office envisioned by PARC, management couldn't see where the money
would come from. ''If there is no paper to be copied, where's the
That mentality becomes increasingly frustrating to the team -- and to
the reader. It's almost agonizing to contemplate the missed
opportunities Hiltzik describes; Xerox could easily have become the
Microsoft of the era.
The delicious highlight of ''Dealers of Lightning'' recounts Jobs's
famous tour. Contrary to legend, the members of the PARC team were
well aware of the stakes. In fact, they made the Apple team wait for
three hours as, tearful and angry, they debated showing their secret
technologies. But having been promised shares in Apple's hotly
anticipated stock offering, a Xerox executive forced the issue by
phone. Jobs got his demo, folded what he'd seen into new Apple
computers and set off an exodus of PARC employees that marked the end
of the research center's heyday.
Hiltzik's writing is confident and strong, qualities rarely found in
such Silicon Valley tales. But when tackling technical subjects, he
is overly fond of simile, at one point invoking a disco ball, a
lighthouse, singing cats and a wobbly tape deck in a single
discussion. He also ends each chapter with a contrived-sounding
cliffhanger, in a story that needs no such artificial support. Still,
for any student of business or technology, ''Dealers of Lightning''
offers a gem of a story that has never before been so well told.
Apple's own story, on the other hand, has often been recounted -- but
never with such hyperbole, anger and profanity as in ''Infinite
Loop,'' Michael S. Malone's searing indictment of Steve Jobs and
almost everyone else in Silicon Valley. Malone calls the co-founder
of Apple, Stephen Wozniak, ''socially retarded''; a former Apple
chief financial officer is ''a fat woman executive'' who's ''manic to
the point of hysteria''; and Gilbert F. Amelio, a former Apple chief
executive, looks ''like a high school shop teacher'' and drives a
''pimpy Cadillac Seville.'' Whether the epithets are intended to be
funny or to shock, it's impossible to say, but the meanness quickly
Malone, the editor of Forbes ASAP, reserves his most caustic remarks
for Jobs, with whom he attended elementary school. He asserts that by
the age of 19, Jobs had been ''involved in numerous felonies'' and
was a drug user, bulimic, liar and cheat -- and went downhill from
there. As the head of Apple, Malone says, Jobs was ''a lunatic
megalomaniac,'' ''an executive horror and spoiled brat'' who was
''smelly,'' ''paranoid,'' ''vicious and belittling.''
Unfortunately, Malone's research fails to redeem the exaggerated
characterizations. The book teems with technical inaccuracies: the
author confuses memory with disk space, often refers to chip and
computer models that never existed and, most embarrassing, repeatedly
asserts that Apple's Macintosh can't perform simple multi-tasking.
The factual gaffes, meanwhile, cripple the book's credibility. For
example, Malone condemns Jobs for making a historic 1997 agreement
with Microsoft, in which Apple would receive $150 million -- ''only
money, not the crucial quid pro quo in software.'' But in fact,
Microsoft's bigger concession was indeed a promise to develop
Macintosh software until at least 2002, guaranteeing Apple's
legitimacy for five years or more.
As it turns out, events have not been kind to Malone's promise to
tell of ''the company's destruction.'' Apple has staged a remarkable
comeback since Jobs's return in 1997. Profits, market share and stock
price have steadily surged; by the end of 1998, its iMac was the
best-selling computer in America. But having made a book-length
assertion that ''Apple is already dead,'' Malone has written himself
into a corner. He's forced to dismiss the spectacular turnaround,
declaring it only ''a temporary pause in Apple's long-term decline.''
But that isn't the only bewildering remark in this sloppy, only
occasionally entertaining work.
''Apple Confidential,'' by contrast, is a cheery, nerdy little book.
It, too, aims to tell the story of Apple's rise, fall and recent
renewal. But this time, the narrative covers only a portion of each
page. The fat margins contain a three-ring circus of visual elements:
time lines, graphs, software Easter eggs, famous ads, jokes, trivia,
photographs and hilarious quotations. They include a shot of the
garage where Jobs and Wozniak invented the Apple computer; the text
of the first E-mail sent from space (a Macintosh did the sending);
and the designers' signatures as they adorned the inside of early
The Apple story itself is here in all its drama: the burned-out
employees, the millions spent on projects that never saw daylight,
the chain of weak C.E.O.'s and their ''reign of error.'' But Owen W.
Linzmayer, a columnist for MacAddict magazine, is more bemused than
disgusted by the whole affair. He understands that life in the valley
(especially at Apple) will always be a soap opera, making this
rendition of the story both more plausible and more fun than
To be sure, ''Apple Confidential'' isn't in the same league -- deeply
researched, formal, analytical -- as the two other books. Its
chapters are organized by topic, not chronology, resulting in
frequent repetition of material. The chapter titles are cloying (one
is ''Big Bad Blunders''). And the conceit of dressing up every page
with marginalia sometimes overwhelms the author; very similar
photographs appear two and three times.
But this one isn't a business book; it's written by a technology
lover, for technology lovers. Its real topic is the culture, the
sense of discovery and the addictive rush that great computers
create. In the end, those intangibles finally explain what drove the
scientists at Xerox PARC -- and why Apple the elephant somehow
manages to keep stumbling forward, despite the darts of its critics.
David Pogue's latest book is the second edition of ''Palm Pilot: The